The aim of this paper is to review conceptual and empirical literature on the concept of distributed leadership (DL) in order to identify its origins, key arguments and areas for further work. Consideration is given to the similarities and differences between DL and related concepts, including ‘shared’, ‘collective’, ‘collaborative’, ‘emergent’, ‘co-’ and ‘democratic’ leadership. Findings indicate that, while there are some common theoretical bases, the relative usage of these concepts varies over time, between countries and between sectors. In particular, DL is a notion that has seen a rapid growth in interest since the year 2000, but research remains largely restricted to the field of school education and of proportionally more interest to UK than US-based academics. Several scholars are increasingly going to great lengths to indicate that, in order to be ‘distributed’, leadership need not necessarily be widely ‘shared’ or ‘democratic’ and, in order to be effective, there is a need to balance different ‘hybrid configurations’ of practice. The paper highlights a number of areas for further attention, including three factors relating to the context of much work on DL (power and influence; organizational boundaries and context; and ethics and diversity), and three methodological and developmental challenges (ontology; research methods; and leadership development, reward and recognition). It is concluded that descriptive and normative perspectives which dominate the literature should be supplemented by more critical accounts which recognize the rhetorical and discursive significance of DL in (re)constructing leader–follower identities, mobilizing collective engagement and challenging or reinforcing traditional forms of organization.
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