Concepts of Community: A Framework for Contextualizing Distributed Leadership


  • Gareth Edwards

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    1. Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, Frenchay Campus, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol BS16 1QY, UK
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This review of the literature on community and distributed leadership marks out the potential for a more context-rich understanding of the nature of leadership. We begin by reviewing the literature on distributed leadership, noting a shift from clichéd ideals to more structured frameworks. We then highlight the need to further contextualize notions of distributed leadership before going on to identify a number of concepts relating to community that are useful for theoretical reflection, research and practice. These concepts are symbolism, a sense of belonging, a sense of community, individualism, values and ethics, language, dialect and discourse, liminality and friendship. We also develop a discussion around postmodern views of community and the importance of recognizing multiple belonging and multiple identities. From the review we develop areas of reflection for theory, research and practice regarding distributed leadership and the concept of community. We highlight practical implications from the review by discussing the importance of taking these ideas into consideration in management and leadership development initiatives and in managerial practice in general.


The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on distributed leadership (Bennett et al. 2003; Brown and Hosking 1986; Currie et al. 2009; Gosling et al. 2009; Gronn 2002, 2008, 2009a,b; Harris 2004, 2009; Hosking 1988, 1997, 2007; Leithwood et al. 2009; Ray et al. 2004; Spillane 2006; Spillane and Diamond 2007; Thorpe et al. 2008; Thurston and Clift 1996) and relate this literature to a similar review of the literature on community (Agamben 1993; Bauman 2001; Blanchot 1988; Cohen 1985; Corlett 1989; Delanty 2003; Nancy 1991; Rheingold 1993; Smith and Kollock 1999; Urban 1996). A recent publication by the Northern Leadership Academy in the UK highlights the potential link between the two bodies of literature by expressing the idea of ‘leaderful communities’ (Thorpe et al. 2008). The paper also builds on the work on distributed leadership as a process (e.g. Brown and Hosking 1986; Hosking 1988, 1997, 2007) where leadership is connected to ‘social movements’ (Brown and Hosking 1986) and leadership processes are local–cultural and local–historical (Hosking 2007). Leadership is therefore understood to be a process distributed in a broad sense across society. If this is the case, then a review of what constitutes community within society would be a useful avenue for further investigation, as it would provide key contributory factors in the process of leadership associated with social movement. Such a review is therefore an important contribution to further understanding and the development of ideas around distributed leadership.

Frameworks of distributed leadership

In this section of the paper we review the literature on distributed leadership and highlight the need for the development of a more context-rich approach. Contemporary notions of leadership and leadership development are rife with glib and clichéd comments regarding the need for leadership capabilities and the development of these capabilities at all levels within organizations (Bolt 1999; Charan et al. 2001; Collins 2005; Conger and Benjamin 1999; Khaleelee and Woolf 1996; Nicholls 1994; Raelin 2004; Tichy 1997). These comments epitomize the now popular idea (Ray et al. 2004) of distributed leadership. Gronn (2009a) describes the idea of distributed leadership as a rallying point for those commentators searching for ‘post heroic’ leadership alternatives. Despite this contemporary comment, a first reference to the term distributed leadership was made in 1954 by Gibb in the Handbook of Social Psychology and further back by Benne and Sheats (1948), who commented on the diffusion of leadership functions (Gronn 2008; Leithwood et al. 2009). Furthermore, the idea of leadership as a process and linked to social movement was discussed over 20 years ago (e.g. Brown and Hosking 1986; Hosking 1988).

The term distributed leadership also appears to have other labels such as dispersed leadership (Ray et al. 2004), institutional leadership (Washington et al. 2008), co-leadership (Heenan and Bennis 2000), shared leadership (Pearce and Conger 2003), multidirectional leadership (Edwards et al. 2002) and rotated leadership (Erez et al. 2002). Although this is indicative of the confusion that surrounds the topic, it could also be described as highlighting differing levels of distributed-ness, e.g. where there is duopoly (co-leadership), wider group involvement (shared leadership) and even an organizational sense of distributed leadership (institutional leadership).

As Leithwood et al. (2009) point out, definitions of distributed leadership are varied, ranging from the normative to the descriptive (Harris 2004) and the literature remains diverse and broad based (Bennett et al. 2003). Indeed, although there is evidence to suggest that the concept of distributed leadership is applicable in some organizations (Harris 2009), the evidence is mixed (Leithwood et al. 2009) and is largely from one contextual domain – the education sector. Leithwood et al. (2009) are rightly unsurprised about this broad range of understanding, especially given the highly contested nature of leadership in general (Grint 2000).

Therefore, the question remains: what sets ‘distributed leadership’ apart from other conceptualizations of leadership? There are a number of categorical or typological approaches to gaining a better understanding of distributed leadership in organizations: these include the descriptive, corrective, empowering and rhetorical (Gosling et al. 2009), Gronn's (2009b) idea of leadership configurations, Leithwood et al.'s (2009) patterns of distributed leadership, and Spillane's (2006) thoughts on distributed leadership by design, default and crisis. In an important contribution to framing distributed leadership, Gronn (2002) suggests that leadership is distributed on the basis of an aggregated pattern (e.g. a pool of leaders) or a holistic pattern (the whole has a unique structural entity that acts back on parts), represented by numerical or concertive action. Numerical action he describes as a focused view of leadership with individuals being given the status or formal role of a leader, which is then aggregated across parts of, or the whole of, an organization to provide an understanding of leadership capacity across organizations and groups. Concertive action includes spontaneous collaboration, intuitive working relationships and institutionalized practices. Since then, he has developed his thoughts to include distributed leadership as a hybrid notion (Gronn 2009a) and in the light of configurations (Gronn 2009b).

Gronn (2009b) suggests that understanding leadership across organizations has overemphasized the aggregated pattern perspective, in giving little allowance to different levels of leadership, especially from a qualitative standpoint. The present paper also suggests that this area of leadership theory, research and practice will be enhanced by researching notions of community alongside, or informed by, distributed leadership theory.

Context and distributed leadership

This paper focuses on the need to understand distributed leadership in a contextually driven way across differing organizations (Currie et al. 2009; Gosling et al. 2009; Gronn 2009b; Spillane and Diamond 2007) and additionally society and community. This section therefore develops some themes around how this context-rich approach might develop. For example, the mainstay of the literature regarding distributed leadership appears to have a heavy emphasis on the education sector (e.g. Currie et al. 2009; Gosling et al. 2009; Harris 2008, 2009; Leithwood et al. 2009; Spillane 2006; Thurston and Clift 1996). The relevance to other forms of organization, especially in the private sector, remains a contested area, demanding discussion and empirical investigation. There is therefore a need to understand how leadership might be distributed across differing forms of organization, based on structure and context.

Gosling et al. (2009) suggest that there is a need to recognize social, political and power relations within organizations when discussing and researching distributed leadership. This implies that there is a need to understand distributed leadership from within organizational context and culture. Indeed, Spillane and Diamond (2007) suggest that distributed leadership is a function or relationship between leaders, followers and their situation, as opposed to an individual or dyadic relationship between just leaders and followers. They go on to suggest that this is heavily influenced by organization structure and setting. Exploration outside the context of the education sector and within differing organizational settings is therefore paramount.

Recently there has been much emphasis on developing contextually informed notions of leadership (Jepson 2009a; Osborn and Marion 2009; Osborn et al. 2002; Porter and McLaughlin 2006). There have also been advances in developing contextually rich methodological approaches to researching leadership from a distributed and contextual perspective, for example the ‘leaderful moment’ (Wood and Ladkin 2008). Furthermore, there are indications of developing an understanding of fluidity that has eluded leadership thought for a number of years (see Hosking 1988, 1997). For example, a paper from Administrative Science Quarterly (Klein et al. 2006), in which the authors develop the idea of dynamic delegation, highlights the benefit from gaining a culturally and contextually rich understanding of distributed leadership in organization – a sense of movement.

In addition to arguments regarding incorporating a contextual element, more critical writers on leadership (e.g. Knights and O'Leary 2006) have also advocated an interpretative approach and suggest that an individualistic notion of leadership lends itself to a preoccupation with ‘the leader’ as opposed to the responsibility of leadership. This discussion resonates with the literature regarding distributed leadership, highlighted above, which indicates a post-heroic shift from understanding leadership in individualistic terms towards leadership dispersed across groups, organizations and society. In a later section, we highlight in more detail Knights and O'Leary's (2006) paper which emphasizes the work of Takala (1998) and MacIntyre (1991) who both argue for the need to develop notions of ethicality within a community context. Knights and O'Leary (2006) link this idea to ethical leadership, and we argue that this should be based on a wider interpretation of leadership, such as distributed leadership. A similar perspective has been highlighted by Bryson and Crosby (1992), where leadership within the public sector in the USA is framed in terms of shared power which resonates with the notion of distributed leadership. They describe ideals of leadership around the common good. We suggest that what is seen as ‘common good’ will depend on how community is conceptualized, defined and enacted. Therefore, we turn now to the literature around community and distributed leadership.

Distributed leadership and community

Delanty's (2003) work suggests that some elements of the concept of community could provide important areas of investigation regarding the notion of distributed leadership. These areas are symbolism, a sense of belonging, a sense of community, individualism, values and ethics, language, dialect and discourse, liminality and friendship. These will now be outlined in more detail.


The literature on community appears to be characterized by a tension between views of community as representing differences (through symbolic meaning or being imagined) and community as representing commonalities, which derives from the more traditional social interaction viewpoint (Delanty 2003). For example, Cohen (1985) sees community as a symbolic construction of boundaries, which can entail different interpretations as to the meaning of communitas. He defines community in terms of particular kinds of awareness that groups have of themselves in relation to other groups. Further investigation regarding distributed leadership, therefore, could explore what it is that segregates certain groups from others. What are the boundaries for distributed leadership? What is it that marks one group's idea of distributed leadership from another? Exploring symbolism in this way may offer a means by which to understand what distinctions can be made between differing groups (Bateson 1980) of distributed leadership.

The importance of symbolism for community and leadership emphasizes the value of methodologies based around the ‘leaderful moment’ (Wood and Ladkin 2008) and on appreciating leadership from an artistic and aesthetic perspective (e.g. Grisoni 2009; Guillet de Monthoux et al. 2007; Hansen et al. 2007; Ropo et al. 2002; Schroeder 2008). This methodology will enable an understanding of leadership through symbolism. A critical question, when conducting further research based around distributed leadership, appears to be: how do you see yourself compared with other groups? Concertive action (Gronn 2002) will be defined by some form of symbolism, e.g. in the case of group protests or social movements symbolic representations appear as banners and placards that represent the boundaries of spontaneous collaboration, or representative webpages of intuitive working relationships, or organization and professional emblems and logos in the case of institutionalized practices. Therefore researching distributed leadership in organizations should take account of the symbolism used by differing leadership groups. While this may be relatively easy to identify for Gronn's (2002) category – institutionalized practices – it is less so for ‘fluid’ groups such as a spontaneous collaboration or an intuitive working relationship. The symbols that are evident in communities and organizations will therefore be important in further developing an understanding of distributed leadership as it is, in part, formed through symbolic representation. Such representation will also provide boundaries between and across differing forms of distributed leadership.

A sense of belonging

What also appears to be common amongst views on community is a sense of belonging (Delanty 2003). This is another important contribution to research into distributed leadership. For example, one may need to ask the question, ‘what makes you feel a sense of belonging in this community or group and why?’ This represents a solid foundation from which to identify key leadership constructs in differing cultures and contexts. Just as symbolism may mark out the boundaries with regard to distributed leadership, the sense of belonging gives an understanding of the connectivity that underpins distributed leadership giving it a sense of shared identity. This idea provides a link to the literature on social identity and leadership from social psychology (e.g. Ellemers et al. 2004; Haslam 2004; Haslam et al. 2010). This literature investigates leadership that emerges through processes associated with psychologically belonging to a group and suggests that leaders need to have an element of prototypicality towards the group to be effective. For example, recent work has developed this theme of social identity theory within a departmental context within organizations (Edwards and Jepson 2008; Jepson 2009a), where differing departmental focus (marketing, production etc.) had an impact on the interpretation of effective leadership. However, this literature and research is focused on the individual leader within a group as opposed to a more distributed notion of leadership.

From a more societal perspective, Delanty (2003) points to studies in towns by Moore (1974, 1982) as evidencing that this sense of belonging is not necessarily linked to a geographical location. There is an element here of not just seeking an organization as the centre for understanding and researching distributed leadership but instead the study of ‘belongingness’ appears to be key. Hence, further research regarding distributed leadership could be guided toward identifying connecting cultures in or around organizations through a sense of belonging, i.e. what does belongingness mean to differing groups? How do members of differing groups, organizations and contexts identify with a sense of belonging? These questions appear to be important in identifying leadership from a distributed perspective and in essence indicate the need to move away from identifying culture through organizations and groups per se toward identifying culture through a sense of belonging. Relating culture to a sense of belonging contributes to the area of distributed leadership by suggesting an interpretivist focus in constructing leadership-in-context rather than identifying leadership between geographical boundaries that dominates the cross-cultural leadership literature (e.g. Chhokar et al. 2007; House et al. 2004). The connectedness underpinning distributed leadership may therefore be constructed through a mutual sense of belonging amongst members and this connection epitomizes the network of leadership.

A sense of community

Having a ‘sense of community’ has been defined as an individual's experience of community life (Hyde and Chavis 2007) or the sense that one is part of a readily available mutually supportive network of relationship (Sarason 1974). A model has also been posited that includes four dimensions: membership, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs and shared emotional connection (McMillan and Chavis 1986). Although empirical research regarding this model is mixed (see Mannarini and Fedi 2009 for a review), it may be a useful framework when researching leadership through a distributed perspective, as it indicates possible categories for research. Mannarini and Fedi (2009) conclude that a ‘sense of community’ may be considered as a shared narrative (Mankowski and Rappaport 1995). Furthermore, from their empirical research, Mannarini and Fedi (2009, p. 218) suggest that ‘the concept of participation seems intertwined with the concept of community and . . . being a community implies that members undertake action to better their lives and solve common problems’. This suggests that distributed leadership research could study how differing cultures develop, and talk about, a sense of community and what leadership means within this sense of community. Distributed leadership could be seen as both reflecting and engendering a sense of community amongst members and an understanding of distributed leadership – unconscious as well as conscious – represented by a shared narrative, which is culture and context dependent.


The literature on new social movements (e.g. Lichterman 1996) offers a different perspective on community (Delanty 2003). Notions of community based on communitarianism suggest that individualism is detrimental to a sense of community. Delanty (2003), however, points out that research on new social movements reveals individualism to be a core element of building communities. Here self-fulfilment and individualized expression can be highly compatible with collective participation. This view accords with some literature on distributed leadership (Gronn 2002) which also suggests elements within distributed leadership are both individual and collective. A key question for the understanding of distributed leadership could therefore be what does individualism mean in differing cultures and contexts? Linked to this literature on community is the idea that participation in community life can reinforce the quest for personal achievement (Lichterman 1996). Indeed, Melucci (1996) suggests that self-realization can be enhanced by collective action (Delanty 2003). Community can reinforce personalism, giving to an individual a stronger sense of identity (Delanty 2003). This also links to the concept of leadership as identity (Ford et al. 2008) and to social identity theory (e.g. Ellemers et al. 2004; Haslam 2004; Haslam et al. 2010). This perspective underlies the need for researchers to identify not only how differing leadership groups view their group identity, but also the common elements in their view of individuals as leaders. This appears to be an inherent tension within distributed leadership theory and research: to what level do researchers focus on individuals and to what level do they focus on groups? However, if research into distributed leadership takes an interpretivist approach based on concepts of community, highlighted earlier, then such tensions can be identified within the data and discussed in theoretical terms. Thus, notions of distributed leadership will be connected through a sense of shared identity; this collective identity, however, will be in tension with individual self-identity.

Community as communicative

Delanty (2003) suggests that community can be viewed as communicative in the sense of being formed in collective action based on place. He goes on to assert that it is not merely an expression of an underlying cultural identity. This raises an important issue for our understanding of distributed leadership, which appears to be guided by cultural identity as opposed to collective action based on place. How distributed leadership research might develop this theme is again expressed by Delanty (2003, p. 71), when he states that ‘Local communities [as opposed to political or cultural communities] are important vehicles for the recovery and expression of moral recognition and the building of personal identities . . . This idea of community is a constructivist one, whereby community is socially constructed by society as opposed to being identified simply with a locality.’ This idea of community, therefore, has parallels with leadership not least in the idea that community drives moral recognition and personal identity, which relates to concepts such as ethical leadership (Mendonca and Kanungo 2006) and leadership as identity (Ford et al. 2008). In fact, community has been defined as a moral order or moral force (Delanty 2003; Durkheim 1957). Therefore, an investigation of the morals and ethics that bind culture and context and how identity is constructed is important for understanding distributed leadership. The ways in which we identify distributed leadership within and across organizations may be based on common ethical or values-based views derived through an understanding and a sense of community, similar to ideas of ethical leadership (e.g. Knights and O'Leary 2006; MacIntyre 1991; Takala 1998).


Some social theorists (Bauman 2001; Habermas 1984, 1987; Touraine 1995, 1997) distrust the very idea of community (Delanty 2003). Touraine's (1995, 1997) critique is based on the idea that community is closely aligned with nationalism and that community may have been debased by nationalism (Delanty 2003). Bauman's (2001) critique is based on community being a nostalgic or utopian discourse. Habermas's (1984, 1987) view is more ambiguous (Delanty 2003), but includes a critical discussion in relation to the study of distributed leadership. For example, Habermas suggests that social action is based on language and that society is linguistically created. The idea of ‘communication communities’, which developed from Habermas's (1984, 1987) work, suggests that social relations in modern society are organized around communication rather than by other media such as authority, status or ritual (Delanty 2003). First, therefore, this emphasizes the importance of language research (e.g. Jepson 2009b) in understanding concepts of distributed leadership (Hosking 2007), and second, it relates to a current shift in the distributed leadership literature away from positional aspects of leadership toward more emergent frames of reference (e.g. Bolden et al. 2008). Thus distributed leadership might be reflected in, or bounded by, common language, discourse and dialect.


Liminality (Turner 1969; Van Gennep 1960), ‘moments in and out of time’, refers to the ‘between’ moments such as carnivals, pilgrimages, rites of passage or rituals in which ‘normality’ is suspended. These events symbolize moments of symbolic renewal when a society or group asserts its collective identity. These shifts are described as structure and anti-structure (Delanty 2003), and Turner (1969) argues that community needs to be understood in opposition to structure. This perspective again emphasizes the need to relate distributed leadership research to context. For example, if we research these events and hold them as symbols of culture, we must recognize that they are outside normality for communities and may represent a different picture as to leadership in a more routine process in communities. Delanty (2003) highlights other ‘in-between’ places that are beginning to have growing importance in people's lives – the airport lounge, the commuting train or shopping centres. This idea could be expanded to include not only such fluid and shifting notions of space and place (e.g. Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003), but also ‘virtual’ communities which are technologically mediated (Bateman Driskell and Lyon 2002; Castells 2001; Jones 1995; Rheingold 1993; Shields 1996; Smith and Kollock 1999).


Friendship has been identified as another dimension of community in the postmodern world. Delanty (2003) draws on the work of Phal (2001) to describe how communities are moving away from family and kin relationships, and, as Delanty (2003) points out, the concept of ‘personal communities’ has been developed in response to friendship being viewed as a purely personal relationship between two people. This too may be reflected in organizations, whereby the traditional structure in the organization is being replaced by ‘personal communities’. Work is already being developed in looking at friendship and leadership. French (2007, 2008), for example, initiates a discussion linking the two concepts by drawing on the western tradition of friendship. Friendship may therefore be a context in which to develop an understanding of distributed leadership from a social network perspective (e.g. Balkundi and Kilduff 2006). Gronn's notion of distributed leadership as being based on intuitive working groups moves some way to developing an understanding of distributed leadership as friendship or friendship-based social networks. A friendship perspective might encourage a broader and less formal view of distributed leadership as social networks or communities of friends that are not necessarily bounded by organizations but could also play out in society generally. Such a view might come close to the reality –i.e. the lived experience – of distributed leadership rather than more formal representations of distributed leadership within organizations.

The postmodern community

Another critical point for the study of distributed leadership is the understanding of community in postmodern society (Agamben 1993; Blanchot 1988; Corlett 1989; Maffesoli 1996; Nancy 1991), where group membership has become more porous and fluid (Bauman 2000) – an age of multiple belongings (Delanty 2003). Drawing on the work of Urban (1996) and Nancy (1991), Delanty (2003) posits that community is ‘inoperative’; it can never be instrumentalized or institutionalized. This creates some difficulty in identifying leadership through the distributed lens. For example, if we identify leadership in an organization or a particular context, there must be recognition of other organizations and contexts to which there is exposure. Researchers studying distributed leadership should therefore be sympathetic to the idea of multiple belongings and to the idea of leadership being multiply distributed. Delanty (2003) also uses the work of Lash (1994) to highlight an important element of postmodern community: ‘reflexive composition’. Reflexive communities have three aspects: (1) one is not born to or ‘thrown’, but throws oneself into them; (2) they may be widely stretched over abstract space and sometimes over time; and (3) they consciously pose themselves the problem of their own creation, and are subject to constant re-invention. In addition, the tools and products of such communities tend not to be material, but abstract and cultural (Lash 1994), an idea that again highlights the importance of aesthetics in understanding leadership (e.g. Grisoni 2009; Guillet de Monthoux et al. 2007; Schroeder 2008). Maffesoli's (1996) discussion of ‘emotional communities’ suggests that they are marked by an aesthetic sensibility rather than by symbolic codes (Delanty 2003).

Implications for theory, research and practice

This review of the community literature has developed areas for the further study of distributed leadership (summarized in Table 1). From Table 1 it can be seen that there are areas where the concepts of community overlap, in particular the overarching nature of postmodern concepts of community but also the linkages between notions such as friendship and liminality. Researching distributed leadership from a community perspective will therefore need to be qualitative in nature where there is potential to illustrate and theorize about each concept, but also broad, i.e. open to the interconnectedness between concepts. As can be seen from suggestions made in Table 1, the main emphasis of any research in this area should be of an ethnographic nature, in order to gain a deep analysis of context. In addition, the use of methods such as co-produced auto-ethnography (e.g. Kempster and Stewart 2010), alongside artistic and aesthetic forms of data collection, will be a useful addition, as this will enable the connective and fluid nature of distributed leadership from a community perspective to be highlighted.

Table 1. Concepts of community, distributed leadership and research implications
Concept of communityLink to distributed leadershipResearch implications
SymbolismRelates through the aesthetic; sees distributed leadership as represented by the symbolic construction of boundariesCalls for an aesthetic form of methodology, e.g. using the ‘leaderful moment’ method highlighted by Wood and Ladkin (2008)
Sense of belongingSuggests a co-constructed mutual sense of belonging based on cultural connectionsCould be investigated through methodologies that develop an understanding of a connective sense of belonging. Calls for a methodology that develops a group-based inquiry over time; could also involve observation-based data
Sense of communityWould be based on a mutual sense of a supportive network of relationships (relates to a sense of belonging)Could use frameworks such as membership, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs and shared emotional connection (McMillan and Chavis 1986). Because related to a sense of belonging, could usefully explore parallels and differences between the two
IndividualismBrings out the tension between a shared sense of identity and individual self-identityCould use co-produced auto-ethnographic forms of research (similar to Kempster and Stewart's (2010) research on leadership development). Could explore how these tensions materialize in the construction of self in relation to context
Community as communicativeInvolves understanding distributed leadership from the perspective of common values, ethics and moralsCo-produced auto-ethnographic forms of research would highlight tensions between individually held beliefs and how these interrelate with contextual group norms (there is an overlap here with ethical leadership research)
LanguageNotion of distributed leadership as bounded by language, discourse and dialectUnderstanding how leadership is conceptualized within and through differing languages and for different contexts to uncover latent constructs. Qualitative investigation based on word usage, meaning and enactment
LiminalitySuggests that notions of distributed leadership may be virtual, contextually bound, fluid and shifting based on ideas of space and placeEthnographic to enable an understanding of leadership situated in context and time. Could be centred on specific tasks or projects in organizations to gain a sense of the shifting rotating basis of leadership. Artistic or aesthetic forms of data collection could help to represent the fluidity of distributed leadership by giving research participants a broader scope to explore interpretations of leadership
FriendshipSuggests an informal notion of distributed leadership linked to social networksAn ethnographic approach might make it possible to uncover social networks within organizations and the impact on how decisions are made or not made. Demands an ability to ‘go behind the scenes’ of the formal organizational structure to uncover underlying social and friendship networks. Need to collect data within and outside the organization in more social settings (e.g. Sturdy et al. 2006)
The postmodern communityHighlights distributed leadership as interconnected multi-distributed; individuals are members of a number of differing forms of distributed leadership based on emotional connectionsImplications from all other concepts could be relevant here, as the issues of community, in the context of postmodernity, apply throughout

The development of linked notions of community has built on suggestions that leadership should be viewed as a social process (e.g. Brown and Hosking 1986; Hosking 1988, 1997, 2007) in order to go beyond Gronn's (2002) notion of distributed leadership as concertive action and include spontaneous collaboration, intuitive working relationships and institutionalized practices. By understanding community, researchers and theoreticians can develop ideas of how collaborative efforts, intuitive working relationships, notions of the common good and institutionalized practices, which are indicative of distributed leadership, are bounded and connected, giving a deeper appreciation of distributed leadership than clichéd ideas around leadership for all (e.g. Bolt 1999; Charan et al. 2001; Collins 2005; Conger and Benjamin 1999; Khaleelee and Woolf 1996; Nicholls 1994; Raelin 2004; Tichy 1997).

In addition, it is important to note some implications for leadership development and practice. Linking distributed leadership to notions of community may help to define a concept which, from experience, can be difficult to grasp for managers. For example, providing some contextual cues for managers to relate to – in the sense of identifying symbolic elements of leadership within their respective organizations or considering more social elements such as friendship within their implicit leadership notions – can broaden notions of leadership away from purely hierarchical and individualistic interpretations. Second, the use of the notion of community allows individual leadership development to be connected back to organizational aspects, as has been recommended as best practice in the literature (Burgoyne and Turnbull-James 2001). However, there is little evidence of leadership development programmes explicitly taking a distributed form in terms of their design, development and delivery. This paper suggests that such programmes would benefit from understanding how leadership is linked broadly to the way organizations and individuals relate to aspects of community. To make such links might allow for the development of programmes that integrate the elements discussed above into mainstream leadership development initiatives in organizations. For example, leadership development programmes might explore more social representations of leadership, such as friendship, by exploring how these networks hold power in organizations. An exploration of participants' sense of belonging and sense of community might enable managers to feel a commitment and connection to organizations as communities of practice and to see how this might influence their subsequent leadership behaviour based on common values and ethics and a common language. The concept of liminality might help managers to develop an understanding of the extent to which managerial behaviours are linked to leadership modified by differing levels of liminality. Lastly, this paper suggests that practising managers would benefit from exploring how the leadership processes in which they interact and interplay within organizations are deeply rooted in the larger concept of community. Such aspects as ethics, values, symbolism, friendship and ultimately a sense of belonging reside outside as well as inside the organization. It is important for practising managers to recognize this interaction if they are fully to understand, and therefore take part in, the leadership interchanges and challenges within their respective organizations.


In this paper we have developed a discussion around community and how it can be related theoretically and practically to distributed leadership. Building on earlier frameworks and categories, this perspective has provided a broad emphasis of what could be constituted or described as distributed leadership. When using community as a basis for theoretical reflection, distributed leadership can be seen as incorporating some of the following characteristics: common symbolism (Cohen 1985), sense of belonging and connectivity (Delanty 2003; McMillan and Chavis 1986), group and leader identity (Ellemers et al. 2004; Ford et al. 2008; Haslam 2004; Haslam et al. 2010), common values and ethics (Knights and O'Leary 2006; MacIntyre 1991; Takala 1998), common language, discourse and dialect (Jepson 2009b), a virtual community (Bateman Driskell and Lyon 2002; Castells 2001; Jones 1995; Rheingold 1993; Shields 1996; Smith and Kollock 1999), social networking (Balkundi and Kilduff 2006), friendship (French 2007, 2008) and common cultural aesthetics (Grisoni 2009; Guillet de Monthoux et al. 2007; Hansen et al. 2007; Ropo et al. 2002; Schroeder 2008). These aspects of distributed leadership add to the already existing literature by providing contextual cues for theory, research and practice. Researchers can therefore use these concepts as underpinning elements that need to be considered when empirically investigating distributed leadership, which enables a broader contextually driven understanding of the concept. Understanding and appreciating concepts of community also provides options for a wider variation in and a broader context for management and leadership development programmes. In addition, the development of distributed leadership in terms of community perspectives pushes the boundaries of organizations where they are encouraged to see themselves connected and not isolated from the society around them. Understanding leadership in these terms will enable organizations to explore the connections and interconnections they have with society by broadening the view of leadership where responsibility is moved from the few to the many. By doing so, organization and management may be able to provide a convincing approach to core issues such as corporate social responsibility, sustainability and governance.