The scholarly development and work around distributed leadership burgeoned at the beginning of the twenty-first century and has clustered into two broad areas: (1) a conceptual framework that describes the nature of leadership practice as distributed in organizations; and (2) empirical research to study a range of related constructs labeled as distributed leadership. Scholars who use the conceptual framework of distributed leadership advanced by Spillane, Halverson, and Diamond (2001, 2004) assert that leadership work is distributed in organizations like schools and school districts. This conceptual framework allows a better understanding of the nature of leadership practice that formal and informal leaders (e.g., teachers, leaders, or other personnel) engage in as they respond to a range of dynamic contexts and situations in their schools. For these scholars, the term “distributed leadership” primarily identifies a particular conceptual framework and describes the inherent nature of leadership practice at work in schools. At the same time, there are research scholars in the field of educational leadership and education more broadly who are interested in better understanding distributed leadership inasmuch as a particular approach or model to leadership practice in schools. These research scholars pursue a prescriptive or normative definition of distributed leadership that the principal, head, or formal school leader can adopt and follow toward school improvement.
The conceptual framework of distributed leadership is informed by the theoretical frameworks of activity theory and distributed cognition (Engeström, 2001). It shifts the analytic lens away from the hierarchically singular formal leader to a locus of dynamic practice and the interactions between two or more people in response to a situation or context (see Gronn, 2000, 2002; Spillane et al., 2001, 2004).The distributed leadership framework and perspective has allowed scholars and educational leaders at the school and district level to more concretely think about, envision, and plan for thoughtful formal and informal opportunities for leadership practice in schools. This results in augmented professional learning opportunities for teachers and staff, meaningful formative feedback structures at multiple points throughout the school year, as well as the potential expansion of instructional and programmatic goals in support of student learning.
In academia, the second decade of scholarship exploring distributed leadership suggests how a distributed perspective leads to deeper scholarly work in the area of teacher leadership and other areas of leadership practice. For example, in addition to the scholarship on teacher leadership and formative assessments in schools, the work of school leaders and scholars committed to social justice in their schools and districts can be understood both from a critical perspective and from a distributed leadership perspective as these combined perspectives demonstrate all of the work social justice leaders commit to in their daily practice. Indeed, as some scholars have indicated (Brooks, Jean-Marie, Normore, & Hodgins, 2008), the simplicity of the distributed leadership conceptual framework may facilitate a level of ease in combining it with other frameworks and perspectives focused on a specific approach to leadership.
As scholars continue to use the distributed leadership conceptual framework to examine the patterns of leadership practices occurring in schools, in time, the distributed leadership framework may become part of the analytic lens that practitioners and scholars use to read and make sense of an organization and their own work therein. The question will not be whether or not a particular school leader is using distributed leadership, but rather how does the leadership practices distributed in a school or district illustrate or illuminate what and for whom their formal and informal work is in support of and mobilizing toward.