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Learning Organization

Distributed Leadership

What is that about ?

In a mechanistic organization model, with a vertical hierarchy, leadership is seen as a role of one or more individuals who need to trigger other people’s behavior in order to get the expected business and organizational performance. And that could work in a simple and stable context : “tell people what to do, they do it, it works”. But in Vuca world, in a learning organization, in complex and knowledge intensive systems like we organizations today it makes more sense to look at leadership as a ‘quality of the system’. Leadership is then seen not as a property of individuals and their behaviors, but as a collective phenomenon that is distributed or shared among different people, potentially fluid, and constructed in interaction.

The system expects every individual to take initiative, action and leadership for any issue people feel energized and competent for. So people take (temporarily) leadership for certain aspects even if they are not in the formal leadership role. And that we call distributed, shared, collective, collaborative, integrative or spread leadership. This can be organized at the level of an organization as a whole, or at department or team level. Read more about shared forms of leadership in these articles.

  • Jean-Louis Denis, Ann Langley & Viviane Sergi (2012): Leadership in the Plural, The Academy of Management Annals, 6:1, 211-28

“Distributed leadership is not something ‘done’ by an individual ‘to’ others,or a set of individual actions through which people contribute to a group or organisation… Distributed leadership is a group activity that works throughand within relationships, rather than individual action. (…) distributed leadership is based on three main premises (Bennet et al.,2003) :

  • firstly that leadership is an emergent property of a group or network of interacting individuals;
  • secondly that there is openness to the boundaries of leadership (i.e. who has a part to play both within and beyond the organisation);
  • and thirdly, that varieties of expertise are distributed across the many, not the few.”
Open Book

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Thus, distributed leadership is represented as dynamic, relational, inclusive, collaborative and as such integral part of a co-creative organizational culture.

Leandro Herero talks about viral change & distributed leadership
Eileen Fisher on the ’power of purpose ’
Distributed leadership and Agility & Speed
Distributed Leadership in the Orpheus Orchestra

Why would you do this ?

If we want to gear our organizations for sustainable performance in a Vuca world, a top down, control and command leadership focusing on orders and communication towards the troops, is not effective. In a complex and knowledge driven organization the C-suite is simply not able anymore to make the right strategic decisions. The issues are too complex, the context too volatile and the necessary energy, expertise and creativity to do something about it too dispersed. Sense quickly the cues for change in the external context, swift and creative reactions to the environmental changes and challenges needs co-creation, constructive dialogue, collaboration, of different kind of professionals. Distributed leadership, where people see the issues, relate to others to discuss possible solutions and take swift action without being ordered by the board… that’s what you need in such a context.

Beside sustainable performance in a Vuca world, as fundamental reason to design distributed leadership into your organizational processes, it has also a number of side-effects that will reinforce the learning culture in your organization :

  • It will de facto ‘enrich and enlarge’ every job and create more variety in people’s activities which in turn will create more engagement, involvement and ownership for the job (▲ employability)
  • It facilitates the timely use of energy and expertise there where it matters most. With rigidly described functions it is often difficult to deploy people for (leadership) roles when it is not in their jobdescription. (▲ flexibility) and even if it is possible it would always be ‘controlled by others’ and not the result of their own initiative. (▲ autonomy and ownership)
  • The act of ‘taking leadership’ for the organization is reinforcing the idea that ‘this is my club’, I co-own it and what happens here is my responsibility.
  • The speed of reaction in the organization goes up, because people look all out for ‘new challenges’ and issues and act upon them instead of starting a lengthy analysis and decision making process (up and down the silos).  If you report a problem, you follow through on it.
  • It develops individual and collective leadership competencies that make the organization as a whole more collaborative, agile and capable of change.
  • Development or growth is no longer identical to upward promotion
  • It creates ‘healthy jobs’ with a lot of space for development, autonomy, self-regulation and at the same time co-creation that leads to shared purpose (The way all those distributed leadership initiatives stay aligned).

When is DistributedLeadership indicated ?

Distributed Leadership is absolutely not ‘experimental’ or only suitable for very specific, small organizations.  It can be mixed with some kind of formal leadership provided that the organizational culture stays very participative and inclusive and formal managers see themselves a coaches and process facilitators.  .  High Power Distance organizations will have difficulties applying Distributed Leadership.   Distributed Leadership comes in different shapes and colors, very planned or spontaneous.  In this table a few different degrees of planning are proposed (click here for full article) :


Using the Cynefin framework can help executives sense which context they are in so that they can not only make better decisions but also avoid the problems that arise when their preferred management style causes them to make mistakes. Since the complex domain is much more prevalent in the business world than most leaders realize – and requires different, often counterintuitive, responses –  distributed leadership and co-creative processes work better then command and control, because the ‘right answers’ and ‘telling people what to do’ don’t exist any more.  And a leader who cannot know what the answer is, better refrains from ‘ordering people’ to do things in a certain way.  It’s a recipe for failure. More on complexity and leadership in this article : Lichtenstein,B. et al., (2006), Complexity leadership theory: An interactive perspective on leading in complex adaptive systems  E:CO Issue Vol. 8 No. 4.

Cynefin Framework
Snowden on Cynefin
Ricardo Semler talks about distributed leadership


  • Do it for the right reasons : improving the way the organization works, a more innovative culture, flexibility and reaction speed, healthier work including for older employees, use the expertise of everybody, …
  • Link the idea of DISTRIBUTED LEADERSHIP to the   SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT of your organization
  • Do not mix it up with ‘democracy’ and don’t let people believe that alle decisions need to be taken in consensus.  That stifles the organization.  You could in turn emphasize the importance of involving the related stakeholders to decision (but without making it into an endless referendum)  
  • Do not turn it into a ‘FETISH’.  It’s ok to still have formal leaders and managers, as long as they act in an enabling and facilitating way, creating for people the opportunities to take initiative, act on issues, etc…without blocking people’s learning potential.
  • Do not turn it into a aak er ‘marketing and communication stunt’ : Talk about how important it is to have everybody involved and in charge doesn’t help (to the contrary it makes people pissed if they don’t recognize that message in their real work).  A few small steps in the direction of participation are often more powerful then ‘well crafted vision statements’.
  • Be guided by your ‘gut feeling’…  if things in your organization don’t feel ok, do something about it and don’t say ‘well, it is like that here, cannot be helped, …(ex : the shop floor issues are discussed and decided on by those who don’t work there, don’t have the experience, don’t have to implement the decisions and do not bear the consequences if it goes wrong… If you think that is not ok… do something about it then and ask workers to self-manage and organize the shop floor) …

Be inspired by others, the big stories as well as the very small steps that take place in organizations.  Some of those stories like Buurtzorg, Favi or  Morning Star are described in the recent book of Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations (more)

Morning Star
Favi (in French)
Buurtzorg in The Netherlands
Organization Development