Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Creativity, edu:Leadership and Creativity

One of the first ways that we can begin to develop a culture of creativity, collaboration, and problem solving is to embrace the idea of vulnerability. Leaders must acknowledge that they don’t know everything and be willing to work together with the members of their community to identify and solve problems. Vulnerability allows folks to come together to solve a problem, rather than looking at the leaders to provide all the answers. This collaborative approach is very different from the top down leadership that may be typical in higher education these days, but there are models of leadership that can take advantage of the multiple areas of expertise within the higher education institution.

For example, the distributed leadership model is well suited for the context of higher education, because it promotes bringing together those with highly specialized knowledge and skills and allowing them to develop effective collaborations.[1] Distributed leadership is a type of shared leadership, relying on mutual influence and shared responsibility within a team.[2] Sandra Jones, Professor of Management at the RMIT University, argues that in order to build leadership that promotes innovation, we need an approach to leadership that encourages participation and collaboration and recognizes the individual strengths of the individuals within our organizations.[3]

An important component of distributed leadership is the acknowledgement that the context of the partnership will necessarily influence the interactions of the groups.[4] Bringing together experts from different areas of the university or college to work on a project will shift some boundaries, opening up new conversations and exposing one another to new ideas. The three elements essential to distributed leadership are

  • mutual action, in which a group brings together the initiatives and expertise of each individual, 
  • movable boundaries, supporting a variety of leaders from different areas in working together, and 
  • spread of expertise, inviting each team member to bring his or her own strengths to the interaction.[5]

Sounds like a model that fits well within an institution made up of experts, right? So, what might that look like?

This leadership model has two distinct characteristics. These are appreciating that leading involves multiple individuals in leadership roles and recognizing the important part that individuals in informal roles play in contributing to the overall leadership of the group.[6] In a 2014 article, Jones and colleagues share a matrix for distributed leadership that looks at the elements required to move an organization toward using the model. I think this matrix is helpful in thinking about how the model might be used in an institution of higher education.

The elements that Jones et al. discuss involve context, culture, change, relationships, and activities. They say that five steps need to be taken in order to create a culture of distributed leadership. First, In order to encourage involvement, the authors suggest moving the context of the organization from regulation to trust, the culture to one that values expertise that is linked to the university’s vision and mission, policy that it is influenced by practice at all levels, opportunities for folks within the organization to opt in to leadership and expert roles, and the establishment of what they call an action research cycle in which a plan is identified and a timeline is set that establishes roles and responsibilities.[7]

Second, processes need to be created through creating a context where formal leaders support those leaders who are in more informal roles, a culture of respect for expertise must be developed, opportunities have to be provided for practice to influence policy, relationships need to be developed to support collaborative group work and those action research cycles have to have focused on reflection. This is an important step, because informal leaders within the higher education context can wield considerable power among faculty and/or staff. Connecting with and using the strengths and expertise of those leaders is critical to the successful implementation of a distributed leadership model.

Third, shared leadership has to be developed through training on the use and concepts of distributed leadership, decentralized committees need to be established, senior leaders have to be connected to and getting input from all stakeholders, the community needs to learn about the process of distributed leadership, and reflective practice has to become a part of the culture. If an institution has been accustomed to operating in a strict corporate model, this will be the step that allows the distributed leadership model to begin to move from a process that may be used within a small group to becoming a real part of organizational culture.

Fourth, collaboration has to be resourced. It’s one thing to say that it’s important, but if folks in the community don’t see resources being directed to collaborative projects or activities, then they won’t believe that it’s a priority. This can happen through providing time and finances for collaboration, having executive leaders publicly and privately recognize collaborative contributions, developing networks for mentoring to facilitate collaboration, encouraging regular collaborative meetings across the university, and providing time for reflection. Lastly, the university has to support real engagement. That means that both individual and group goals need to identify how people are already collaborating and how they’d like to increase collaboration. People who are providing leadership in collaborative processes need to be recognized and rewarded and to receive support through systems and infrastructure. Jones and colleagues recommend at this point that diagnostic tools be used to demonstrate outcomes and that those engaging in the leadership process be supported by skilled facilitators.[8]

Given the varied areas of expertise in academia, one can imagine how this approach might be especially effective. In fact, shared leadership has been shown to lead to more effective teamwork and greater achievement of goals.[9]

As you think about the use of distributed leadership within higher education, consider these questions. What might challenge a shift to distributed leadership within higher education? What might support this shift? Have you seen this process work well, or get stuck, within an organization?


[1] Jones, S., Lefoe, G., Harvey, M., & Ryland, K. (2012). Distributed leadership: A collaborative

framework for academics, executives, and professionals in higher education, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34, 67-78.

[2] Carson, J.B., Tesluk, P.E., & Marrone, J.A. (2007). Shared leadership in teams: An investigation of antecedent conditions and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 50, 1217-1234. doi:10.2307/20159921

[3] Jones, S., Lefoe, G., Harvey, M., and Ryland, K. (2012). Distributed leadership. Pg. 68.

[4] Gronn, P. (2009). Hybrid leadership. In K.Leithwood, B. Mascall, T. Strauss (Eds). Distributed leadership according to the evidence (pp. 17-40). New York: Routledge.

[5] Woods, P., Bennett, N., Harvey, J. & Wise, C. (2004). Variables and dualities in distributed leadership. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 32, 439-457.

[6] Spillane, J. (2006). Distributed leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[7] Jones, S., Harvey, M., Lefoe, G., & Ryland, K. (2014). Synthesizing theory and practice: Distributed leadership in higher education. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 42, 603-619.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Wang, D., Waldman, D.A., & Zhang, Z. (2014). A meta-analysis of shared leadership and team effectiveness, Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 181-198.

One comment on “Creativity, edu:Leadership and Creativity

  1. Pingback: Part 3: Courage and Creativity as the Future of Higher Ed. | Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

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