What is distributed leadership?

David Relph
3 min readJun 27, 2019


There is a powerful feeling among those now trying to work at what might be called system, place, neighbourhood or city level that ‘traditional’ approaches to leadership just don’t work. These approaches are just too rigid and they fail to recognise or respond to the very messy nature of working not within organisations, but places.

Structures and directives don’t solve complex challenges on their own.

As Toby Lowe has put it — the outcomes we seek (ie solving societal challenges) are the emergent properties of complex systems.

We can’t direct these systems — we have to participate in them.

And to do so we need a different approach to leadership. A more ‘distributed’ approach’ has something to offer us here — its not the full answer but a great place to start.

Distributed leadership is probably the basis of a much more enabling, participatory and (most important) effective leadership within, and not of, complex systems.

Please note the within, and not of, distinction here….

So, I’d like to share a talk I did a few years ago on distributed leadership. It’s below with some timing notes further down the page.

David Relph — Distributed Leadership and Strategy

Photo by Matt Lamers on Unsplash

In June 2013 I was asked to give a talk on leadership which I would like to share. The talk was a great opportunity to discuss some of my reflections on leadership based on the experiences that I have had in the UK military, the low carbon and renewables sector, and the NHS. These are of course, only my thoughts on what is a hugely complex and challenging subject, but I hope that they will be of some interest and provoke some discussion. The theme of the talk was distributed leadership, and it was trailed in the event programme like this:

Leadership has to change. We have seen the systematic decline and even failure of too many organisations and leadership is a critical component. Unless we can re-think how we approach ‘moving the people’ then the best strategy in the world is worthless. It’s clear that a top-down, transactional approach isn’t working.

If you haven’t got time for the whole talk, then it breaks down into a number of sections that begin as follows:

0.00 Introducing Leadership and trying to get a handle on the concept.

2.34 What do we mean by ‘distributed leadership’?

4.32 Leadership as a Philosophy and why this is important.

5.46 How the military does it.

8.35 Mission Command.

11.53 How can we develop a distributed leadership approach?

17.06 And how do we do this in organisations without a well developed philosophy of leadership?

21.29 What does a ‘distributed’ approach to strategy look like?

27.32 Summary — What I (think I) have learned…

This talk was filmed at ‘Leadership and Culture in the wake of Francis’, held in London on the 27th of June 2013 and organised by Andrew Vincent (Partner at Academyst LLP) — to whom I want to extend my sincere thanks for an excellent event.



David Relph

I work to make places better for the people who live in them. Collaboration and leadership is how this happens. I write about these things.