Distributive leadership has four key principles

15th February 2013 at 00:00
It's a complex process, but affiliation, agency and associative and assertive autonomy all make it tick

I read with great interest the education secretary's article (TESS, 4 January), in which he told us that leadership was the key to improvement, and the hallmark of a good school was excellent leadership at every level. Graham Donaldson followed this up the next week with his article that challenged our understanding of what distributive leadership might mean in practice. Leadership, he said, was about fostering a team ethos within which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

I think leadership itself is greater than the sum of its parts. I've been working on a model that tries to unpick and give a road map to the holy grail of distributive leadership, which I see as the process that optimises everyone's participation.

I look to the foundation provided by our basic needs when trying to understand the dynamics of complex social processes such as distributed leadership. These are the needs of affiliation, to belong; agency, to feel competent and in control; and autonomy, to be self- determining. I've found it helpful to split autonomy into two wings of associative and assertive autonomy, the former fuelled by the emotions of compassion and humility, the latter by pride and self-assertion.

These four needs generate what I have called the four powers of participation. We need to be able to fit in (affiliation), to get stuck in (agency), to put ourselves forward (assertive autonomy) and to contribute (associative autonomy). Each of these powers of participation operates at four levels, namely flourishing, ticking over, toiling and languishing.

There are many possible combinations of levels of the four powers, but seven clusters have been consistently found in my research to be prototypical. These are called stances. The leadership stance (called the making-it-happen stance) is a mixture of behaviours and skills inherent in the best of each of the powers. Just as the bits of an aeroplane come together to create the emergent property of flight, so the combination of leadership powers reflects more than the sum of the parts. The stance also manifests the attitudes behind leadership and its impact on others. Like flight, it also gives lift-off.

Leadership is rooted in social identity, our perception of the collective self, who we are and who we want to be. Distributive leadership is never about "I", it is about "we". We want our leaders to be exceptional, but at the same time to be just like us. This paradox is resolved by leaders who are exceptional in being just like the group. Leaders are not like the rest of their teams as individuals, but they bear a striking resemblance to the group identity. Leaders become the embodiment of the group and make the group matter.

Some people participate well, displaying a cooperative and supportive attitude with a calming effect. Others participate equally well but with a more competitive edge, enthusiastic attitude and an energising impact. But neither of these groups constitutes leaders in the optimal sense, as each is missing one of the four powers required to generate distributive leadership. The cooperative people are not interested in putting themselves forward, while the competitive type finds it hard to accommodate the group's needs.

High levels of the two autonomies in balance are what transform warm and talented people into leaders. When associative autonomy combines with assertive autonomy, it creates distributive leadership - a much wider power base than that achieved by the charismatic or hero leader.

An added bonus of this model is that the four powers of participation are our old friends - the four capacities. Contributing is the effective contributor; getting stuck in is the successful learner; putting yourself forward is the confident individual and fitting in is the responsible citizen. Furthermore, it may be worth noting that each of the four powers, like the capacities, is only meaningful when considered in conjunction with its partners.

I would suggest that the practice in many schools of highlighting their discrete individual qualities to help pupils make sense of the capacities may be counterproductive. It might be better to discuss them as a team. If a pupil gets an award, for example, it is important that they realise how they used their four powers of participation together to create their success.

My participation model also has practical applications in the form of four energisers that the formal leaders can use to harness staff and student participation in learning. The energiser of engagement (caring) points to those aspects of school life that help people to fit in and enjoy a sense of belonging. Those elements of teaching that drive people to become determined to put themselves forward come under empowerment (trusting). Everything that encourages people to be disciplined and focused to get stuck in is included in the energiser of encouragement (cheering on). Attunement (turn-taking) is the energiser inherent in teaching or management that evokes people's interests and intentions and allows them to contribute positively to school life.

I have found that distributive leadership thrives in a culture that enables participants throughout the organisation to find and achieve their own optimal versions of the four powers of participation. This is the way schools and colleges have a positive impact on staff and student well-being, which in turn - in a virtuous spiral - further develops a healthy and enabling culture.

Alan McLean is author of The Motivated School and former principal educational psychologist, Glasgow.

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