In this paper we present findings from research in 12 universities that sought to capture a range of perspectives on ‘distributed leadership’ and reveal common and competing experiences within and between institutions. From analysis of findings we identified two principle approaches to the distribution of leadership: ‘devolved’, associated with top-down influence, and ‘emergent’, associated with bottom-up and horizontal influence. We argue that whilst the academic literature largely promotes the latter, the former is equally (if not more) significant in terms of how leadership is actually enacted and perceived within universities. We conclude, therefore, that as a description of leadership practice, the concept of ‘distributed leadership’ offers little more clarity than ‘leadership’ alone. As an analytic framework it is a more promising concept drawing attention to the broader contextual, temporal and social dimensions of leadership. Fundamentally, though, we argue that distributed leadership is most influential through its rhetorical value whereby it can be used to shape perceptions of identity, participation and influence but can equally shroud the underlying dynamics of power within universities.
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