Leadership Density Or Density Of Leadership?

How jazzy is your school leadership?

Distributed leadership is a form of leadership inclusive of all team members. It refers to a collective and interactive approach to leading where leadership is “stretched over multiple leaders” (Spillane, 2006, p.15).

Within a distributed leadership model staff share equal responsibility and status as it relates to school governance and teaching decisions. This means they also share in the successes and setbacks within the school. Leadership empowerment leads to self-efficacy which in turn leads to resilience capacity.

This level of interdependence requires constant nurturing and involves consistent, empowered interactions between ‘the team’.

Some schools might rely on a single leader to drive improvement and progress but this is lesson common. Schools are complex systems that rely on the expertise and experience of everyone and so the model that many schools adopt is where the individual and collective talents of all its members can be brought to bear in solving problems and seeking more effective and efficient ways of doing things.

One way of understanding the concept of leadership density is to think about it using a musical metaphor: a jazz combo. Smith et al (2004) say

Small jazz combos are able to quickly react to unexpected perturbations in the music and each member plays a critical role in the quality of the music. Furthermore, the process of creating music within a small jazz combo relies upon each member’s ability to improvise and expand upon the contributions of other band members. All of these characteristics of small jazz combos are believed to map very well onto the fluid, dynamic, and always changing landscape of leadership in schools and for this reason the small jazz combo metaphor is believed to provide a useful tool for rethinking the traditional model of school leadership.

They contrast the jazz combo to a classical music metaphor found in traditional models of leadership “where the composer creates the musical score providing the conductor with relevant instructions for performance of the score. The conductor takes the information and oversees the orchestra’s efforts to faithfully replicate the composer’s creation.”

A classical music model means the outcome is predetermined and predictable because it is a faithful replication of the composer’s musical score. The only problem with this metaphor is that the Head (the composer) seldom has his orchestra together.

Smith et al say that small jazz combo is a more appropriate metaphor because it captures how schools actually operate. Teachers are organised into small year groups or departments that are like jazz combos and have to change quickly and improvise.

The notion of every member of staff a leader is not so much distributed leadership but rather density of leadership. Graham Handscomb (2011) says that the latter term is preferred because this is less about senior leaders distributing leadership opportunities but creating a culture where leadership is nurtured the key features being:

  • seeing leadership as a process, not an event
  • establishing a school teacher academy; this was a structure in which the school was organised into a number of development areas with staff at all levels playing a role in leading the organisational areas
  • nurturing and supporting an enquiry and research culture throughout the school (Handscomb and MacBeath, 2003)
  • commitment to collaboration within and beyond the school.

Handscomb says that more is better as long as staff are genuinely involved in making a difference because empowering people with responsibility fosters resilience.

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