Change agency in a primary health care context: the case of distributed leadership

Health Care Manage Rev. 2010 Apr-Jun;35(2):187-99. doi: 10.1097/HMR.0b013e3181c8b1f8.


Background: Integration of services across disciplines and organizations has been pursued increasingly in the primary care sector. Successful integration requires adept leadership of change. There have been questions about the extent to which studies on change agency that focus on a stand-alone leader are applicable in the complex setting of health care. It has been suggested that a model of collective leadership is more appropriate to this setting.

Purpose: The objective is to understand the dynamics of collective or distributed leadership by attending to change agency roles in a context involving collaboration across health organizations. The study examines how change agency roles develop, evolve, interact, and complement each other. It also examines the bases of the change agents' ability to exercise influence.

Methodology: A qualitative, longitudinal case study allowed us to map the evolution of a successful model of leadership. We tracked changes and agents' roles by engaging in extensive observations and conducting 74 interviews over a period of 4 years.

Findings: The findings point to the importance of the distributed change leadership model in contexts where legitimacy, authority, resources, and ability to influence complex change are dispersed across loci. Distributed leadership has both planned and emergent components, and its success in bringing about change is associated with the social capital prevalent in the site.

Practice implications: Change leaders need to build a winning coalition of agents with complementary skills and resources that support the change. Successful change leadership involves investing time in finding common ground across stakeholders and in building credibility and trust. Having an agent whose main responsibility is to manage the change process is likely to bring more success than asking busy health care practitioners to take on this charge because in the latter case, there is likelihood of dilution of change focus and momentum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Administrative Personnel
  • Canada
  • Humans
  • Leadership*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Organizational Case Studies
  • Organizational Culture
  • Organizational Innovation
  • Patient Care Team / organization & administration
  • Primary Health Care / organization & administration*