Leadership in the spotlight

Since the start of this pandemic, leadership has been in the spotlight and this spotlight has largely been trained on the higher echelons of society. So we have heard a lot about the relative merits of leaders in government, science, medicine, business and journalism. At the same time though, there is a lot of talk about ‘being in this together’ and the value of community. All true, but omitted from the rhetoric is reference to the colossal evidence of distributed leadership in action, and how, in fact, this Covid year has actually served as the world’s biggest unplanned experiment in how distributed leadership works.

This short piece is about the thousands of people in extraordinary circumstances, who have worked things out and led others to deliver core services and products in our communities and organisations.

Distributed leadership

According to theory, distributed leadership is leadership that is dispersed among people at multiple levels. It is not based on top-down individual leadership approaches, though the closely related concept of ‘shared leadership’ allows that hierarchical leaders (managers and ‘heads’) can facilitate the distribution. Whether within a hierarchy or emerging despite it, the achievements of the people who have done extraordinary things in this last year is astounding.

The design, development, operation and leadership of new processes, new systems, new modes of delivering value have been orchestrated within the rank and file by those able and willing to step up to make sure the show goes on. From my observations in my own small world of professor, parent, pal, I have seen truly remarkable things.

I have seen enormous, complex exam boards in the university, that involve score of courses and assessors and a thousand students in three continents, all led by professional services staff from their kitchens and living rooms who worked out how it could be done remotely, told the rest of us how it was going to work, and then did it.

Examples

As a parent, I have been completely awestruck by school teachers who first developed methodologies and then systematically calculated grades for national examinations that could not be sat by my teenagers. Then, with virtually no notice, they learned to deliver online teaching in less than a week despite no previous experience, or in many cases, any training in that mode. And off they went, redesigning their methods, leading their classes and delivering curricula, while their own children are parked by the TV or are receiving similar service from someone else in a kind of virtual teaching cascade.

Beyond organisational life, I have also seen everyday people inspire and organise communities to shop for and to check on the most vulnerable who are shielding, people who took on that vital function because it needed to be done. We are all able to cite example after example from our working and domestic worlds, examples that testify to the massive wave of stepping up the current circumstances have prompted.

The Makkar

In Scotland, there is a word, ‘makkar’, that literally means ‘maker’, someone who makes, whether that be poetry, tools, laws or materials. The top brass usually don’t actually know how most everyday organisational functions work. As such, while those in senior ‘leadership’ roles seem to be continually saying how valued we all are – and that is important, so thanks – in fact, it is not the strategy or actions of senior ‘leadership’ that is keeping life moving at the moment (indeed, we will be writing for decades about how well that’s gone).

Instead, the vast array of operational changes have largely not been led from top-down, they have been distributed, emerging from those who have stepped up and made it work. In all the distributed leadership that has emerged, we have seen a new breed of makkar, of people who see what needs to be done, roll up their sleeves, do it, and show everyone else what is possible. And how has it happened? It has happened because others trusted them to get on with it.

Covid has mandated a trust in the makkars from employers, bosses, managers, community leaders, a trust that has rarely been bestowed in the past. But the distributed leadership observed, the outcomes, the fact that while it’s a stretch to say ‘business as usual’, we can certainly testify that prevalence largely has been made possible by people who stepped up and led the way for all those processes and operations that need to be in place so that services can be delivered.

Distributed leadership in action

That is distributed leadership in action. In our organisations and communities, we would be foolish to ignore it and hope that our traditional hierarchies return to normal when Covid eventually takes its leave. Never before has the distinction between management, headship and leadership been so stark.

The people who have given their time and effort to develop critical social supports, and create and maintain the core services of their organisations from wherever they happen to be in the hierarchy, are exhibiting real leadership at the moment. We should be doing everything in our power to find ways of recognising and celebrating this, and rewarding all those leaders who are not officially managers or ‘heads’.  And if we are wise, we should explore how we capture and motivate this distributed leadership to make better, agile organisations and resilient and responsive communities in the future.

By Professor Laura Galloway, Edinburgh Business School

Edinburgh Business School

Edinburgh Business School was founded in 1995 as the graduate business school of Heriot Watt University. In 2019 it merged with Heriot Watt’s School of Social Science to become Scotland’s largest business school.

The business school launched and continues to offer one of the most popular MBA programs in the world, with 9,171 current students and 20,281 alumni across the globe.

Since Heriot-Watt opened its doors in 1821 and Edinburgh Business School joined its ranks 174 years later, the university’s ethos is to offer continuous development; to upskill in order to take advantage of tomorrow’s industries and tomorrow’s markets.