There is no a closed body of theory around the concept of distributed leadership. Different authors propose definitions without that still have reached an agreement on the matter. Among them, perhaps the two most significant are Spillane and Gronn. Both raise the concept from their research and publications at the start of this decade among which can be highlighted as particularly important at the time:
Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., and Diamond, J. B. (2001) “Investigating School Leadership Practice: A Distributed Perspective.” Educational Researcher, 30 (3). April 2001 (download).
Gronn,P. (2002). “Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis.” The Leadership Quarterly, 13, 423–451. (US $ 19.95 en ScienceDirect).
Both approaches have their origin in the implementation of the leadership in schools and are based on the fact that the framework prevalent until the moment in which the leadership was focused on individuals and their positions is incomplete.
For Spillane, Halverson and Diamond leadership must be understood as a distributed practice, stretched over the school’s social and situational contexts. In their scheme, leadership practice is not simply a function of an individual leader’s ability, skill, charisma and cognition. And this is especially true If expertise is distributed.
For Peter Gronn the division of labour within organizations provides two roles fundamentally opposed, one focused on activities and tasks and the second in controlled and performed. This simple and antagonistic view does not correspond with the real complexity of the natural world where in fact exists a hybrid situation where the degree of distribution of the role of leadership varies. The approach of Gronn, much more sophisticated from the conceptual point of view deals between other aspects the distributed leadership from the perspective of the Complexity Theory (as a emerging pattern of collective behaviour when there is interdependence) and from the team approach (spontaneous collaboration, use of synergy, coordination).
Since then distributed leadership has been associated at times as shared, delegate, democratic, dispersed, etc. In an extraordinary research work carried out by Bennet et al. all the literature on the subject is reviewed so far:
Bennett, N., Wise, C., Woods, P., & Harvey, J. A. (2003). Distributed Leadership: a review of literature. Nottingham: NCSL National College for School Leadership, The Open University and University of Gloucestershire (download).
The authors identify three distinctive elements of the distributed leadership among the different approaches that analyzed. Firstly, distributed leadership highlights leadership as an emergent property of a group or network of interacting individuals. Secondly, distributed leadership suggests openness of the boundaries of leadership. This means that it is predisposed to widen the conventional net of leaders, thus in turn raising the question of which individuals and groups are to be brought into leadership or seen as contributors to it. Thirdly, distributed leadership entails the view that it is possible to forge a concertive dynamic which represents more than the sum of the individual contributors. Initiatives may be inaugurated by those with relevant skills in a particular context, but others will then adopt, adapt and improve them within a mutually trusting and supportive culture.