Why distributed leadership works in Finnish schools?

Meng Tian

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter in a published conference proceeding


Applying the resource–agency duality model (Tian, Collin, & Risku, 2016), this paper aims at answering the research question why distributed leadership works in Finnish primary and secondary schools from the social-cultural aspect. The theoretical framework of the study is the resource–agency duality model, which views distributed leadership to have two distinct and intertwined aspects. From the organizational aspect, leadership as a resource is distributed at various hierarchical levels to serve organizational purposes. From the individual aspect, leadership as an agency is exercised by various actors and artefacts to influence work processes as individuals or communities. Applying the resource–agency duality model, a quantitative survey was designed to investigate four aspects of distributed leadership: leadership structures and power distance, leadership as a resource, leadership as an agency, and motivators and demotivators underlying teachers’ participation in leadership tasks. A total of 203 Finnish teachers responded to the online survey. The first key result showed that because of the decentralization in educational administration since the 1980s, Finnish schools did not have one common leadership structure (Antikainen, 2005; Aho, Pitkänen & Sahlberg, 2006). Guided by a strong national education vision, municipalities and schools built leadership processes at the local level. Meanwhile, three key societal values, equity, trust, and sustainability, have been underpinning the educational system for decades. As a result, distributed leadership is widely practised, which enabled Finnish principals and teachers to design school leadership structures, create and enact school-based curricula, and lead teaching and learning. The second key finding revealed that resource and agency did not always align with each other. The increasing austerity measures on school financial resources seemed to restrain teachers’ and students’ agency. From the social-cultural perspective, the on-going municipality and school merge process raised new challenge for school leaders to balance between the new managerialism which emphasizes rationalism, efficiency and productivity and distributed leadership which advocates for autonomy, trust, and sustainability. Last but not least, the survey data highlighted that time, financial resources and trust were the most powerful driving force behind Finnish teachers’ participation in distributed leadership. Teachers were motivated to lead if the tasks matched their expertise and did not disturb their teaching. In contrast, leadership titles or assigning administrative tasks were less effective in promoting distributed leadership among Finnish teachers. Since the early 1990s, as the accountability culture in Finnish schools has weakened, professional autonomy of the teachers has grown stronger (Hökka, Vähäsantanen, 2014). Unlike many other countries which heavily rely on external incentives like a teacher’s professional title, merit pay, and formal leadership titles to motivate teachers, Finnish schools trust teachers to use their professional judgment and autonomy with as little external control as possible (Sahlberg, 2015). The more sustainable and effective driving force behind distributed leadership, therefore, seems to lie in providing leadership opportunities and resources that support Finnish teachers’ agency. Aho, E., Pitkänen, K. & Sahlberg, P., (2006). Policy development and reform principles of basic and secondary education in Finland since 1968. Washington, DC: World Bank, Education Working Paper Series 2 Antikainen, A. (2006). In search of the Nordic model in education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 50(3), pp. 229–243 Hökkä, P. & Vähäsantanen, K. (2014). Agency-centred coupling—a better way to manage an educational organization. International Journal of Leadership in Education, Vol. 17(2), pp. 131–153 Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0. What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? (second edition). New York, Teachers Collage Press Tian, M., Risku, M. & Collin, K. (2016). A Meta-analysis of Distributed Leadership from 2002 to 2013: Theory Development, Empirical Evidence and Future Research Focus. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 44(1), pp. 146–164 Keywords Distributed leadership, Finnish schools, social-cultural perspective
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEuropean Conference on Educational Research (ECER)
Place of PublicationDublin
Publication statusUnpublished - 25 Aug 2016


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