Distributed leadership model gives 'illusion' of consultation

Fashionable approach is long on rhetoric but short on interaction, says study. John Gill reports

May 22, 2008

Universities are promoting the concept of "distributed leadership" as a cloak to hide an increasing lack of consultation with staff, research suggests.

Findings presented at the Institute of Education describe a "shadow side" to the fashionable leadership model, warning that in some cases it may be little more than a way of disguising the abolition of collegiality and consensus decision-making.

The study by Georgy Petrov, associate research fellow at the University of Exeter's Centre for Leadership Studies, was based on interviews with 152 managers at 12 UK universities, including 12 vice-chancellors, 12 human resource directors, 28 deans and 41 heads of school.

"Distributed leadership" lacks a clear definition. It is a model based on the idea that leadership of an organisation should not rest with a single individual, but should be shared or "distributed" among those with the relevant skills.

However, in a recent seminar Dr Petrov said that it was "most powerful as a rhetorical device".

He said: "Distributed leadership may be used by those in positions of real power to disguise power differentials, offering the illusion of consultation and participation while obscuring the mechanisms by which decisions are reached and resources distributed.

"Such a 'shadow side' to distributed leadership is particularly concerning when considered in the current environment where most UK universities are rationalising, if not eliminating, their main formalised mechanism for bottom-up influence and decision-making - that is, the committee structure."

Problems that Dr Petrov identified included a "silo mentality" within schools with devolved budgets and dissipated committee structures, where a "washing-machine" approach left decisions going round and round but unresolved.

He also cited interviews with managers at a post-92 university, including the vice-chancellor, a pro vice-chancellor and a head of school.

The vice-chancellor, he said, had a preference for a devolved model but recognised that it might be perceived as lack of direction by people lower down the organisation. The pro vice-chancellor said decision-making structures were largely influenced by the legacy of a previous vice-chancellor, while the head of school painted a picture of a major division between leadership in the school and the wider university, with the dean acting as a gatekeeper or shield.

Dr Petrov said: "What remains clear is that distributed leadership is not a successor to individual leadership in higher education, removing the need for formal leaders and structures, but rather something that might reside alongside individual leadership," he said.

"At best it is a rhetorical term to legitimise drawing upon the capabilities and motivations of a far wider range of constituents and better aligning leadership with the collective interests of organisational members. Whether or not this happens, it would seem, remains largely a political contest."



The University of Southampton has renamed its managers "process owners".

As part of a restructuring of professional services, the university told staff that in future there would be "a single process owner (for example director of finance, director of HR etc)" and a "clear line of accountability through the organisation from process owner to end user".

On a section of the university's website dedicated to the restructuring, one member of staff asked: "What does 'process owner' mean? If you mean manager, say 'manager'."

The university replied: "'Manager' is an inadequate substitute for 'process owner'. For example, the director of HR owns HR processes but does not line-manage all the staff who use the processes he owns. Different stages of a process will involve different managers and staff."

The term is not new. It was defined in a 2003 guide to "Six Sigma", a management technique developed by Motorola, as "the individual(s) responsible for process design and performance".

A Southampton academic said: "This appears to be an attempt by the senior deputy vice-chancellor to make everybody else's job title as silly as his. It highlights the barking mad managerialism that is rife in this university."


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