How Distributed Leadership Can Help Leaders and Schools Right Now

The challenges of the pandemic offer a reminder: School leaders should not have to lead alone. Learn how distributed leadership can lead to improved decision-making and better student outcomes.
New Leaders alumni Ian Roberts in a conference
2/8/22
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If there was ever a time to reconsider the myth that school leaders are superheroes, it would be now. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a vastly more complex and demanding environment for principals and school leaders, one that requires skillful navigation amid a fog of uncertainty. There’s never been a better reminder that school leaders can’t—and shouldn’t—go it alone.

What if, as a school leader, you were able to leverage the insights and perspectives of your team, have them share in the decision-making for your school, and chart a course for the solutions together? That’s what distributed leadership can provide.

What is distributed leadership?

Distributed leadership is the embodiment of the classic saying: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a shared approach in which decision-making is spread from one person to a collective group—from the principal to the school community—fueling a sense of collective efficacy. It not only elevates more voices, but it also engages stakeholders in advancing the school’s priorities and generating solutions for the unique challenges you face.

New Leaders alum and former principal who successfully transformed a once-failing Chicago high school, Beulah McLoyd, defines it best: “To me, distributed leadership really just means encouraging teachers to do what they do best—and empowering them to challenge themselves to do it bigger and better. Every teacher brings leadership qualities to your table…all those qualities can be leveraged and encouraged for your students’ benefit.”

What does distributed leadership look like in schools?

Instructional leadership teams (ILTs) or site-based leadership teams are the most common forms of a distributed leadership model. Tasked with addressing school-wide instructional practices, an ILT typically includes the principal, assistant principal, and grade-level teachers or representatives from specific grade bands. The school counselor or social worker is often a member as well, helping teachers and leaders better understand and address social-emotional learning needs.

Grade-level teams, department teams, data or inquiry teams, even teacher-led professional development are all examples of distributed leadership. They increase the leadership capacity of teachers and amplify the impact of teacher leaders. Shared leadership may look different based on a school’s goals and context, but it all starts with a great leader who fosters trust, promotes collaboration, zeroes in on student learning, and is committed to bringing out the best in each one of the team's members.

When the right team and elements are in place, distributed leadership gives schools the opportunity to be more connected, make room for a variety of perspectives and voices, move faster, and make more well-informed and thoughtful decisions—all of which are essential in a crisis and the relentless demands of the pandemic.

What are the benefits of distributed leadership?

Schools that support teachers and other members of the school community in taking initiative and exercising leadership look and feel different from schools where decision-making and influence are solely at the hands of the school leader. In our research, we’ve seen these benefits:

1. A perspective shift on leadership

Leadership development can happen at every level of a school, from the classroom to the principal’s office. School leadership can also be learned. A shared leadership approach not only recognizes these facts but celebrates them—looking beyond the leadership role and who’s formally “in charge.” This kind of collective leadership focuses on what can happen for students, and overall school improvement, when the people supporting them work together to make decisions, diagnose and solve problems, and share expertise.

And, when school teams are engaged in this perspective shift, teachers experience the work differently. Instead of being on the receiving end of policies and practices that need to be implemented—usually with an eye toward compliance—they’re invested in being part of the problem-solving process. In fact, because the policies and practices that arise through a distributed leadership approach are a product of the group working together to define what’s important, there’s an even higher level of engagement.

2. Improved outcomes for students

As we continue to work through the challenge and fatigue of the pandemic, it can be tough, as New Leaders alum and principal Clariza Dominicci says, to stay focused on the work and why we do what we do. Distributed leadership focuses on how the school community can work together, using untapped expertise, to improve student outcomes. As teams share perspectives and insights, knowledge is gained—and when teachers and staff learn new strategies and insights, students reap the benefits.

After McLoyd discovered one of her teachers was an expert at teaching close reading, she asked him to shape professional development plans for his team. That request led to a summer close reading workshop, subsequent learning cycles, and a review of observation notes and student data. The expertise of one teacher culminated in the whole team becoming more invested in the work—and the opportunity for countless students to see an improvement in their reading abilities that year. Student achievement is one of the lasting benefits of distributed leadership. That, and transformational leadership.

3. An added dose of joy

When a school community—or a particular group within the school—joins together for a common goal and charts a course together, it shows a collaborative investment in the school’s present and future. And, when people are engaged and being trusted to make decisions that can create impactful changes for a school and its students, the work they do takes on a deeper, more joyful meaning.

Having a support system in which to accomplish the work—and knowing those supports are there to reduce those feelings of isolation and overwhelm that will inevitably pop up, especially right now—is incredibly important. That’s part of the joy, too.

These benefits can’t be underestimated, especially in our current climate. As the pandemic continues, and teachers and leaders alike are reporting record-high levels of burnout, distributed leadership might hold the key to feeling seen, appreciated, and valued. After all, it’s much easier to weather challenges and feel hopeful about the outcomes when you have a group of people to lean on and learn from.

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