The Nature of Distributed Leadership and its Development in Online Environments

The Nature of Distributed Leadership and its Development in Online Environments

Kate Thornton (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
Copyright: © 2010 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-958-8.ch001

Abstract

Distributed leadership is a practice that spreads leadership over a number of people who work cooperatively and interdependently to achieve the purpose of their group. Unlike heroic models of leadership, which rely on the capabilities of one person, distributed leadership encourages all members to contribute their knowledge and expertise. Online environments such as communities of practice, action learning groups and virtual teams are ideally suited to fostering the development of distributed leadership because they allow all group members ready access to information and also allow for the sharing of information between group members. This chapter will consider how distributed leadership can be encouraged in online environments by both positional and emergent leaders and by the use of appropriate technologies.
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Background

Traditional Leadership Models

Traditional models of leadership have focused on the role of individuals in positions of power and the ways in which these leaders influence their followers. Such models of leadership are often referred to as ‘great man’ theories or heroic leadership models. Two of the more common models of leadership are those of transformational and transactional leadership. Transformational leaders are seen to influence, motivate and inspire others (Proctor-Thomson & Parry, 2001). They are role models for the people they work with and have visions that they are able to clearly articulate. Transactional leaders work on the premise that they are able to reward followers and that their followers to desire those rewards (Day & Harris, 2002). This leadership involves the manipulation of people and situations and is not seen to encourage leadership in others. These two models both posit leadership as an individual phenomenon with leaders in the front and followers behind, though transformative leadership involves greater collaboration and “deep transformation or emancipation of those led” (Lambert, 2003, p.8).

These individualistic models have been challenged in recent times. Robinson (2004) has suggested that “the heroic model of leadership is a romantic and debilitating fiction” (p. 42), because it sets unreasonable expectations of formal leaders and ignores the leadership of others. Both transformational and transactional models have been criticised by Fink (2005), who believes that they “have serious and conceptual flaws” and are “artificial and disconnected from reality” (p. 5). Day (2003) agrees, suggesting that these theories “do not adequately reflect or explain the current practice of effective leaders” (p. 188). Among the flaws present in the heroic model of leadership are that too much responsibility for the wellbeing of an organisation rests with one person and if they move on, a leadership vacuum is created (Robinson, 2004). Another disadvantage of the heroic model is that the leadership of others is hidden and may be discouraged. More recent literature and thinking has moved “‘beyond’ transformational leadership” (Day, 2003, p. 188). This involves a shift from a concept of leadership as something carried out by an individual to more collective concepts such as shared or distributed leadership.

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