Case Studies in Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is a framework for understanding how the work of leadership is shared within complex organizations. Building on our Performing Arts Program’s interest in generational change with the nonprofit arts sector, the Hewlett Foundation commissioned Open Mind Consulting and Informing Change to develop a set of case studies examining how some nonprofit organizations are incorporating distributed leadership into their organizational structure and practices. Open Mind Consulting then coordinated a day of conversation among some of the subjects of the case studies, which resulted in the videos below, produced by BAYCAT Studios.

This series of case studies is focused on decision making where distributed leadership appears in the ways groups and teams make decisions together. For all organizations, regardless of whether or how leadership is distributed, individuals play different roles in making decisions and therefore, exhibit different amounts of leadership.

The authors of the case studies define distributed leadership along a spectrum, with a sole individual making all decisions—high-stakes or not—at the least distributed end, using information that is exclusive to them (i.e., leadership is singular). This person, in turn, bears complete responsibility for those decisions.

At the most distributed end, many people at an organization have a voice in making decisions, including those that are high stakes. Just as these people have access to information that enables them to effectively contribute to these decisions, they also share responsibility for their decisions’ ripple effects. Knitting a fully distributed organization together requires a culture of transparency and ongoing feedback, in which information-sharing and mutual trust enable individuals to truly share responsibility for their decisions.

This framework for examining distributed leadership emerged from in-depth conversations with staff at seven organizations, each located at different places on the distributed leadership spectrum. Some are just beginning to open up decision-making processes to more staff, while others are building on long-held, founding principles of distributing responsibility and leadership. Whether they are experimenting with these processes or have completely codified them, the organizations we studied pursue distributed leadership to some degree because of the promise it holds: distributing leadership has the potential to create a more meaningful, productive organizational culture based on trusting relationships among staff. Not only that, organizations that distribute leadership do so to make smarter, more informed decisions that benefit them and their communities.

The Hewlett Foundation is grateful to the staff of the seven organizations who participated in these case studies: Cal Shakes, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Destiny Arts Center, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, On the Move, Terrain, and Thousand Currents, and to Dr. Sonia Bassheva Mañon, who facilitated the day of conversation.

Getting Started with Distributed Leadership

The processes for distributing leadership provide opportunities for leaders at every level of an organization to decide how to use and allocate organizational resources—for example, time, money, and talent. Each organization distributes leadership in its own unique ways, influenced by different organizational histories, the processes they choose for distributing leadership, and the opportunities and challenges unique to their contexts.

Building Blocks

What do organizations interested in distributed leadership need to think about before they get started?

Deeper Learning in Practice

Distributing leadership in an organization brings more people to the table to contribute to and make decisions. The more an organization distributes leadership, the more ideas can inform the ways it allocates resources, experiments with programs, and determines its strategic direction. Bringing more people and possibilities into decisions can lead an organization in unknown and therefore riskier directions, more often for the better, but sometimes for the worse. The collective responsibility that individuals feel when an organization distributes decision-making processes and power motivates them to do their part to ensure the best possible outcome. Further, should a decision go awry, more people—rather than a sole decision maker—absorb the fallout from subsequent ripple effects.

Many organizations turn to distributed leadership because of a belief that staff in all parts of the organization have the potential to lead in some way, to some degree. Ideally, when staff across an organization feel empowered as leaders in their own right, they become, by extension, more collaborative, trusting, and committed to the work. Rather than eliminating positional authority, the seven organizations in the case studies distribute leadership to varying degrees and through different processes, requiring them to examine and sometimes reconfigure how they allocate positional authority.

Decision Making

How do those with positional authority in an organization make room for others to get involved in decision making?

Alignment and Disagreement

How do you build alignment and deal with disagreements?

Building a Culture of Distributed Leadership

Organizations need tools and practices that enable people and teams at different levels of authority to work together and make decisions without sacrificing efficiency. These tools and practices ideally provide opportunities for people to challenge one another’s ideas, and engender the requisite honest communication, transparency, and trust to make these conversations productive. Taken together, tools, practices, and deeper levels of trust help build the participatory organizational culture that enables distributed leadership to thrive.

The processes for distributing leadership provide opportunities for leaders at every level of an organization to decide how to use and allocate organizational resources—for example, time, money, and talent. Each organization distributes leadership in its own unique ways, influenced by organizational histories, the processes they choose for distributing leadership, and the opportunities and challenges unique to their contexts. Different factors compel these organizations to adapt and grow their distributed leadership processes in response to internal shifts, such as a new cadre of leaders joining the organization, as well as external shifts, such as changes in market demands.

Building a Collaborative Culture

What practices foster a collaborative culture?

Learning and Adapting

How do you incorporate learning to find the form of distributed leadership that works best for your organization?

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