University of Jyväskylä

Dissertation: 15.12.2016 Distributed leadership to be implemented with caution in schools (Tian)

Start date: Dec 15, 2016 12:00 PM

End date: Dec 15, 2016 03:00 PM

Location: Seminaarinmäki, RUU D104 (Helena)

Meng TianMA (KM) Meng Tian defends her doctoral dissertation in Education "Distributed Leadership in Finnish and Shanghai Schools”. Opponent Professor Philip Woods (University of Hertfordshire, Great Britain) and custos University Researcher Kaija Collin (University of Jyväskylä). The doctoral dissertation is held in English. 

As school leadership work gets more complex and versatile, it is impossible for individual leaders to possess all the expertise that would resolve all types of leadership challenges. Many theorists today claim that the age of heroic leadership has ended and the era of distributed leadership begun instead. According to distributed leadership theory, leadership does not solely belong to individual leaders who demonstrate exceptional competence or charisma, but it is created through the interactions amongst school members.

Meng Tian’s doctoral research aimed at theorising distributed leadership and investigating its practices in Finnish and Shanghai schools. The Finnish schools tended to build less hierarchical structures in which leadership roles were often rotated among the teachers. The Shanghai schools, on the other hand, seemed to establish more hierarchical structures in which leadership was often awarded to the teachers who accumulated more professional merits over the years. The Finnish teachers reported that they exercised their agency in a relatively equal relationship with their peers as the Shanghai teachers exercised their agency in a relatively competitive environment.

According to the data, distributing leadership responsibilities to more school members seemed to transform them into new leadership resources for the school. In return, when the school members received leadership opportunities, their agency was activated to make an impact on the school leadership process.

It was found out in the research that distributed leadership is not a panacea that resolves all types of school leadership problems. Furthermore, distributed leadership should be implemented with caution. The findings showed that under the banner of distributed leadership, micro politics and power conflicts seemed to be more camouflaged. Even though the Finnish and Shanghai educational authorities endorsed distributed leadership in educational policies and expected it to enhance school democracy, the research showed that distributed leadership could be deliberately misused to increase teachers’ workload or to serve certain interest groups.

Tian’s research proposes the resource–agency duality model as a theoretical and analytical framework for future distributed leadership research. Besides, it provides recommendations to school practitioners, policy makers, and educational administrators.

More information:

Meng Tian,, +358 40 805 3653
Viestintäharjoittelija Katja Ketola,, 040 805 3638

Meng Tian obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Educational Administration from the East China Normal University in 2007 and her Master’s degree in Education from the University of Jyväskylä in 2011. From 2010 to 2011, Tian worked as the Organizing Committee President for the project funded by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Later, she worked as the Training Secretary for the International Master’s Degree Program in Educational Leadership at JYU from 2011 to 2012.  When conducting her doctoral studies, Meng Tian received four-year doctoral student grant from the Faculty of Education, JYU. After accomplishing her Ph.D. degree in Education, she will work as the post-doc at the Institute for Management and Economics of Education, University of Teacher Education Zug, Switzerland.



The present research employed mixed-methods approach to further theorise distributed leadership and to investigate its manifestations in Finnish and Shanghai schools. The whole research comprised two phases. The first phase contained a meta-analysis (Sub-study I), which systematically reviewed 85 key distributed leadership articles published between 2002 and 2013. The meta-analysis identified two main research paradigms: the descriptive-analytical paradigm and the prescriptive-normative paradigm. It also yielded a resource–agency duality model of distributed leadership. In this model, distributed leadership is seen as a process with both organisational and individual perspectives. From the organisational perspective, leadership as a resource is distributed in different tiers of the school hierarchy to serve organisational goals. From the individual perspective, leadership as an agency is distributed in various actions and interactions of the school members to obtain individual goals. Leadership, both as a resource and as an agency, operates within certain socio-cultural context. In addition, multidirectional power relations are created by school members’ exercises of agency.

The resource­–agency duality model of distributed leadership was subsequently used as a theoretical and analytical framework in the second phase of the research. Sub-studies II (N = 327) and III (N = 203) reported the quantitative survey results, mapping the resource and agency distributions from the Shanghai and Finnish teachers’ viewpoints, respectively. The results showed that the power distance in school was structure-dependant. Both Shanghai and Finnish teachers regarded themselves an untapped leadership resource. The teachers’ agency was predominantly confined to leading students’ learning, but weakly presented in leading school administration and strategic development. Receiving principals’ support, trust, and sufficient time greatly enhanced the teachers’ willingness to lead. By contrast, offering leadership titles or extra salaries were the least effective motivators for promoting distributed leadership.

Sub-study IV employed the phenomenography method to analyse 55 interviews conducted in the three Finnish and five Shanghai schools. The analysis revealed three types of administrative structures, inside of which altogether nine structure-specific distributed leadership conceptions were synthesised. In four Shanghai schools, a four-tier vertical structure had been built to distribute leadership through positions, empowerment, competition, and collaboration. As a special case, one Shanghai school had built a two-tier vertical structure in which leadership was distributed through expertise and mentoring. In the three Finnish schools, leadership was distributed in a two-tier horizontal structure through equity, professional autonomy, and trust. In all the three types of structures, power was pervasive in distributed leadership, and it took the forms of both legitimate and discursive power.

The present research has both theoretical and practical implications. Theoretically, it proposes the resource–agency duality model as a theoretical and analytical framework for future distributed leadership research. Practically, the research provides recommendations to school practitioners, policy makers, and educational administrators. The evidence suggests that distributed leadership should be enacted with caution. Especially, close attention should be paid to examine the complex power relations created during the distributed leadership process. Also, building a coherent and supportive operational environment is crucial for distributed leadership.

Keywords: distributed leadership, resource–agency duality model, Finnish schools, Shanghai schools

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