Distributive leadership across the academy: Seduction and disenchantment

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Research and Development in Higher Education Vol. 39: The Shape of Higher Education

July, 2016, 391 pages
Published by
Melissa Davis & Allan Goody

Many higher education (HE) institutions have became enamoured of a 'new' type of leadership, based on research of its success in schools. Distributed (or distributive) leadership (DL) promotes the idea that leadership should be distributed throughout an organisation rather than restricted to the individual at the top of a formal hierarchy. DL has been embraced enthusiastically by HE because it offers a seductive and persuasive discourse that is a powerfully appealing and winning combination of collegiality and managerialism with more participative leadership. As a consequence, it has been adopted in various forms around the world to implement change, with many governments funding its use. In the last few years, however, many DL authors have become disenchanted with, and more critical of, the seductive vision, claiming it is a cloak to hide an increasing lack of consultation with staff, has serious practical challenges in implementation with formal leaders relinquishing some control to informal leaders, and is not clear what is distributed or what is an effective configuration of leadership practice. As part of a case study of DL at an Australian university, two environmental scans were conducted. The resulting data show that: interest in DL has not waned over 20 years of publications; and there are no agreed DL features, except involvement of the academic development unit, among 21 DL projects (national and international). Possible implications about DL are raised from these findings.

Keywords: distributive leadership, discourse, change agents