Distributed Leadership as Task Distribution

In 2004, Spillane et al.’s theoretical description of distributed leadership was based on the performance of certain tasks, and the interactions between shifting combinations of leaders and followers, in the course of performing certain tasks.. Leadership is distributed across the three essential elements: leader, follower, and task.

Task distribution was the focus of a series of studies of distributed leadership in 2007, by Spillane et al. They analyzed patterns of distributed leadership by using the electronic logs of 52 school principals. Data was gathered by prompting the principals with electronic beeps, sounding at intervals throughout the day. They recorded whether they were engaged in leadership tasks, and if they were the ones leading/co-leading those tasks, or if others were doing it for them. The principals also indicated their intentions by choosing from a list, including increasing knowledge, monitoring teaching/curricula, developing common goals, motivating/developing others, or redesigning the teaching and learning.

In their 2003 study of distributed leadership, Camburn et al. also studied leadership as a task performance approach in a sample of schools. They studied distributed leadership by asking everyone in formal leadership roles to report the priority and/or the amount of time they spent on a variety of leadership activities. However, they did not explore the intended or actual influence of these leaders.

Leadership is clearly seen in the performance of certain functions or tasks. So, how do we establish what counts as a leadership task? Camburn et al. use organizational theories as their reference point, by following “A long line of research and theory that conceptualizes leadership in terms of organizational functions and then examines who within an organization performs these functions.” The problem with this approach is that the leadership tasks needed for this purpose may differ from those required to achieve specific goals in an organization. Most organizational theories cannot distinguish between the direct and indirect impact of leadership tasks on outcomes.

Existing evidence linking certain types of leadership to student outcomes is a better resource for determining educational impact. Research has shown instructional leadership tasks deliver more results for students. Robinson’s 2008 meta-analysis of 27 published studies of the impact of instructional leadership on student outcomes confirms this, by showing that the actual impact of instructional leadership was two to three times greater than that of transformational leadership.

The five different sets of leadership practices were measured to show different relative impacts. Relative effects were lower in the tasks of establishing goals, strategic resourcing, and establishing an orderly, supportive environment. The effects were average for planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum, but were huge in relation to promoting and participating in teacher learning and development.

Clearly, using evidence is better than using general organizational theory. We can relate student impact to distributed leadership. For example, teacher engagement during a learning opportunity is far more important that whether or not teachers volunteered for it. Researchers should go beyond measuring distribution of leadership activities. The leaders’ ability to shape professional development should also be assessed, assuring they have qualities associated with better outcomes for students.
After selecting built-in leadership tasks for distributed leadership, evidence must be collected on the patterns of responsibility for the tasks. Thoughtful analysis is needed regarding who is involved, and the degree of knowledge they posses about the tasks. The level of influence leaders have over task performance should also be noted.

The third step investigates the links of these tasks to student outcomes. The most complex and expensive part of the study, it involves modeling and measuring the impact of variables, such as student background, which could dilute the data. Valuable data comes from studying the leadership of teachers, and teacher learning practices, especially where there is prior evidence of improved student outcomes. Careful analysis of these studies, and their association with student impacts, shows us the distribution of leadership practices that is most likely to make a difference to students.

When we look at the influence process itself, we can see the shifts in school and teacher culture needed to support the wider distribution of leadership tasks. This sharing of authority is vital for sustained educational improvement. Literature on teacher influence is plentiful. If distributed leadership is to fulfill its objectives, then it should focus on how those in senior leadership positions can develop a more balanced leadership approach.


Distributed leadership is a theory of leadership that was developed by Peter Gronn, and has been written about by many other scholars since then. To read more of his work on distributed leadership and other topics, click here to visit his Amazon.com page.

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