Literature review

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A review of the literature on distributed leadership relevant to the higher education sector is available below. The review was undertaken in early 2011 and it is a brief overview of the literature rather than an exhaustive review. Click on the links to see the various sections of the review.  


Leadership in Higher Education

Middlehurst et al (2009) question whether there is something distinctive about leadership in higher education in comparison to other organisations. They believe that there is no singular aspect that sets it apart from other organisations. However, they feel that there are some characteristics that have greater emphasis in HE compared to other entities such as their decentralised nature, the culture of autonomy and collegiality. They also point to the possible tensions between ‘those who wish to preserve the privilege and power of the bureaucratic class from those who hope to build less structured and less tightly managed organizations’ (Middlehurst, et al., 2009, pp 329).


Bryman (2009) in his review of literature on ways to determine effective leadership styles in HE found that because the literature lacked a consistent way of using key terms it was impossible to form a cumulative view of what is effective leadership. However, he does believe that a leader needs to create an environment ‘for academics and others to fulfil their potential and interest in their work’(Bryman A, 2009, pp 66). However, Bryman like


Middlehurst et al (2009) states that ‘higher education institutions are not as distinctive’ (ibid) as sometimes thought but again it is the intensity of what is expected of academic leadership that sets it apart from other types of leadership. For example, he believes university employees want their leaders to ensure autonomy, consult, foster collegiality and fight for them with senior managers. It is this last point that he believe distinguishes middle managers in HE from those in other organisations.


Scott et al (2008) argue that higher education in Australia has been the subject of a range of broad social pressures to change and this has generated the need for institutions and leaders to be ‘change capable’. Thus, leaders not only need to be good managers but also lead their institutions into new directions by engaging people in the process and reshaping the operating context of their institutions. They do this by enabling staff to learn how to do the necessary changes through ensuring effective and supportive learning environments. Scott et al believe that such leaders themselves need support to enable such changes to occur and they prefer ‘role-specific, practice based, peer supported and self-managed learning’ (Scott et al., 2008) to more formal and generic workshop learning. They believe that ‘current approaches to leadership in higher education need to be radically reconceptualised’ (ibid).


Bolden et al (2008) examine the forces acting on HE and how leaders have responded to them. They centred their argument on the notion of leading implies learning. Thus, they focus on the capabilities’ of leaders and how they can be developed. They argue that although leadership is one of the least understood phenomena known to human kind, it is essential for change to occur, such as that sought in higher education. They consider as a result of this lack of understanding, leadership is often subject to ‘a somewhat individualistic and management approach’ (Bolden et al., 2008b, pp 359). This approach they believe causes tensions between individual and collective performance, centralised and decentralised control, and economic and social aims. The result of these tensions is that leadership in HE is multilayered and multifaceted in which agency and structure interact at the group level through social capital and identity. They further believe that although leadership is widely distributed across universities, individual leaders play a critical role. Thus, they believe a hybrid model of collective and individual leadership occurs.

Leadership and management

Simkins (2005) examines models of leadership found at various level of the education community from schools to higher education. He sets out two models of leadership, one he terms ‘traditional’ leadership that focuses on the individual and another that he terms ‘emerging’  leadership that focuses on the context of leadership. He argues that making sense of leadership is as important as seeking what works in leadership in education. He further argues in terms of leadership development, the work of Crochran-Smith and Lytle (1999), around the idea of knowledge-for-practice, knowledge-in-practice and knowledge-of-practice, could be useful. He concludes by outlining six ways it might be possible to make sense of leadership: i) the way leadership is conceived; ii) the role and purpose of organisations; iii) the changing role of leadership; iv) the way power and authority are shared; v) across inter-professional and organisation boundaries; vi) using leadership development (Simkins, 2005).


Middle university managers’ (deans) roles, argue de Boer et al (2009), have become more demanding, senior, strategic, complex and managerial. They emphasise the role of middle management in change as being critical, as such positions can impede change as well as aid it (de Boer & Goedegebuure, 2009). Indeed, they suggest that is the middle management levels that are more critical to change than top managers. Deans in this context are individuals that have a responsibility of a number of schools and are generally the individuals at the highest level of leadership that have discipline based responsibility, those above them usually have institutional responsibilities.


Bush (2008) examines the concept of leadership and management in schools in the UK since incorporation in 1988 and concludes by examining leadership for learning. He attempts to determine the difference between management and leadership and takes a middle ground between the extremes, on the one hand, saying that leadership and management are totally different, and on the other hand, aying they cannot be separated. However, he does conclude by arguing that it is leadership that is critical to the success in the education sector, but goes on to say the influence of leadership (as displayed by a school’s principal) on students’ learning outcomes is small. He also argues, despite this, that leadership is central to encouraging good teaching and this can be done by focusing leadership energies on classroom learning, rather than on budgets and HR matters (Bush, 2008).


Hierarchical leadership

Pounder (2006) examines the decoupling of teachers’ leadership from formal leadership through the notion of transformation leadership. He argues that transformational leadership largely depends upon characteristics of individuals such as their ability to be influential, charismatic, inspirational and an ability to intellectually stimulate students etc. These attributes he believes contribute to such individuals as being good teachers. However, this claim lies on the assumption that a classroom can be ‘considered to be a small social organisation’ (Pounder, 2006) and therefore the benefits of transformational leadership in the commercial world can be transferred to the classroom. Also he believes there is no evidence that such approaches in the school transfer to higher education.


Lumby (2003) believes leadership in the UK Further Education sector has become invested in more power and become more distant, focused on external factors and non-teaching related systems. This he states has been labelled ‘boys own’ style of leadership (Lumby, 2003). He argues a new wave of light touch management has been criticised as merely replacing overt control with subtle manipulation. This leadership style he believes is the result of five factors: student profile, competitive environment, staff stability, size and curriculum range. He considers for leadership to be developed in colleges the individual needs to be removed as a central tenant of leadership and replaced by engagement with the whole community.


The aim of Bolden et al's (2009) study was to develop ideas about how leadership could be enhanced through the encouragement of collective behaviour. They address this through five themes, structural approaches to leadership, individual motivation, collective leadership, context of HE and leadership development (Bolden et al., 2009). The study focused on leaders in formal position but they believe its findings to be more generalizable to individuals in informal positions, as they conclude that bottom-up and horizontal leadership plays an important role in universities. They also recognise that formal leaders often depend on informal leaders and informal leaders are often the formal leaders of the future. They identified that a significant aspect of university leadership is found in the committee structure and often decisions are made by consensus and leaders of such committee need to be ‘authorised’ to speak for the group. They state that any leadership development plans must acknowledge the changing context of an institution. For example, they believe there has been a significant shift from the collegial style of working into a more corporate style in UK higher education. They identified a need for leadership development to move from a generic focus to one that is specific to the needs of the different roles found in universities.


Academic autonomy

Woods et al (2004) explore the idea of distributed leadership through the dualism of structure and agency. In the context of their study they see structure as being about the institution, culture and social elements of distributed leadership. Whereas they see agency as the actions of those involved with distributed leadership. They acknowledge that the two constructs are closely related and it is not possible to identify which comes first. They do however firmly believe that distributed leadership ‘is a property of groups of people, not of individuals’ (Woods et al., 2004, p. 449). They also address the tension between control and autonomy in education, which they believe is inevitable given that although academics are self-motivated (for example in their research interests) there is a need for institutional direction. They see this being resolved by a hybrid form of leadership where distributed leadership exists alongside formal leadership.


Petrov et al (2006) report on a study of the attitudes of leaders in the UK HE sector on distributed leadership. They found there was a high level of support for the notion of distributed leadership across the participants in the study and similar views about what it was and that it needed to exist alongside formal leadership. However, they report many saw distributed leadership as devolution of responsibility for resources, particularly budgets. They found that there was recognition that some leadership was bottom up and this was like in the case of Woods et al (2004) in the area of research (Petrov et al., 2006). Petrov et al found that whilst some senior managers distributed leadership down to the head of school level, below that its penetration become at the behest of the head of school’s own style of leadership. They found one of the benefits of introducing distributed leadership was better team work and relationships between academics and professional staff. They concluded this occurred because, by its very nature, distributed leadership involved all those in the area of interest. However, they felt that one of the disadvantages of distributed leadership was that it could produce a ‘silo’ effect, where projects or activities are undertaken in localise teams and there is no clear direction for the institution. They also felt that distributed leadership could slow down decision making.

Non hierarchical leadership

Fletcher and Kaufer (2003) examine what they consider as a new form of leadership that are not dependent upon individual or heroic leaders but rather on leadership ‘embedded in a system of interdependencies at different levels within the organisation’ (Fletcher & Kaufer, 2003, p. 21). They call this new leadership ‘shared leadership’ which they believe has the potential to ‘transform practices structures and working relationships’ (ibid). They identify three shifts required to introduce shared leadership, it is distributed but interdependent, it is embedded in social interaction and leadership is seen as a learning process. However, they believe in reality most organisations will retain a ‘figurehead’ at the top but such leaders are supported by leadership distributed within their organisations that they purport to lead. They also see three paradoxes in shared leadership, leaders in formal position are the ones who have to introduce or allow shared leadership, shared leadership is often invisible to organisational structures, and the skills required for shared leadership may not advance individuals engage in such an approach in a leadership hierarchy.


Collinson et al (2009) argue that in the UK Further Education (FE) sector a blend of individual leadership and delegated leadership is the most effective (they note that the notion of what is ‘effective’  is contested itself) and liked by staff. They see this blended leadership as being very similar to that of Gronn’s (2008) hybrid leadership. Their study set out to determine how leadership was ‘enacted, distributed and experienced at various levels’(Collinson & Collinson, 2009, pp. 369) in FE colleges. They found that there was a consistency in views amongst the participants in their study. Most participants acknowledged the importance of leadership and many thought the key aspects of leadership were openness, engagement and collaboration. There was, however, a difference in the views amongst their participants in the FE sector, in comparison to those in HE about what constituted distributed leadership.  They reported that most of their respondents saw it as ‘top-down’ delegation rather than ‘bottom-up’ engagement and Collinson et al thought this might reflect the difference in culture with regard to the presence of research and the resulting notion of academic autonomy.


Elements of Leadership

Bryman (2009) asked leadership researchers to give their views on leadership and what this means for a leadership competency framework. He reported that participants were sceptical about competency frameworks as they ignored contextual factors and there was a feeling that any leadership framework which ignored  context was ineffective (Bryman, 2009). In this regard there was a strong feeling amongst the participants in their study that HE provided a unique context for leadership that meant that leadership approaches used outside of HE often did not work within HE. The participants felt this was particularly due to academics being first loyal to their discipline and then to their institutions. Bryman also argues that academics are by their very nature critical and need to be told why they need to do something rather than simply being told to do it. However, he states that a number of factors were identified for good leaders including, trustfulness, integrity, consultative and tackling problems.


Burgoyne et al (2009) in their baseline study of leadership in HE view investigated the national UK HE investment in leadership development. The issues the review address includes: does such investments work, what are the leadership capabilities that are supposed to be improved, what institutional performance is improved by the investments, what conditions are required to improve capabilities, how are careers influenced and does leadership development fit into the notion of learning organisations (Burgoyne et al., 2009).

Conceptions of Distributed Leadership

Gronn (2009) argues that aggregation of leadership in distributed leadership may not represent the way leadership works. He maintains that a conception of distributed leadership that recognise its varying texture may be of more benefit, particularly as a way of recognising the role of the individual within distributed leadership. He goes onto suggest that the role of the individual is subsumed in an aggregating process and thus may hide what is really occurring. He believes that to ignore the role of individuals either in formal position of leadership or in distributed leadership does not reflect the reality of what is occurring and holds back thinking on the way to improve leadership in institutions. He considers that a ‘hybrid’ form of leadership, where individual within distributed leadership structures are recognised is a  better unit of analysis than distributed leadership alone (Gronn, 2009).


A study by Bolden et al (2009) on distributed leadership in UK higher education revealed two views of distributed leadership, ‘devolved’ (top-down) and ‘emergent’ (bottom-up.) The devolved approach was put forward by formal leaders as the way they conceived distributed leadership. For them leadership was distributed when they delegated functions and responsibilities (particularly budgets). The emergent view of distributed leadership was observed amongst research activities where individual academics developed their research interests and lead these developments without direction from the formal leadership of their institutions. Thus Bolden at el argue that distributed leadership that emphases collective leadership and responsibility does not adequately describe distributed leadership as the majority of leaders believe it to be practised. They also argue that distributed leadership does not offer the ability to develop leadership but rather it is a useful ‘rhetoric’ to shape leadership in higher education. They also points out that many see distributed leaders as a way of shrouding ‘the underlying dynamics of power’ (Bolden et al., 2009).


A study by Gosling et al (2009) based on the same data as the Bolden et al (2009) article above, argues that the concept of distributed leadership is highly limited in what it can achieve in terms of a leadership strategy. They examine the usefulness of distributed leadership as a descriptive, corrective, empowering or rhetoric device. Gosling et al argue that distributed leadership has limited usefulness as a descriptive device as they found little evidence that what was actually occurring in HE could be described as distributed leadership. However, they do believe it could be useful as rhetorical device as a way of moving away from the leadership being centred on personal traits and behaviours. They, like others, put a caveat on this last point and say it could, ‘distract from the systemic degradation of academic autonomy and creeping managerialism’ (Gosling et al., 2009, p. 308).


Gronn (2000) argues that the role of leadership is vital in the success of organisations saying that structure and labour follow on from leadership. He believes activity theory is the best way to understand the role of leadership, particularly if it is distributed (Gronn, 2000). He believes activity theory is useful as it foregrounds the division of labour in an organisation necessary to understand distributed leadership. He also points to the role of specific tasks as the basis where distributed leadership is most effective.


Woods et al (2009) examine the possible role of democracy in work,  given that the nature of employers  generally do not have democracy as the basis of their relationship to their employees. Most employee relationships are of contractual nature where an individual agree to undertake some form of labour for remuneration and thus fall outside the setting for a democratic process. Despite this, Woods et al believe there may be advantages to employers to introduce democratic leadership along the similar lines of distributed leadership but taken a step further. They also acknowledge that there are some disadvantages such as a slowing down of decision making. They feel perhaps the most likely success of democratic leadership is as an extension of distributed leadership particularly in an education environment to ensure ethical outcomes are ensured (Woods & Gronn, 2009).


Bolden et al (2008) further report on data from a study of leadership in UK higher education. They focus around the appointment of formal leaders within universities. For example, they cite evidence that suggests it is harder to fill Heads of School positions than those at senior levels and there are different pressures that leaders at various levels experience (Bolden et al., 2008a).


The role of distributed leadership is examined by Lumby (2009), where there are collective aims across a number of schools. He argues that distributed leadership in itself does not address the issue of self interest in such partnership arrangements. He believes that distributed leadership focuses on the mechanics of leadership rather than the on its moral or ethical aspect. He says ‘Theories of distributed leadership, while they engage with how we understand the construction of leaders, are silent on its purpose’ (Lumby, 2009, p. 321).




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