Improving leadership in higher education institutions
Improving leadership in Higher Education institutions:
a distributed perspective
Jitse D. J. van Ameijde Æ Patrick C. Nelson Æ Jon Billsberry Æ
Nathalie van Meurs
Published online: 19 April 2009
Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009
Abstract This paper reports on a qualitative study exploring how distributed patterns of
leadership manifest themselves in project teams within a Higher Education institution. The
emphasis is on both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of distributed leadership, thus providing an
account of the nature of distributed leadership in higher education and the factors which
were found to enhance and inhibit its occurrence and effectiveness. The ﬁndings are
presented in a model of distributed leadership which seeks to provide an integrative
account and a framework for further study. The conclusions focus on both the theoretical
implications for the study of distributed leadership and the practical implications for HE
institutions wishing to promote effective leadership.
Keywords Leadership Á Distributed Á Project teams Á Higher education Á
Higher Education institutions are facing continuous pressures for change. Over the past
few decades traditional principles of academic leadership and collegial forms of
J. D. J. van Ameijde (&) Á P. C. Nelson
Human Resources Division, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire
MK7 6AA, UK
P. C. Nelson
Faculty for Business, Environment and Society, Coventry University, Priory Street, Coventry,
Warwickshire CV1 5FB, UK
N. van Meurs
Middlesex University Business School, Hendon, London NW4 4BT, UK
High Educ (2009) 58:763–779
governance have been rapidly replaced by management principles adopted from the private
sector. Evidence of this move towards what has been termed ‘New Public Management’
(Chandler et al. 2002) or ‘New Managerialism’ (Deem 1998) has been observed in
countries all over the world. Increasingly, government policies require universities to
account for the expenditure of public funds and provide evidence of ‘value for money’. In
the UK context, such government pressures have become evident through mechanisms
such as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and Teaching Quality Assessment
(TQA). Together with increased competition between universities for students and funding
support, as well as expectations from the private sector around the provision of appro-
priately trained graduates, these pressures have led to what has been experienced as a
commoditization of knowledge work. The effect of these changes has even been observed
within higher education discourse in which the academic language of deans, students, and
courses has become increasingly displaced by language of line-managers, customers, and
products (Gumport 2000; Parker and Jary 1995).
As a result, Higher Education institutions are no longer the protected entities whose
legitimacy is taken for granted, but instead are expected to face the complexity of bal-
ancing the need to operate according to market pressures, teach an increased number of
students despite diminishing ﬁnancial means while struggling to maintain traditional
academic and educational principles of quality.
The mechanisms which many Higher Education institutions have implemented to deal
with these pressures seem to have created an interesting paradox. The introduction of
procedures around performance measurement, quality control, and audit aimed at
improving the effectiveness and accountability of HE institutions have at the same time
contributed to the creation of additional bureaucratic layers of control which have often
been experienced as inhibiting organisational effectiveness and responsiveness. Also,
several commentators have pointed out the negative effects of these measures through the
pressures they have created on academic as well as non-academic staff, and the resulting
tensions between management and staff in Higher Education institutions (i.e., Chandler
et al. 2002; Parker and Jary 1995; Huisman and Currie 2004). However, it has been
acknowledged that the transformation of higher education is irreversible, and that some of
the principles which this transformation seeks to bring about serve a legitimate purpose,
despite valid concerns regarding the way these changes have often been implemented
(Parker and Jary 1995).
Additionally, quite often the ‘solutions’ derived from the private sector which Higher
Education institutions have tried to implement were based on principles and approaches
derived from out-dated ideas and management fads which have already been abandoned in
the sector from which they originated (Birnbaum 2000a, b). These issues are exacerbated
by the fact that Higher Education institutions have unique cultural characteristics which
make the translation from management principles derived from the private-sector to a
higher education context problematic. Several authors have pointed out the cultural
uniqueness of higher education establishments (e.g., Birnbaum 1988; Bergquist 1992) and
the need to align the leadership of change to university culture (Kezar and Eckel 2002;
Lueddeke 1999; Middlehurst 1997). Clashes between the principles of management and a
traditional culture of collegial leadership have been widely reported on (Chandler et al.
2002), highlighting the need to adapt leadership and management principles to a higher
We believe that principles of distributed leadership provide a means for overcoming
some of the problems. On a conceptual level, the notion of distributed leadership seems
well aligned with notions of collegiality and professional autonomy which have
764 High Educ (2009) 58:763–779
traditionally been characteristic of higher education leadership, while also recognising the
wider institutional needs for effectively managing the changes that turbulent environments
impose on Higher Education institutions. Before we outline the aims of our study of
distributed leadership in a higher education establishment within the UK, we will ﬁrst
provide an overview of the literature on distributed leadership.
Within the scientiﬁc leadership ﬁeld, a growing body of research is dedicated to studying
leadership as a shared or distributed phenomenon. In itself, the emergence of a new
perspective on leadership is nothing new within the leadership ﬁeld, which has traditionally
been characterized by the co-existence of a rich variety of divergent theories. However,
despite this divergence in theoretical development, one common assumption seems to have
underpinned most traditional leadership theories: the view that leadership is a vertical
process which separates leaders from followers as mutually exclusive categories (Pearce
and Conger 2003, p. 1; Rost 1993, p. 70; Yukl 2002, p. 2). Distributed leadership chal-
lenges this view of leadership as a solely vertical process in which an individual leader is
seen as the main source of inﬂuence which shapes the emergence of collective action, and
instead focuses on the mechanisms through which diverse individuals contribute to the
process of leadership in shaping collective action. As such, it provides an important
complementary understanding of the subtleties of leadership in real organisational settings.
Several factors could be seen as contributing to the shift from studying leadership as a
vertical inﬂuence process to studying leadership as a distributed phenomenon. First of all,
the growing interest in complexity sciences has increasingly highlighted the shortcomings
of traditional reductionist science in explaining many real-world phenomena. The power of
paradigm in guiding the structure in which phenomena are studied and the types of
questions that science can legitimately seek to answer could not be underestimated (Kuhn
1996). In the scientiﬁc study of leadership, this reductionist paradigm seems to have
granted ontological status to the distinction between leaders and followers, and sought to
explain leadership phenomena through simple cause and effect relationships between these
two exclusive categories, with only limited emphasis being placed on the complexities in
which context shapes the leadership process. Such observations have fuelled a recent shift
away from studying social phenomena from a reductionist paradigm which traditionally
sought to break down social phenomena into discrete components and study them in
isolation, leading to atomistic explanations of leadership which have been accused of
failing to explain the true complexities and subtleties leadership processes, in which
inﬂuence processes are often shared between different individuals (Gronn 2002; Spillane
et al. 2001, 2004).
Secondly, the increased reliance of organizations on team based work has led to a
growing dissatisfaction with traditional leader-centric approaches in explaining the com-
plexities of leadership within such team-based settings. Many organizations increasingly
depend on cross-functional, self managing work-teams to deal with the growing com-
plexities of work and to sustain their competitiveness (Cummings and Worley 2004, p.
341). There is a growing utilization of project teams in managing project work involving
matters ranging from new product development to implementing organizational change
(Thamhain 2004), and knowledge work is becoming increasingly team-based and requires
the coordination and integration of the expertise of diverse professionals from dispersed
ﬁelds (Pearce 2004). However, even though the literature on team working has provided a
wealth of knowledge regarding the factors that shape team success, it has still put
High Educ (2009) 58:763–779 765
considerable emphasis on the role of formal team leaders in shaping team effectiveness
(Day et al. 2006), despite the fact that the role of individual leaders in shaping collective
outcomes is often greatly overestimated (Meindl et al. 1985).
In line with these theoretical and practical concerns regarding traditional perspectives of
understanding leadership, Gronn’s conclusion that distributed leadership is an idea whose
time has come (Gronn 2002) seems to be well grounded.
The concept of distributed leadership
Given the fact that distributed leadership as an area of scientiﬁc inquiry is still in its
infancy, a common understanding of distributed leadership has yet to be conceived of
(Bennett et al. 2003; Day et al. 2004). Some authors use the term shared leadership (e.g.,
Pearce 2004; Pearce and Sims 2002) while others employ the term distributed leadership
(e.g., Gronn 2002). At this point, there seems to be no clear conceptual differences between
these approaches, and different authors use them interchangeably (e.g., Day et al. 2004).
Besides the different terms employed, different authors diverge in their conceptual-
izations of distributed leadership on various grounds, including the scope of the network of
participating agents in the leadership process. Some authors have focused on a single team
or group of people as their unit of analysis (e.g., Brown and Hosking 1986; Locke 2003;
Pearce 2004), while others have taken a more open-systems approach, taking the whole
organization and even constituencies beyond the organizational boundaries as their unit of
analysis (e.g., Spillane et al. 2001, 2004). However, despite these differences most authors
agree upon two principles as underpinning the concept of distributed leadership:
1. Leadership is a shared inﬂuence process to which several individuals contribute
2. Leadership arises from the interactions of diverse individuals which together form a
group or network in which essential expertise is a dispersed quality
Empirical support for distributed leadership
A growing number of studies have provided empirical support for the concept of distributed
leadership. A longitudinal study of inter-organisational rule-making groups conducted by
Feyerherm (1994) provided evidence regarding the shared nature of leadership behaviours in
teams which were facing a highly complex and interdependent task, requiring the integration
of differing viewpoints and interests. In such highly interdependent situations, in which no
single individual is capable of possessing all the relevant expertise for reaching a common
goal, distributed leadership seems particularly useful (Pearce 2004).
An equally complex and interdependent challenge was faced by top management teams
in the start-up of new ventures, where Ensley et al. (2006) found distributed leadership
variables to predict ﬁrm success beyond the predictive power of vertical leadership vari-
ables. Within change management teams, Pearce and Sims (2002) found distributed
leadership patterns lead to higher performance as compared to traditional ‘leader-domi-
nated’ leadership patterns.
However, subsequent research has indicated that distributed leadership can take dif-
ferent forms, and only if different individuals within a group recognize each other as
leaders (distributed-coordinated leadership) does distributed leadership lead to increased
performance. If the different individuals within the group do not recognize each other as
leaders (distributed-fragmented leadership) there seems to be no enhanced performance
over traditional vertical leadership (Mehra et al. 2006).
766 High Educ (2009) 58:763–779
A question that rises is whether distributed leadership makes the notion of traditional
vertical leadership redundant, a possibility that Gibb (1954, in Day et al. 2004) already
identiﬁed decennia before distributed leadership became a ﬁeld of scientiﬁc investigation.
However, at this point distributed leadership is seen as an important form of leadership
which can act as a complement rather than a substitute to traditional vertical leadership
(Pearce 2004). Pearce states that although dominant vertical leadership styles can suppress
team member participation in decision making, vertical leadership still plays an important
role in team design and boundary management, two factors considered important for the
ongoing success of distributed leadership. Also, critical events that disrupt team func-
tioning can call for vertical leader interventions (Morgeson and DeRue 2006).
Although it has been recognized that vertical leadership plays an important role to the
ongoing success of distributed leadership (Pearce 2004), relatively little attention has been
paid to other factors which constitute the successful practice of distributed leadership
within organizational settings. Also, much empirical work on distributed leadership so far
has adopted taken for granted traditional notions of vertical leadership and taken these as
the basis for understanding leadership from a distributed perspective. Examples of such
studies looked at traditional notions of leadership behaviours and studied to what extent
such behaviours were shared amongst different individuals (i.e., Ensley et al. 2006; Fe-
yerherm 1994). Although these studies have indicated that such behaviours are indeed
often distributed, they might have overlooked the possibility that distributed leadership
might be understood as something qualitatively different from a simple aggregation of
vertical leadership behaviours. It could be argued that these studies only looked at what
Gronn (2002) labelled ‘additive action’, ignoring the additional dynamic arising from the
interactions of the various individuals, or what Gronn (ibid) labelled ‘concretive action.’
As one of the deﬁning principles of distributed leadership is that it arises from the
interactions of diverse individuals in a setting where expertise is a dispersed quality, our
study aims to seek an understanding of the mechanisms through which dispersed expertise is
integrated in the process of leadership. We argue that to gain deeper understanding of the
concept and practice of distributed leadership, it is important to study the concept in settings
of which the inherent complexity, interdependence, and need for integration of dispersed
expertise require the input of several constituencies in the process of leadership. Project
work is in this sense ideal for the study of distributed leadership. Project teams are often
cross-functional, requiring individuals from a range of backgrounds and sources of expertise
to integrate their collective inputs in order to reach a common goal (Pinto et al. 1993).
Therefore, project teams are characterised by a high level of interdependency between
members, placing high demands on the process of leadership to coordinate and integrate
individual inputs (Thamhain 2004). Additionally, the complex nature of projects makes
requires extended information processing, complex decision-making, and a high level of
creativity of the team, conditions ideally suited for distributed leadership (Pearce 2004).
The main aim of the present study is to gain an understanding of how patterns of
distributed leadership manifest themselves in project teams within a Higher Education
institution, and to understand whether successful project work is characterised by stronger
levels of leadership distribution. Higher Education institutions have traditionally been
characterised by collegiate cultures, which makes it likely that collegiate work patterns are
still prevalent in the way project work is conducted. As Higher Education institutions
increasingly adopt project work in order to cope with the increasing demands the higher
education context poses, such an understanding is essential for yielding lessons regarding
the ways Higher Education institutions can effectively operate and develop their
High Educ (2009) 58:763–779 767
In scholarly literature there is a growing recognition of the need to study distributed
leadership in the social context of organizations (Day et al. 2006). Therefore, a qualitative
research approach was adopted in order to generate new hypotheses (Conger 1998) and to
add to the understanding of distributed leadership in a realistic organizational setting. This
research approach provides rich data and captures the speciﬁc context. Thus, it enables also
to discover the ‘how’ of distributed leadership, as it helps to understand its underlying
structures (Pettigrew 1990). The ﬂexible character of qualitative research makes it addi-
tionally capable for an exploratory investigation of new concepts (Bryman 2004). The
main aim of the research at this stage was an explorative investigation of factors that
inﬂuence distributed leadership both positively and negatively within an organizational
context. The intended outcomes are aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of distributed
leadership within an organizational context and extending the literature on this concept.
Five different project teams were analysed; ﬁve of which were reported to be successful
in achieving their purpose and ﬁve of which were not. This approach allowed us to
compare and contrast these projects in terms of distributed leadership. A combination of
causal mapping and semi-structured interviews were used to collect data on the ten dif-
We conducted this study at a large UK based university, which has not been excluded from
the pressures to increase efﬁciency and the resulting frictions between the new managerial
practices and the traditional way of running the university. The initial structure of the
university relied on pluralistic decision-making, which was mainly represented by com-
mittees whose members were appointed on their (academic) expertise. The growth of the
university led to a signiﬁcant increase in the number of committees, resulting in an
impediment of decision-making. This impediment of decision-making reached a point at
which it diminished, in the view of many staff members, the ability of the university to
react on and adapt to environmental changes. With the decline in student numbers at the
start of the new millennium, also due to increased national and international competition, a
lot of activities and projects were launched in several directions to regain lost students and
to secure the university’s income. The situation at present is that the university has
developed different strategic priorities and is searching for a new mission that is able to
capture all the priorities into an integrating whole. Furthermore, staff members perceive an
ongoing struggle between the traditionally pluralistic culture, academic freedom and the
increase of managerial top down practices. The present conditions of an increasingly
complex environment and of a surge of projects within the university offered an ideal
context to further explore the promoting and inhibiting factors of distributed leadership; a
concept which the university itself wants to promote within its boundaries.
Participants for the study were identiﬁed by purposive sampling and by referral sampling
methods. Five individuals from a range of different positions were selected and approached
for participation in the research project. The university’s staff consists of roughly 80%
administrative employees and of about 20% academics. Middle and senior management is
composed of about 60% male and 40% female. Therefore, ﬁve individuals occupying
768 High Educ (2009) 58:763–779
middle and senior management positions were selected, four of which had administrative
positions and one which had an academic position Two of the participants were female and
three male. All of the ﬁve individuals had an organizational tenure of at least 2 years and
had been involved in a range of projects. To gather participants for the surrounding semi-
structured interviews to every case, each individual was asked to name ﬁve other indi-
viduals who could provide additional insights in the identiﬁed cases. As it proved to be
difﬁcult for most of the initial individuals to name ﬁve additional individuals, a total of 20
(3–4–4–4–5) additional participants were interviewed.
With each of the initial ﬁve individuals, a separate session was held in which they were
asked to describe two projects they had been involved in; one project they regarded as
successful, and one project they regarded as unsuccessful. During these sessions, we
constructed causal maps together with the individual for both the successful and the
unsuccessful projects, focusing on the factors which caused the projects to be successful or
unsuccessful. At the end of these sessions, the individuals ware asked to name up to ﬁve
additional people who were involved in the projects they had described. These people were
subsequently interviewed using a semi-structured interview technique to provide more data
on the leadership of these projects. A total of 20 additional participants were interviewed,
making 25 in total.
All the causal mapping sessions were audio recorded and verbatim transcribed. The causal
maps themselves were imported into Decision Explorer, a software program to analyze
causal maps. The interviews were audio recorded and then verbatim transcribed. The
transcripts of both the causal mapping sessions and the interviews were then imported into
Nvivo7, a computer based program for qualitative data analysis. The transcripts were used
as the main source of data analysis. The causal maps served as complementation and
veriﬁcation for the transcripts of the mapping sessions.
The transcripts were coded on the basis of factors perceived as inﬂuencing distributed
leadership. During this coding, the focus was laid on the team being the unit of analysis.
Therefore, no difference was made between the different members of a project team,
regardless of their formal status within the team. Content analysis was used to identify
recurrent themes, by then classifying these recurrent themes into categories which were
perceived to be factors inﬂuencing distributed leadership. The factors were then discussed to
reach consensual inter-subjectivity. Consensual inter-subjectivity is the consensus that is
reached between researchers on the interpretation of data, and is regarded as a main tool in
qualitative research to measure reliability (Smaling 1992). On the basis of a randomly chosen
transcript an interrater reliability of 87% was found, using the percentage agreement method.
Through the iterative process of analyzing and coding the transcripts, several factors were
identiﬁed which were thought to relate to distributed leadership in project teams. We divided
the emerging factors according to the level at which they operate. At the organizational level,
several factors around external activities and processes were identiﬁed. These factors
High Educ (2009) 58:763–779 769
involved the way in which the team interacted with and related to important constituencies
outside of the team. These factors were found to inﬂuence important outcomes, which in turn
served as inputs for continuing distributed leadership at the team level. At the team level,
several factors were found which relate to the way the team itself operates. These factors were
divided into critical internal conditions and critical internal processes.
By comparing successful and unsuccessful projects, it became apparent that the factors
we identiﬁed at the organizational and team levels were important in shaping the success or
lack thereof of projects. We have attempted to encapsulate these factors in a model of
distributed leadership as presented below. However, it is important to note here that
although most of the factors seemed to play a role in all of the projects, the relative
importance and the speciﬁc conﬁguration in which the factors interacted varied between
the projects. One aspect that seemed to particularly inﬂuence the conﬁguration of the way
the different factors inﬂuenced project outcomes was the nature of the project as emergent
or top-down initiated.
Top-down versus emergent projects
An important distinction that emerged in the analysis of the ten different projects evolves
around the nature of the projects as either top-down driven or emergent. Four of the
analysed projects were distinctively emergent in the sense that they were initiated by a
group of two or more individuals without any formal leadership status and without formal
appointment in setting up the concerned projects. Five of the analysed projects were
distinctively top-down in nature, and were formally initiated by individuals or groups
holding senior management positions. The ﬁnal project seemed to have emergent as well as
top-down properties, as the idea for this project emerged from an individual initiative, yet
the subsequent project set-up was initiated through formal management structures. The
distinction between emergent and top-down projects was seen as important as the nature of
leadership within these projects as well as the challenges the project leadership had to
overcome seemed to show important differences. Some of these differences will be
highlighted as we describe the different factors below. However, ﬁrst we will introduce our
model of distributed leadership, as depicted in Fig. 1.
Distributed leadership factors
We will now provide a more in extensive description of the factors depicted in Fig. 1. As
mentioned before and presented in the model, the factors we identiﬁed as relating to
distributed leadership in project teams were divided into factors relating to external
activities (organizational level) and factors relating to internal team activities (team level).
The factors at the team level could subsequently be divided into critical internal conditions
and critical internal processes. We will ﬁrst outline the factors relating to the inputs to and
outcomes of external activities (organizational level). Then we will turn to the factors
relating to team functioning (team level),
Organisational level factors
From our data, it became clear that none of the projects could be analysed in isolation from
the wider institutional context in which they were embedded. In each of the projects,
leadership was not solely conﬁned to facilitating the internal processes of the project
770 High Educ (2009) 58:763–779
teams, but had to deal with challenges which reached beyond the direct boundaries of the
projects. Involvement of and negotiation with external stakeholders, gathering and dis-
seminating important information regarding the projects, and facilitating an alignment
between the projects and the wider organisation context were regarded as vitally important
in determining the success of the various projects.
Critical external processes
Tailoring message to the receiver was reported to be an important aspect contributing to
project outcomes. Each of the studied project teams had to engage in communication
exchanges with stakeholders external to the team itself. In such cases it often proved
necessary to present information in such a way as to meet the requirement of the speciﬁc
stakeholder group being addressed. Sometimes such tailoring was political in nature,
presenting certain aspects that were thought necessary to persuade external decision
makers or organisational members to buy into an initiative or to provide needed resources.
However, it also often constituted the presentation of information in a format under-
standable by the recipient by omitting or translating technical jargon or unnecessary
Another external activity project teams often had to engage in constituted the feedback
of progress. Such feedback served to inform external stakeholders of any successes or
obstacles faced by the project team and was often necessary to ensure continuing support
and involvement of external stakeholders. Also, such feedback was often found important
Fig. 1 Model of distributed leadership in project teams
High Educ (2009) 58:763–779 771
in ensuring alignment between project teams and wider organisational needs. Additionally,
such feedback was often seen as building on important relationships with external con-
stituencies needed for the continuing success of distributed leadership.
Involving key people was found to be a third important external activity. This
involvement was found to be especially essential in cases where certain critical expertise
was missing within the team. In these cases, such expertise had to be ‘borrowed’ from
individuals external to the team boundaries in order to integrate their contribution in the
process of leadership. Furthermore, the involvement of people external to the team often
helped building valuable informal relationships around the organization, enhancing the
project’s future success. At other times, such involvement was found to be essential to
ensure the support of important external decision makers who had a stake in the project
outcomes. In a number of projects failure to involve such key external stakeholders was
reported to severely diminish the success of the respective projects.
In most projects, external activities were not just conducted by one speciﬁc individual.
Although most top-down initiated projects did have one or a number of designated team
members formally responsible for conducting some of the external activities such as
reporting to higher management, in most projects external activities were conducted by a
number of different project team members, depending on the speciﬁc situation or skills
required. Especially in emergent projects, conducting external activities seemed to be quite
organic in nature, often involving informal networks of various team members. In such
cases, the distributed nature of the leadership process seemed particularly emphasized.
Critical external conditions
Successfully conducted external processes were reported to shape several valuable con-
ditions which enhanced the continuing success of distributed leadership of project teams.
When successful, such processes led to the support of external constituencies consisting of
members of the wider organisational community and important decision makers, which in
turn increased the likeliness of the project team to acquire valuable information, resources,
and expertise needed for the project, as well as maintaining alignment with the wider
organisational needs and building trust. Most projects that reported problems in conducting
such external activities faced problems which in some cases even resulted in project
failure. The outcomes of external activities often served as important inputs for continuing
successful distributed leadership within the teams, such as trust from external decision
makers leading to an increased level of autonomy for the team in conducting their
Support from members of the wider organisational community was important in most
projects and essential especially in projects which were aimed at managing organisational
change. In these cases, continuing involvement of and communication with the wider
community was seen as key in determining project outcomes.
Support from decision makers outside of the team was reported as important for
ensuring a ﬂow of information and resources needed by the team, as well as gaining their
trust and willingness to delegate autonomy, making it possible to make important decisions
at the team level.
Information gained through conducting external activities was often reported to serve an
essential role in making important decisions within the team and aligning team activities to
the wider organisational operations. A number of teams which reported problems in
gaining external information were found to lack the ability to make important decisions or
identify issues and obstacles, in some cases resulting in interventions from external
772 High Educ (2009) 58:763–779
decision makers or cancellation of the project. Effectively conducting external activities
provided teams with timely and accurate information enhancing the effectiveness of dis-
tributed leadership within the team.
Another important outcome of external activities consisted of resources. Resources
included aspects like funding, time, facilities and equipment necessary for effectively
conducting project activities. Although most resources were gained through key external
decision makers, often important resources were gained through informal networks,
especially in cases where time was too critical to acquire resources through formal
The ﬁnal important outcome of external activities consisted of externally acquired
expertise. As distributed leadership is underpinned by the notion of expertise as a dispersed
quality which needs to be integrated in the process of leadership, this outcome of external
activities is considered especially important. Although most project teams possessed most
of the required expertise internally, there were often moments where certain essential
expertise could not be found within the team boundaries. In these cases, it proved essential
to integrate externally acquired expertise in the process of leadership. In some projects,
such external expertise was acquired through external consultants, but more often it was
acquired through informal organisational networks of team members. In several projects, a
failure to gain access to expertise external to the team led to stiﬂed team progress.
Team level factors
The second aspect important for distributed leadership is the internal functioning of the
team. Several factors inﬂuencing distributed leadership at the team level were identiﬁed.
They were subdivided into critical internal conditions and critical internal processes.
Below, we will ﬁrst describe the critical internal conditions, followed by the critical
Critical internal conditions
Critical internal conditions constitute the enabling factors that need to be in place in order
for successful distributed leadership to occur. Most of these conditions can be inﬂuenced
through team design. Together, these conditions allow for the emergence of the critical
internal and external processes necessary for effective distribution of leadership. Six
critical conditions were derived from our case study data.
Autonomy was found to be an important factor in enabling teams to engage in dis-
tributed leadership. Teams which had a high degree of autonomy were more ﬂexible in
making decisions and coordinating their activities, as they did not rely on the approval of
external decision makers. Autonomy also seemed to grant a degree of ownership in team
activities and outcomes. It was found however that autonomy was not a given for most
project teams, and often a team needed to build an extent of trust with external decision
makers in order to be allowed the autonomy needed to inﬂuence the leadership within the
team. This seemed particularly important in emergent projects. However, too much
autonomy was also found to lead to isolation, highlighting the need to balance the amount
of autonomy with a level of alignment with the wider organisational context.
A clearly deﬁned goal was another condition which was found important in order to
enable effective distributed leadership to emerge. Teams which had a clear goal were
found to be more successful in coordinating their activities and focus their energies in a
common direction. A clearly deﬁned goal was also found to enhance a team’s capacity to
High Educ (2009) 58:763–779 773
monitor and feed back on progress, as well as enabling them to engage in adaptive
behaviours in case of changes in the team environment. In a number of projects, the lack of
clarity regarding the team goal resulted in divergence of activities and a lack of integration,
which stiﬂed team progress and frustrated team members. Especially in emergent projects,
where team goals were not given by external decision makers, a clearly deﬁned goal played
an important role in managing external relationships and securing external support.
A shared internal support for the team goal was found to be another factor inﬂuencing
the emergence of successful distributed leadership. Team members who believed in the
team goal were more likely to actively contribute to team leadership and engage in
adaptive behaviours if a present course of action proved to be ineffective. In some projects,
the lack of internal support for the team goal was found to result in team members ‘just
doing their job,’ even though it was clear that the present course of action was clearly
ineffective. Most emergent projects were characterized by a high support for the team goal,
as team members took part in such project on their own initiative. However, some top-
down initiated projects lacked the support of team members, resulting in stiﬂed progress
especially if barriers were encountered.
Clearly deﬁned responsibilities were found to be another factor important for successful
distributed leadership. If responsibilities were clearly deﬁned, teams were found to be more
effective in coordinating their collective inputs. Also, responsibilities needed to be linked
with individual expertise in order for individuals to successfully contribute to the leader-
ship process. Especially in some top-down projects, certain individuals were given
responsibilities which lied outside of their area of expertise or motivation, resulting in poor
team performance. A lack of clearly deﬁned responsibilities for individual members often
resulted in conﬂicts between team members who felt others encroached on their perceived
responsibilities. Also, if clearly deﬁned responsibilities were lacking, this often led to
duplication of activities, or essential activities not being performed. However, a certain
balance between clear individual responsibilities was needed to be offset by a sense of
shared responsibility for team outcomes. Some of the projects lacked the capacity to adapt
to changing circumstances due to the fact that dealing with changing circumstances was
not perceived by any individual member to be ‘their responsibility.’ In such cases, a shared
support for the goal was found to be important in motivating team members to redeﬁne
responsibilities in a ﬂexible way. Another interesting observation was that responsibilities
often seemed more ‘organic’ in emergent projects, where the boundaries between
responsibilities were often less well deﬁned than in top-down initiated projects.
Key internal expertise was another essential factor for the emergence of distributed
leadership. Successful distributed leadership depends on the integration of diverse sources
of expertise in the process of leadership. Although some expertise can be ‘borrowed’
through external activities, it was found to be important that most of the essential expertise
needed for the team task needed to be available within the team. Such expertise did not
only constitute knowledge and skills associated with a certain professional ﬁeld, but also
encompassed cultural, political, and procedural knowledge of the organisation.
Team size was found to be another important aspect inﬂuencing the emergence of
successful distributed leadership. When teams were too small, they lacked the necessary
internal expertise to successfully deal with the complexity of the team task. However,
teams that were too large were often found to face difﬁculties in integrating and coordi-
nating the activities of the individual members, including all members in the process of
leadership, or to reach joint decisions. Therefore it seemed important to seek a balance
between a team large enough so that all necessary expertise needed for managing the task
774 High Educ (2009) 58:763–779
complexity was available and a team small enough to make coordination and integration of
team effort possible.
Critical internal processes
Critical internal processes constitute the team processes which were found to underpin the
emergence of distributed leadership. Their emergence seemed to rely on the critical internal
conditions described above. However, in contrast to the critical internal conditions, critical
internal processes could not directly be inﬂuenced by team design, but rather needed to be
fostered and developed within the team. Five critical internal processes were identiﬁed.
Information sharing within the team was found to be essential for team members to
develop a common understanding of the team task and the issues faced by the team, which
in turn enabled members to participate in shared decision making and leadership. Openly
sharing information within the team seemed to foster a transparency in decision making
and the development of trust between team members, fostering an atmosphere in which all
team members could contribute to the leadership process.
Mutual performance monitoring involves team members taking account of each other’s
activities and offering feedback, help, or suggestions when needed. Through mutual per-
formance monitoring, teams seemed better able to diagnose their situation and surface
emerging issues before they became problematic. Mutual performance monitoring also
seemed to help teams develop an awareness of individual strengths and weaknesses, which
allowed them to build on each others’ strengths and complement each others’ weaknesses.
Coordinating activities constitutes the process through which team members organise
and plan their individual activities in order to gear them to a collective team goal. This
process was often found to be based on negotiation and relied heavily on the exchange of
information between team members. Project teams which did not speciﬁcally address the
coordination of their activities were often found to work ineffectively as certain work was
duplicated or not addressed at all.
Adaptive behaviours involve team members changing their approach in case of altered
requirements due to changes in the team’s environment or when established approaches
turn out to be ineffective in achieving team goals. Some teams were found to continue on
an established course which no longer aligned with changing organisational needs,
resulting in top-down interventions to halt the project or force a change of course. Other
teams were actively engaged in assuring that changing circumstances were incorporated in
team conduct, thereby establishing continuous realignment in dynamically changing
Inclusiveness constitutes team members actively seeking to involve one another in the
process of sense-making and decision-making. Inclusiveness did not only facilitate the
inclusion of all available expertise in the process of leadership, thereby making sure team
activities were monitored from a variety of perspectives and interests, it also created an
atmosphere in which team members experienced a sense of ownership and being valued.
Such ownership ensured that team members remained actively involved and supportive of
Leadership remains an elusive and enigmatic concept, and studying leadership from a
distributed perspective does not mitigate the complexities of the phenomenon. However,
High Educ (2009) 58:763–779 775
by embracing the complexities of leadership as a distributed phenomenon and studying it
in real organizational settings, we have tried to understand some of the factors that
inﬂuence the occurrence and success of distributed leadership. Due to the inherent com-
plexity and interdependence of project work, studying the factors that inﬂuence the success
or failure of projects and analyzing these factors through a distributed leadership lens
allowed us to gain an understanding of the processes through which leadership is dis-
tributed over a range of individuals. By taking a qualitative approach aimed at identifying
the factors that inﬂuenced the success or failure of projects and looking at the processes
which gave rise to collective activity within these projects, we have avoided adopting a
speciﬁc predeﬁned conception of distributed leadership.
Despite the exploratory nature of our study, our data support some of the previous
ﬁndings from the ﬁelds of distributed, shared, and team leadership. Pearce (2004), for
instance, highlighted the importance of expertise, the allocation of responsibilities, optimal
team size, and a clearly deﬁned goal or vision as factors essential to the development and
successful continuity of shared leadership. Day et al. (2004) found that adaptability and
mutual performance monitoring were necessary for effective team leadership, a ﬁnding
supported by our study. Additionally, their concept of team orientation shows strong
resemblance with what we have termed inclusiveness, another aspect found to be important
for the development of distributed patterns of leadership. Burke et al. (2006) described
empowerment as an enhancing factor for successful teamwork, in line with our ﬁnding that
a level of autonomy is essential for a team to engage in effective distributed leadership.
Additionally, our notion of inclusiveness as important to distributed leadership seems to be
similar to Burke et al.’s concept of consideration.
Besides supporting these previous ﬁndings and grounding them in qualitative empirical
data, we hope that our study has contributed to an integration of these previous ﬁndings in
a ﬁeld which is still characterized by theoretical and conceptual pluralism. The model of
distributed leadership as we propose it is by no means meant to be a ﬁnal framework, but
rather a device to structure our understanding of and inquiry into the concept of distributed
Implications for the ﬁeld
One thing that our study highlights is the importance of engaging in external activities as a
necessary condition for the continuous success of distributed leadership. Other researchers
have already identiﬁed such external activities—often termed boundary management—as
important aspects of effective team work (e.g., Burke et al. 2006; Elkins and Keller 2003;
Pearce 2004). However, most of these authors have placed considerable emphasis on the
designated team leader as playing a vital role in such external activities, something which was
not reﬂected in our cases. From our data, it became obvious that different team members were
responsible for conducting activities related to the wider organizational context, either
because of their speciﬁc expertise or because of their particular informal networks.
Also, previous research has focused on boundary management as a means for securing
resources and information from the wider organizational context (e.g., Brown and Ei-
senhardt 1995; Pearce 2004). What our study adds to this is an understanding of boundary
management as a means to integrate certain vital expertise not available within the team, as
well as its role as a mechanism for ensuring continuous alignment between a team and the
wider organizational context.
This ﬁnding also carries implications for conceptual considerations around the notion
distributed leadership. As noted in the introduction, authors in the ﬁeld of distributed
776 High Educ (2009) 58:763–779
leadership differ in terms of how they deﬁne the scope of participating agents in the
process of distributed leadership, where on one end the focus lies solely on the team level,
and on the other end the organization as a whole as well as agents outside of the organ-
isational boundaries are seen as participants in the process of leadership. Based on our
ﬁndings, we suggest that the network of participation in leadership is essentially a
boundary judgment which needs to be made based on the context of the situation. Also, we
believe that such boundaries are essentially ﬂuid, and can be extended or limited depending
on the present needs of the team or organization.
Implications for practice and leadership development in higher education
As noted in the introductions, Higher Education institutions seem to struggle in dealing
with the tensions between traditional collegial notions of leadership and the introduction of
management principles derived from the private sector. We believe that the principles of
distributed leadership show promise in overcoming some of these tensions and help Higher
Education institutions deal more effectively with the pressures of adapting to ever
increasing rates of environmental change.
In practice, we have seen this in a number of our cases where academic and adminis-
trative staff have transcended the cultural frictions and successfully engaged in initiatives
where each complemented rather than opposed the other, even leading to successful
attempts to start linking in-house academic research to leadership and management
practice within the organisation.
However, some of our cases also highlighted the fragility of effective distributed
leadership. Examples of this include cases where team members reported ceasing to
actively contribute to the process of leadership due to other—more senior—team members
exerting authoritarian inﬂuence over decisions that concerned the team as a whole. In other
cases, repeated obstructions to team progress resulting from bureaucratic organisational
procedures or powerful groups within the organization caused teams to give up their efforts
to actively contribute to project outcomes.
In order for distributed leadership to work effectively, it seems that organizations need
to approach leadership development in a different way than traditional conceptions of
leadership would direct. Instead of focusing on the development of the leadership capa-
bilities of an organization’s designated leaders, focus would shift to investing not only in
developing leadership skills of the workforce as a whole, but also to facilitating the
conditions conductive for the emergence of successful distributed leadership and the for-
mation of informal networks of expertise. Developing the leadership skills of the work-
force without facilitating the conditions for distributed leadership to thrive would quite
likely lead to frustrations and inhibited effectiveness and engagement, whereas the facil-
itation of the necessary conditions without development of the required skills would likely
lead to confusion and misalignment of teams with the wider organisational context.
Distributed leadership could play a major role in the future of our knowledge-based society
as it combines the strengths of various individuals and balances their weaknesses. It might
well be that in a world where work is increasingly team-based and no single person can
hold all the relevant knowledge to make the right decisions, there is a growing belief that
the competitive advantage of organizations will increasingly depend on their ability to
High Educ (2009) 58:763–779 777
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