What is ‘leadership’ in the 21st century, and for 21st century education?

We live within a mix of localized and de-localized contexts, mediated by Internet communications technologies (ICTs) (Floridi, 2013, 2014). One click brings the distant near, or vice versa. Connection is constant and episodic. Existence is collective and individual, as we increasingly collaborate across personal, learning, and working contexts, while simultaneously asserting (hyper-)autonomy[1]. Historic social hierarchies are falling, and traditional models of positional leadership misalign to the realisms of onlife[2] (Floridi, 2013, 2014). What type of leadership is needed for networked (global) society, institutions, educators, and learners, in the 21st century? In this paper, I consider and contrast distributed leadership (DL) and transformational leadership (TL) as models for contemporary education, concluding DL offers “best fit” for distributed learning ecosystems in the 21st century and trends towards personalized and lifelong learning (Roll & Wylie, 2016).

21st Century Context

Education today reaches far beyond institutional boundaries. Face-to-face (f2f) classrooms in Canada may Skype with classroom in India, or uplink to the International Space Station for guest speakers (Microsoft, 2019a, 2019b; NASA, 2019). Higher education students and/or faculty may engage in inter- and intra-institution collaboration for research that challenges disciplinary silos, or for pedagogical innovations such as hybrid MOOCs[3] (Anders, 2015). Medical education may include participation in a Twitter-based Community of Practice (CoP) alongside physicians (Canadian Medical Association, 2011; Wenger, 2000). These scenarios portray fluid leadership (and followership) among individuals in localized and de-localized (i.e. collective) contexts, emerging from action/interaction as the parts of networked collectives move between coalescence and independence (Almarshad, 2017; Dron & Anderson, 2007, 2012, 2014; Floridi, 2013, 2014; Ingold, 2003; Lumby, 2013; Turner, 1985). This dynamic is particularly evident in distance education (DE), where separation of learner-teacher, and, in some cases, among faculty/researchers, administration, and institutional leadership, is a defining characteristic (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). Athabasca University (AU) (www.athabascau.ca) is one example of a distributed networked institution (Athabasca University, 2019). Contact North (https://contactnorth.ca/) serving schools across northern Ontario, and Connected North (www.connectednorth.org) serving Indigenous communities across Canada, are K-12 DE initiatives encompassing multiple institutions (Connected North, n.d.; Contact North, n.d.). Both context examples encompass localized and de-localized structure[4]; However, AU’s central leadership embeds a more traditional hierarchy, compared to the more a-positional consultative nature of Contact North’s and Connected North’s leadership (Athabasca University, 2019; Connected North, n.d.; Contact North, n.d.).

Distributed Leadership’s Potential for Education and Society

Pont (2014) and Roll and Wylie (2016) identify communication, collaboration, metacognition, self-direction, evaluation, and process skills as critical for 21st century learning, work, and life. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). and connectivism (Siemens, 2005) embed similar skills and meta-skills. These reflect development targets that 21st century leaders must address among their followers, as well as for themselves and their leadership practice.

Quoting Spillane, Lumby (2013, p. 582) describes that DL emerged to help explain interrelationships among social environments, physical environments, and leadership actions, across dimensions of leadership practice. DL has since evolved into a common implementation framework for leadership practice (Lumby, 2013). Harris and Spillane (2008, p. 31) describe that DL encompasses multiple leaders with shared leadership intra- and inter-organizational activities, and focuses on interaction and how leadership influences organizational and instructional improvement and systems change. In the 21st century, onlife and distributed networks are essential aspects of interaction, learning environments, organizations, and systems.

DL draws on distributed cognition theory, as does connectivism (Almarshad, 2017; Hollan, Hutchins, & Kirsch, 2000; Lumby, 2013; Siemens, 2005). Distributed cognition describes learning environments as self-organizing distributed digital networks of human and non-human actors (Buckreus, 2015; Hutchins, 2000). Connectivim attempts to explain phenomena unique to learning, working, and living within the networked information age (Buckreus, 2015; Siemens, 2005). DL’s distributed nature makes it a promising fit, but most current applications of DL fall short by reproducing aspects of positional/hierarchical leadership[5] situated within a contiguous context. For instance, a principal may assign certain leadership responsibilities to members of her staff, but their empowerment remains contingent on the principal’s singular authority within that school’s context (Almarshad, 2017; Lumby, 2013). To fully leverage its unique potential for contemporary education (and society), DL must be actualized in ways consistent with what Siemens (2005) and Hollan, Hutchins and Kirsch (2000) envision. In other words, DL must become truly distributed.

Why Transformational Leadership Fails; Why Distributed Leadership Succeeds

TL is a positional model common in education (Almarshad, 2017; Greatbatch & Tate, 2018; Lumby, 2013). Inspiration, motivation, vision, direction, accountability, etc., extend from an individual leader, often contingent on the leader’s unique personal traits, such as charisma (Almarshad, 2017; Spillane, 2005). Though TL may be appropriate for certain contexts where positional leadership is critical, such as in the military[6], Lumby (2013) points to examples in the United States where “heroic” principals have utilized TL to turnaround failing urban schools, which later return to their failing state if/when that principal departs.

Contrasting this brittleness of TL, DL’s distributed and networked structure embodies flexibility, with vision, etc., situated in context (e.g. an individual school or classroom) rather than with an individual leader. This non-contingent structure fosters continuity, even if/when leadership changes. CoP models embed similar constitutive processes, whereby existing leadership makes way as new leaders emerge via movement from group periphery to core as their expertise develops iteratively through engagement with the CoP (Wenger, 2000).

Evaluation of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) 2018 and 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) of K-12 schools identified combined DL and instructional leadership (IL) as a prevalent approach effecting positive outcomes for student learning (Greatbatch & Tate, 2018; Pont, 2014; Schleicher, 2015). A typical scenario is a school principal relinquishing areas of responsibility to school faculty and staff, usually premised on their expertise, and the principal investing more time supporting improvements in teachers’ pedagogical practice (Greatbatch & Tate, 2018; Pont, 2014; Schleicher, 2015). This scenario embeds an imperative for lifelong learning for educators, illustrating the leader’s role as visionary, inspirer, facilitator, and role model for followers. This may include opportunities for followers to take on leadership roles, a prescription consistent with DL (Greatbatch & Tate, 2018; Harris & Jones, 2018; Pont, 2014; Schleicher, 2015).

In contrast, Almarshad’s (2017) meta-analysis reported no significant relationship between leadership type and learner outcomes. Lumby (2013) describes similarly weak correlations. Where positive outcomes were observed, however, they comprised direct impacts stemming from DL (e.g. teacher’s empowerment in pedagogical practice), vs. indirect impacts stemming from TL (e.g. inspiration filtered from principal to teacher to student) (Almarshad, 2017; Greatbatch & Tate, 2018; Lumby, 2013).

Considering DE, and general trends towards personalized learning (both formal and informal, and including learners, teachers, and education leaders), the impact of TL’s brittleness is conspicuous: A transformational leader’s affect may wane when separation mediates relationships and contexts, even given immediacy afforded by advances in video and virtual reality (VR) technologies (Garrision, et al., 2010; Rizzotto, 2017; Simonson, et al., 2012). Additionally, followers may draw inspiration, etc., from factors situated within their local contexts, undermining the distant leader’s misaligned singular vision; For instance, Simonson et al. (2012) describe that, consistent with post-Fordism, DE enables individuals to access distributed knowledge, then translate and apply that knowledge to address local problems and priorities.

Leadership for the 21st Century

In contemporary pedagogical models, such as Laurillard’s (2012) Conversational Framework, learners take on new roles vis-à-vis teachers and peers, moving fluidly between leader and follower roles. A learner may, for instance, lead a seminar, participate in a discussion forum facilitated by a peer, or work collaboratively on a group project, within a teacher-constructed learning environment designed to facilitate this interaction and experiential leadership/followership (Garrison, et al., 2010; Laurillard, 2012). As learners take on more responsibility for their own learning in general, learner-teacher dyads becomes less hierarchical and more collaborative. For my Master’s research project, for instance, I led negotiation of a learning contract, with my co-supervisors[7] providing research and pedagogical expertise to guide me in defining a topic (premised on my own research interests, vision, and inspiration), project framework, assessments, and learning outcomes that would satisfy program requirements[8]. This example demonstrates aspects of DL matching those needed to facilitate and sustain self-directed learning. A positional approach, such as TL, would have constructed a very different learning experience for me.

Twenty-first century learners must be independent, self-directed, and collaborative; characteristics long associated with distance learning, afforded through learner-teacher and learner-learner separation and, more recently, use of ICTs as pedagogical tools (Simonson, et al., 2012). These benefits are now being realized in traditional f2f classrooms through blended learning (Buckreus & Ally, 2019). Notably, the skills and characteristics essential to DL are also those needed for 21st century education and society. In other words, DL and 21st century meta-skills may be mutually-constituting. In contrast, TL’s positional nature may both limit meta-skills development and fail to articulate them in practice.

Leadership (and followership) for the 21st century comprises multiple leadership/followership vectors (Harris & Spillane, 2008; Spillane, 2005); The open learning movement provides a picture of this. In 2003[9] the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) implemented its OpenCourseWear (https://ocw.mit.edu) initiative, making materials from 500 of its courses freely accessible online (Mireles, n.d.; MIT OpenCourseWear, 2019; Weller & Anderson, 2013). MIT provided vision, inspiration, direction, and role-modelling for what education might become as the 21st century progresses, for institutions, educators, and learners. MIT also provided tools for empowering independent learning; for empowering educators in transforming their pedagogical practice; and for aiding other institutions in transforming towards digital resiliency[10] (Weller & Anderson, 2013).

MOOCs offer similar potential, especially for institutional digital resiliency (Weller & Anderson, 2013; Buckreus & Ally, 2019). Harvard University and MIT, for instance, partnered to launch the MOOC platform edX in 2012 (Harvardx, 2019). Some MOOCs, such as the MITx MicroMasters credential in supply chain management, offer learners subsequent entry into formal degree programs[11] (MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, n.d.).

Observable in these examples are new models of education encompassing leadership distributed across overlapping but disparate entities/contexts, with no observable collective hierarchy. Twenty-first century education is perhaps evolving from DL’s positional legacy, towards the truly distributed nature envisioned in Mozilla’s open leadership manifesto (Mozilla, n.d.).


In the 21st century, leadership is expressed in and needed for fostering meta-skills appropriate for distributed networks across learning, work, and personal environments. Leadership is emergent and fluid, situated within a mix of localized and de-localized contexts, within individuals and collectives. Followership becomes a vector through which to express and negotiate leadership, and vice versa. TL’s positional nature makes it a poor fit for these realities. DL, which offers a better fit, maintains its positional legacy and contiguous structure in many current applications. To fully leverage its unique potential for contemporary education (and society), DL must be actualized in ways consistent with distributed cognition and connectivism. In other words, DL must become truly distributed.



[1] Anthropologist David H. Turner (1985) describes a part-of-one-in-the-other principle residing within the traditional federated totemic social system of Australian Aborigines. Ecologist Tim Ingold (2003) describes Indigenous cosmology comprising a spherical “life-world” model of the environment, with the individual positioned at the centre.

[2] Today, very few humans live entirely offline, and more and more of our lives are lived online and/or intersect with online mediators (Floridi, 2013, 2014).

[3] Massive Open Online Course

[4] In terms of individual faculty members’ teaching practice, continuing professional development, research activity, and supplemental institutional appointments.

[5] Lumby (2013) and Møller (2017) describe aspects of bias – gender discrimination, racism, political, etc.) – that misapplied DL foments.

[6] Referencing Ciulla (2003), MacNeill, Silcox and Boyd (2018) point to WWI and WWII leadership and followership to illustrate the differences between two positional models: transactional leadership and TL. An authoritative hierarchy-and-obedience model was typical in WWI contexts, but gave way to followership in WWII motivated and inspired through heroism and altruism expressed in leaders’ vision and role-modelling (two themes that continue to permeate post-WWII popular media) (MacNeill, Silcox and Boyd, 2018).

[7] Dr. Jon Dron and Dr. Terry Anderson, Athabasca University.

[8] Athabasca University’s Master of Arts – Integrated Studies degree, completed via DE.

[9] A proof of concept pilot was implemented in 2002, sharing materials from 50 MIT courses (MIT OpenCourseWear, 2019).

[10] This includes accessing new student markets (Weller & Anderson, 2013).

[11] The MITx MicroMasters may leads to entry MIT’s Supply Chain Management Blended (SCMb) program, which offers two degrees: 1.) Master of Applied Science in Supply Chain Management (MASc-SCM), and 2.) Master of Engineering in Supply Chain Management (MEng-SCM) that positions learners to pursue a subsequent PhD (MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, n.d.).



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