What is distributed leadership?

What is distributed leadership?

Distributed leadership is when you push authority as deep into the organisation as you can. That is, you distribute it across and into the organisation.

Many leaders think they need to take responsibility for everything, otherwise they feel out of control and as though they are not doing their job. They are less confident about creating an environment where other people share the responsibility.

However, it’s good leadership practice to distribute authority and decision-making amongst other people. All the responsibility doesn’t have to sit with the leader.

Pros and cons

Advantages of distributed leadership

  • It’s dangerous for you as the leader to be the only one who can make a decision – what if you’re run over by a bus?!
  • Distributed leadership discourages the outdated and ineffective ‘command and control’ environment
  • The leadership team sees the big picture, while deeper technical expertise and knowledge often sits lower down in the organisation
  • When people who know what they are doing are given the freedom to think and act for themselves, they feel greater psychological ownership – and that level of buy-in leads to greater commitment and better performance
  • People will engage, blossom and develop
  • If you don’t give talented professionals the chance to make the best of themselves, they will leave and go elsewhere
  • Combining people’s creativity, commitment and generosity can create substantive change

Disadvantages of distributed leadership

  • How can you retain accountability (as that is still your role) when responsibility is distributed throughout the organisation?
  • Things might move more slowly (it’s OK to be more directive in a crisis situation)

You don’t have to be a hero


There is pressure to be a hero when people assume:

  • The leader has all the answers
  • People will do what they’re told
  • High risk requires high control

Most heroes act out of good intentions and a desire to help. However, today’s problems are too complex for one individual to solve, many of our systems are inherently uncontrollable, and heroes end up lonely, exhausted and unappreciated.

For more on this, please see my articles about leadership agility and the leadership agility compass.

We continue to be inspired by heroes in literature. But, in the business world, heroes breed passivity and dependency. The truth is, we are surrounded by people who have ideas, want to contribute, be useful, and solve problem for themselves and others.

The best leaders mobilise the hearts and minds of everyone in their workplace. We need to move from leaders-as-heroes to leaders-as-hosts.

The leader-as-host admits they don’t have all the answers, but trusts in the creativity and commitment of others to get the job done. Given the right invitation, anyone in the organisation can be motivated, diligent and as creative as the leader. All parts of the system need to be invited to participate and contribute.

Adapted from: Leadership in the age of complexity: From hero to host Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze

Please ask if you’d like a copy of the article.

What’s your mindset?

As the leader, your mindset will enable or restrict whether distributed leadership will work for you. Here are a couple of examples:

Limiting mindset: You think you are not really earning your salary if you don’t hold all the authority and control.

Enabling mindset: You believe the organisation is rich in resources, and that the initiative of many adds up to more than the initiative of one.

For more on this, please see my article How your mindset can enable or limit you.

How to apply distributed leadership

Three pillars

For distributed leadership to work, you need these three pillars in place:

  • Organisational clarity: Create a clear direction so everyone knows where they stand and what you are driving towards, so they can make informed judgements and decisions. If the organisation is in a state of flux, first model a co-creative style of leadership to achieve clarity
  • Technical competence: People have the knowledge and skills to do their job
  • Mindset: People need to see distributed leadership as an opportunity, so they enjoy and feel confident in taking psychological ownership of decisions

Replace instruction with intent

If your people are used to being given specific instruction, there might be an initial delay while they get used to having freedom to act as they see fit.

Offer space for them to sense-check their views and decisions with you, so they feel safe instead of unsure, and you feel confident in their competence.

Over time, people will stop requiring you to make every decision, and will start thinking for themselves.

Where to focus your energy

  • Your success lives or dies depending on your people. So hire the right people for the job, who have the right competence and personal attributes
  • Know who has what strengths so you can play to them (Please contact me if you’d like a tool to help identify those strengths)
  • Create an environment where employees feel safe, because then they will offer you their best thinking and creativity, and feel empowered to take authority
  • Ignore organisational charts and job descriptions that confine people’s potential
  • Become curious about the skills, capacities and insights people might have to offer
  • Bring diverse people together and invest in meaningful conversations to solve problems. ‘Hold open the space’ in moments of ambiguity or tension, to enable people to work it through.
  • Add good questions
  • Move authority to where the information is in the organisation
  • Offer unequivocal support so your people know you are there for them
  • Have the courage to support risk-taking and experimentation
  • Keep bureaucracy at bay
  • Create a learning organisation so people share their successes and build on what works, as well as learning from what hasn’t worked
  • Don’t get run over by a bus!

Next month

Why showing gratitude is as good for you as it is for others.