Thoughts about Distributed Leadership at University

Already some years ago, our university management coined the issue of ‘leadership’ and suggested that each of us, working at our university in the realm of our tasks and formal competencies, could be a  true leader, by taking the lead or taking initiatives without waiting to be asked, adopting responsibility for the results and impacts of what we do, instead of just being satisfied, when we did what we were asked to do, irrespective of if it fulfilled its objectives, and also by being visionary and by looking forward, to anticipate what needs to be done to improve and to formulate ambitious but feasible new objectives. These slogans are, of course, taken from the heart, and represent principles we can easily associate with. Yes, indeed, this is how you expect every professional to operate. This is so obvious, that you cannot be opposed to it.

As a chair of the geography group, we are usually not selected for this job on the basis of our management skills, but rather on the basis of our experience and derived skills in scientific research and teaching and our specific competence in that specific disciplinary field. So developing a conceptual framework for our daily managerial tasks is not our daily business, but acting as a truly academic professional is. From that perspective, it is easy to associate our daily practices with the above-mentioned principles of professional leadership. Yes, this is what we usually do and practice, and also what we would self-evidently expect from our direct colleagues. This is standard academic practice. Certainly, we should also admit that sometimes we perform better and sometimes a bit worse in these respects. It is not always our day… and we — for all kinds of reasons — have our ups and downs.

But being the chair of such a group of great academics certainly makes us aware of what it needs for each group member to perform as ‘a leader’. They should be able to develop themselves further instead of staying put where they are right now. Being agile and ambitious, curious and oriented toward lifelong learning seems to be priority attributes for (young) academics. We should keep on the move…, intellectually, and geographically, always exploring new horizons and following our ambitions to contribute new knowledge for a better future world. Academics grow through different phases, from Bachelor, to Master, to PhD, to Post-Doc, to Assistant Prof., Associate Prof. to Full Professor, etc. etc. This kind of academic career, therefore, is not just a job and also not just for the money or for other rewards, but is about realising individual humanitarian values and about contributing these values as a public service to society.  Being successful in a university career is not about basic job security and bread on the table but is about being part of a movement, of an intellectual debate, of a collaborative team and of a larger academic and societal community. As the chair of the group, you feel happy when all members of the group could at anytime find a job elsewhere. That might sound strange, as every valuable colleague who leaves our group of course also leaves a big void which is never easy to fill again, so why not try to keep them? But on the other hand, it is also one of the best proofs of the high quality of our work to be wanted and needed elsewhere and it is a confirmation that we keep being on the move. I also see myself as a wanderer, and I keep asking ‘what is next’ and ‘where will I be next’, I am always searching for new horizons and always keep hoping to discover new and better worlds. It is therefore also a self-evident task for each of us, to develop a strong, group- and individual profile, to be well geared for the journey. This becomes increasingly important when one moves up the ladder of development of our ‘leadership’. This is therefore also what our leadership as a chair by nature focuses on and attempts to establish for the group: having a sensible distribution of different enhancing competencies within the group, enabling a good team performance in both teaching and research; having a lively, inspiring and stimulating internal and external intellectual debate; positioning each of us in such a way that we can develop our own core competencies and develop our (individual) profile, and also take up (managerial) leadership tasks which suit that profile in that specific stage of development.

One might say that most of this focuses mainly on the enabling input factors of a good academic performance. The other side of the coin is of course that this should also result in a good performance and a good ‘output’, in teaching, research and organisational teamwork. To make sure that we try to keep improving ourselves in these respects, it is self-evidently also needed that we keep assisting and supporting each other and that we also do not shy away from addressing things which are less successful. In a good academic tradition, this should not just come from ‘above’ but should be part of the mutual debates about our daily performance. Also in academia, there is, of course, some kind of hierarchy, but usually not determined by one-sided authoritarian criteria, but rather by different functions and responsibilities. So each of us in our specific realm of responsibility is somehow at the virtual top of a leadership hierarchy. Yes, the chair of the examination board should be able to take well underpinned final decisions on examination and admission issues, and yes, the principal investigator of a research project, should be able to take responsibility for spending the research funding in an appropriate way, and yes, the master-programme coordinator will be responsible for the recruitment of new Ma-students and of developing the Ma-curriculum, and yes, the post-doc should be allowed to develop new research initiatives and take the lead in building consortia and proposal writing, and yes the PhD candidate can also take the initiative to develop their teaching portfolio, and yes the PhD supervisor should take his or her responsibility in supporting the PhD candidates to develop their research project, and yes the chair takes the responsibility to develop and discuss the longs term strategies for personnel decisions, and long term research and teaching programmes, again others are focussing on internationalisation etc. etc. So each of us is somehow a ‘boss’ and leader for our own field of responsibilities, while in total it is a team performance. I do not know, how this would be designated in ‘management-speak’. In other blog entries I have discussed this idea as ‘collegial management’, but one may also denote it in other terms: See my earlier entry on Collegial Leadership

These kinds of routine academic practices can be observed in many places and occasions. In the past decades, universities have suffered from increasing managerialism, in an attempt to transform universities into knowledge factories mainly driven by and organised according to principles of efficiency and fund-raising potential and not by the principles of scientific curiosity or by an endeavour to contribute scientifically to a better society.  See e.g. the Academic Manifesto also mentioned in my vision on research on this blog site:

The newest managerial ideas within our university are inspired by the concept of ‘Distributed Leadership’. Again a leadership model, which in the first instance sounds very sympathetic, but mainly because we have the feeling that we recognise much of our traditional academic practices, and not because we think this is totally different or new in academia. It is always nice that what we daily practice now seems to have gotten a clear name and label. One of the prominent proponents of the concept of distributed leadership is Prof. Alma Harris. For those who are interested in an extended elaboration of the details of this concept, one can have a look at the following YouTube video lecture of 2009 (click on picture to start the video):

When you listen carefully, you will notice that the description of this leadership model positions itself mainly negatively in contrast to certain assumed bad practices which are described as ‘traditional’ and much more ‘hierarchical’. Indeed we know some of these more hierarchical practices from the recent ways universities tried to organise themselves and which were already heavily criticised in the Academic Manifesto of 2015, referred to above. But nowadays we live in 2022 and to a large part, our university, or at least our Department has moved on and has revisited our old liberal academic traditions and progressively attempted to reinstall and practice these in our everyday professional life, sometimes even in resistance against hierarchical demands from above. In that respect, this new call for distributive leadership to a certain degree seems ‘old wine in new bags’. So one might wonder how far, in our department, there currently is an identified problem that this new managerial strategy is supposed to help us solve? Certainly, the way we organise our everyday professional practices needs continuous attention and fine-tuning and can be helped with these ‘not-so-new’ conceptual frameworks, but they certainly do not represent a radical change in our liberal and rather egalitarian academic traditions, even if it is nice that we can now at least give it a name. This qualification might not be valid for all parts of our university, but we are certainly proud of the way we created our own ‘academic place’, our academic agora, within our faculty and university, a placemaking endeavour which is in good hands with geographers.


Bolden, R. (2011) Distributed Leadership in Organizations: A Review of Theory and Research. International Journal of Management Reviews. Vol. 13, pp. 251-269.

Harris, A. (ed.) (2009) Distributed Leadership. Different perspectives. Springer, Amsterdam.

Harris, A. (ed.) (2014) Distributed Leadership Matters: Perspectives, Practicalities and Potential. Sage, London.

Leithwood, K., Mascall, B. & Strauss, T. (eds.) (2009) Distributed Leadership According to the Evidence. Routledge, London.