Distributed Leadership: A Direct Path to Community Success

“Take our word for it; a thoughtful strategy and launch plan are essential if you want your community program to last.”
leaders create more leaders

Early in my career I launched a community that reached 10,000 members in one year. The number one reason we got there so quickly: our distributed leadership program. We launched our community on a solid foundation of strategy, value to the company, and a purpose that directly met members’ needs.

While that foundation was essential to our success, it was our 15 community leaders who made our program a true community—complete with authenticity, kindness, expertise, and value that kept members coming back. Our reward—rapid growth. 

It’s clear from my background and my time advising communities at Mobilize that having a distributed leadership program will predict a community’s potential for success. 

Data shows us that communities with distributed leadership are significantly more successful than those without it. It’s proven, leaders in your community increase member engagement and build a lasting community culture; without them, you’re setting yourself up for a long, slow slog to engagement and a much higher likelihood of failure.

First, what is distributed leadership? 

To put it simply, distributed leadership means leadership responsibilities are delegated to the hands of many.

In online communities, it’s about empowering your colleagues and community members to lead your community with you. It probably feels scary to sacrifice a little bit of control, but relinquishing control will be worth it once you experience the benefits to your community. 

It’s proven that distributed leadership increases community engagement. Why? 

  1. Members are more likely to engage with people they relate to —in this case, your distributed member leaders 
  2. Many hands make light work and the larger the community, the more work to be done 
  3. Distributed leaders come up with wonderful ideas for engagement —it’s the old adage “two heads are better than one” 

Distributed leadership is essential —I can assure you it will be extremely challenging to build a thriving community without it. Without distributed leadership, multiple employees are needed to fulfill the responsibilities required to manage a thriving community program, and even then, you have a much higher chance of failure. With distributed leadership, the workload is distributed across many people, including volunteers, thereby saving your organization money while increasing your community engagement. 

Building a successful distributed leadership program

A successful distributed leadership program includes:

  1. A thoughtful network strategy and plan 
  2. An ongoing maintenance plan
  3. A community program lead— the primary person accountable for strategy, success of the program, and your distributed leaders’ well being

In a successful program, leaders create content, contribute to conversations, and influence the momentum of your community program overall. 

The program should be founded upon a clear agreement about participation requirements and benefits to the leaders. It should include a private leaders group in the community and monthly check in calls, to build an authentic culture and spirit of play among leaders. Advanced communities also include a shared content calendar (eg. shared spreadsheet), so leaders can collaborate on content and remain accountable to each other. 

What does success look like? The proof is in the data

In the example below, we observe data from a large corporate education community aiming to achieve increased product feedback and increased peer-to-peer engagement.

The data shows us engagement before and after they implemented a successful distributed leadership program and a thoughtful content strategy. The steep increase in activity speaks for itself! 

Count of total activities taken in the community each month

Below we compare two communities of about 400 members. The first, a community for geographically dispersed partners working toward the same goal, has a distributed leadership program. The second, a worldwide community for young entrepreneurs, does not. The community with distributed leadership sees better engagement overall, including a higher number of activities and a more consistent percentage of active members. The extra efforts tied to our distributed leaders (group admins) drives a nice uptick in engagement, as well. 

Engagement with distributed leadership

Percentage of active members in the community each month.

Count of total activities taken in the community each month.

Count of total activities divided by role in the community: member, group admin, account owner, and community admin. 

Without distributed leadership 

Percentage of active members in the community each month.

Count of total activities taken in the community each month.

Count of total activities divided by role in the community: member, group admin, account owner, and community admin.


How to build a successful distributed leadership program 

Think about the program in two stages: strategy and launch, followed by growth and maintenance. 

Step 1: Strategy and Launch:

How to create your distributed leadership strategy and launch your program 

Many community leaders skip over a thoughtful strategy and dive right into launching a program, but I’ve seen that process fail time and time again. Take our word for it; a thoughtful strategy and launch plan are essential if you want your community program to last. 

Take our word for it; a thoughtful strategy and launch plan are essential if you want your community program to last.”

To begin, revisit your community’s goal statement to ensure that your distributed leadership program is directly aligned with what your community is here to do. (If you don’t have a clear community goal, stop reading this article and watch this first.)

Remember, a successful distributed leadership program serves your community goals and is tied to your business outcomes. Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

Your distributed leadership strategy accounts for the following:

  1. Staff: community manager, related colleagues, and executive sponsor 
  2. Member leaders: passionate community members who are volunteering their time, and possibly members who receive a stipend

Let’s begin with staff.

Develop a clear staff program outline with the following:

  1. Goals
  2. Asks and time commitment for your staff, broken down by the key roles; community manager, colleagues, and executive sponsor
  3. Define what’s in it for staff, broken down by the roles mentioned above
  4. A plan for showing appreciation to staff. For example,
    1. Handwritten thank you note
    2. Personalized gift
    3. Shout out in the community
    4. A note to their manager 

Next, think about your member leadership program. 

Develop a member program outline with the following:

  1. Program description with a clear purpose
  2. Goals
  3. Timeline for leader participation 
  4. Leader participation requirements
  5. Leader benefits
  6. Recruitment and onboarding plan 
  7. Success metrics

Now you’re ready to prepare for launch! 🚀

Staff program

Launching your staff program is quite simple. You’ll meet with your colleagues to ensure they are on board with the strategy defined above, assign specific tasks, and help your team post in the community. 

Member program 

When you launch the member program, begin with 5 – 15 distributed member leaders—the number of leaders you start with depends on the size of your community and the staff program you defined above. We recommend that you begin with a three month pilot period, followed by three month cycles for ongoing evaluation of leader participation. Cycles provide opportunities for leaders to step out or renew enrollment.

Here’s a helpful program launch checklist:

  1. Identify leader candidates by identifying your most active members and posting recruitment poll in your community. 
  2. Send email campaigns to invite leaders to participate. Include a questionnaire with a scheduling link.
  3. Host leader interviews (per scheduling link in survey). 
  4. Select leaders. Communicate to accepted, denied, and future candidates. 
  5. Create a private leaders group in your community.
  6. Seed content in the private leaders group.
  7. Host a leader onboarding call. Use this time to get leaders acquainted with each other and start building a leadership culture. Tell leaders what they should expect from the program, give them specific asks, and allow them to ask questions. 
  8. Officially launch the program! 🚀

Step 2: How to grow and maintain your distributed leadership program 

You’ve launched, your leaders are getting to know each other, and leaders are genuinely contributing to culture and engagement. Magic is happening! As with any program, it requires dedication and maintenance for the magic to continue. 

You’ve already painted a picture for program maintenance in the program strategy we outlined above. Now it’s time to translate strategy into action. 

Maintaining your distributed leadership program includes:

For staff leaders:

  1. Bi-weekly meetings with staff leaders 
  2. Feedback and encouragement
  3. Regular gratitude and internal shout outs

For member leaders:

  1. Content and conversations in private leaders’ group
  2. Monthly calls with leaders
  3. Ongoing member recruitment
  4. Onboarding at three month intervals
  5. Monitoring leader activity (and that it meets expectations; celebrating what’s working, discouraging what isn’t, and encouraging leaders in the process

Each aspect of this maintenance plan includes the community manager stepping into a leadership role to guide personnel. Remember, distributed leaders are essential to the maintenance and growth of your community, so it is required that you care for this small group of leaders just as much as you care for the community at large. You’re the cultural leader for the entire group, inspiring and encouraging them, and keeping tabs on their commitment and satisfaction to continuously give them what they need. 

You can do this!

Building and maintaining a distributed leadership program is no small feat, but your time and effort will pay enormous dividends in the overall health and growth of your community.

Be prepared to invest significant time to build your strategy, with the comfort that the program will take off, your leaders will give back, and you’ll love your work. I have gotten such joy from my relationships with community leaders. These relationships make the work so rewarding for me and every other community manager I’ve worked with—and I’m sure you’ll feel the same. 

Next Actions:

  1. Dive into the Network Strategy lesson from the Mobilize Academy
  2. Watch the on-demand webinar: Must Learn Engagement Strategies

If you have any questions for our strategy team, tweet @mobilize_io or send us a note

Work with experts who build successful communities

Mobilize is made up of community experts who have launched communities for the likes of the National Restaurant Association, United Nations’ SDSN, Dermalogica, and more. We work with you to align your business goals with a tailored community strategy to ensure its success.

Whether you’re just getting started or are looking to improve outcomes with your existing community — we have strategies and industry-tailored programs to help you get things done. Schedule a demo for a personalized walk-through of our technology and learn about our expert-led strategy services.