Distributed leadership reflects leadership in situations where several people take responsibility for an organization and in which leadership changes depending on the circumstances. Spillane (2005) describes three aspects of distributed leadership: it involves multiple leaders, followers are a part of the theoretical construct and it looks at the interactions between individuals as a part of leadership. The third aspect, interactions between individuals that creates a mutual interdependency is a primary characteristic of distributed leadership. Spillane attributes the lack of empirical evidence of instructional improvement and increased student achievement to the lack of a descriptive theory for distributed leadership. Once a descriptive theory has been developed, Spillane states, the links between distributed leadership, instructional improvement and student achievement will be established.
Cambrun, Rowan, and Taylor use a more traditional definition of distributed leadership, rejecting Spillane’s definition in favor of a definition of distributed leadership based on organizational functions and who within the organization performs those functions. For convenience in the study, they focus on positional leaders within the elementary school community. The study found that leadership was provided by a team of individuals and that the implementation of Comprehensive School Reform appeared to be a significant factor in leadership configuration. The size and shape of leadership teams and professional development which included reflection on their practice affected leadership practice. Cambrun et al. caution that the data in their study is self-reported and that a longitudinal study would allow for examination of changes in leadership. They call for a study of distributed leadership that links it with instructional capacity and student achievement.
Wright (2008) found that reflection and action research led principals to recognize the advantages of increasing the size of the group who make decisions in a school. Many principals felt leadership needed to be both top-down and bottom-up depending on the situation.
Despite the lack of data relating distributed leadership to instructional improvement and student achievement, these papers are the only leadership papers that address this fundamental aspect of education. Distributed leadership is more applicable to distance education than to face to face education because it relies heavily on the interactions of groups of people whose role changes depending on the situation. It might be argued that as students advance in ability, the distribution of leadership becomes more pronounced with the role of teacher/leader and student/follower becoming less distinct. A meta-analysis of the research on leadership to discover how closely leadership theory is aligned with instructional competence and student learning would be an interesting endeavour. After all is said and done, it is student learning that is the purpose of these studies and the final arbiter of success.