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School Leadership: Leadership In Education

Writing and talking about leadership is an industry in itself. Books on leadership crowd the shelves of every bookshop, including the shops of every airport. The advice is endless: be decisive, be strong, in the fast changing modern world leaders need to make decisions quickly! Most of the advice, unfortunately, is unhelpful and some of it plain wrong.

In the school system the principal is the leader but his or her advice is not often highlighted in the debate. That schools suffer a principal casualty of recent public sector reform – a de-emphasis on what is termed domain knowledge, understanding and knowledge of the principal discipline which the organisation deploys to meet its objects – is seldom acknowledged. It is very clear from studies of school leadership that understanding of pedagogy, the nature of teaching practice, is an essential requirement.

The work of the school principal is as varied as that of any person in a management position. As Kent Peterson and Carolyn Kelly of the University of Wisconsin-Madison say, “Principals’ daily work is characterized by hundreds of short tasks of enormous variety — one minute talking with a teacher about materials, the next coping with a student issue, followed by another dozen questions, issues and problems to be solved.”[1]  They are constantly interrupted by a continuous stream of issues, demands and people, as in any management role.

The Nature of Leadership

Basic ideas of leadership involve ideas of power and their access to resources, initiatives in social interpretation, sensemaking or shaping meanings, and the place of individuals among social control options like law, the collective, informal norms, and the person. Despite a great deal of change in many aspects of work and greater knowledge of behaviour and issues, too much attention is still paid to ideas about organisations rooted in the Taylorism of the early 20th century: closely prescribed procedures, hierarchies of supervision with power concentrated at the top of the organisation, judgements of performance reserved to supervisors with little discussion and so on. The proposition is that employees are unlikely to act in the interest of the organisation unless there is adequate oversight. ‘Managers’, especially in anything to do with governments, are being forced into administrative roles making instrumental modifications: they are mere rule followers.

Research in a wide variety of situations over the last 30 or so years has taken leadership beyond the notion of the transactional leader who seeks to achieve change by offering rewards for performance and so on. Transactional leaders operate within the existing system or culture, are risk averse, pay attention to time constraints and efficiency, and generally prefer process over substance to maintain control.[2] They manage by exception, enforcing rules to avoid mistakes and wait until problems are brought to their attention to take action. This may be effective in stable, predictable environments: it is still typical of bureaucracies and is encouraged by centralised control and intervention.

Transformational leadership

Contemporary models of successful organisations reveal not just flatter spans of control or relative freedom from the tyranny of financial imperatives. Instead they are characterised by leaders who support staff rather than command, support ongoing training and development and, in creative organisations, provide opportunities for challenge of ideas rather requiring agreement with those in charge. Recruitment is of very great importance. Trust and positive reinforcement, are typical of high performance organisations. Freedom to exercise judgement and make mistakes are significant positives; bureaucratic control destroys creativity. Centralised control is by and large a failure: it does not achieve its ends.

Transformational leaders seek new ways of working, opportunities in the face of risk, prefer effective answers to efficient answers, and are less likely to support the status quo. They do not merely react to environmental circumstances–they attempt to shape and create them. Transformational leaders tend to use symbolism and imagery to solicit increased effort. They accomplishes this by raising the level of intellectual awareness about the importance of valued outcomes, by raising or expanding individual needs and by inducing a belief in transcending self-interest for the sake of the team or organization. Transformational leaders trust people, are principled, maintain high standards, challenge others’ views but also provide encouragement and intellectual stimulation.

Four behaviours or factors are especially important and typical.

  1. “Idealised influence” involves trust, taking a stand on important issues, emphasising the importance of purpose and commitment and the ethical dimensions of decisions.
  2. “Inspirational motivation” involves articulating an appealing vision of the future, maintaining high standards, providing encouragement and meaning for what needs to be done.
  3. Transformational leaders value “intellectual stimulations”, questioning assumptions and beliefs, stimulating new perspectives and ways of doing things and encourage expression of ideas.
  4. They also practice “individualised consideration”, dealing with other people as individuals and consider their needs, further their development, give advice and coach.

Transformational leadership in the school

The research shows that in successful schools school principals are transformational leaders.[3] The literature is extensive and the research undertaken in Australia is particularly interesting.

A recent review observes, “the field now has a body of agreed-upon insights into what constitute the excellent leadership qualities and methods shown by ‘effective’ or ‘exemplary’ principals or headteachers. [4]  Three classic studies give a flavour of these findings.

• First, [a United States review] portrays effective principals as offering stable and appropriate leadership, using formal and informal structures, sharing power and being willing to respond to external-to-the school change. Their ineffective principals, by contrast, exhibit unstable, changeable over-time leadership, use formal structures more than informal, don’t involve staff and are reluctant to relate either to parents and the community or to the external educational reform agenda.

• Second, … pupil outcomes in secondary schools were better when the headteacher showed both firm leadership and teacher involvement rather than either one or the other.

• Third, [a primary school study by Peter Mortimore in the UK] noted that what mattered was ‘purposeful’ leadership of the staff which occurred when the head understood the school’s needs and was actively involved in the school, but was also good at sharing power. He or she did not exercise total control but consulted widely, especially on such matters as spending plans and curriculum planning.”

Two major studies involving Australia and seven other countries are of particular significance. Professor Bill Mulford of the University of Tasmania has been a major investigator in these studies.[5]

The Australian studies which form part of the eight-country exploration of successful school principalship – a qualitative study – reveal, “Successful school principalship is an interactive, reciprocal and evolving process involving many players, which is influenced by and in turn influences the context in which it occurs. [It] is underpinned by the core values and beliefs of the principal [which] inform the principals’ decisions and actions regarding the provision of individual support and capacity building, and capacity building at the school level, including school culture and structure. The principal’s core values and beliefs, together with the values and capacities of other members of the school community, feed directly into development of a shared school vision which shapes the teaching and learning, student and social capital outcomes of schooling.” [6]

Case studies of Australian schools – quantitative survey evidence from over 2,500 teachers and 3,500 15-year-old Australian high school students[7] – “clearly demonstrates that leadership which makes a difference is both position-based (principal) and distributive (administrative team and teachers)… the principal’s leadership needs to be transformational … providing individual, cultural and structural support to staff, capturing a vision for the school, communicating high performance expectations and offering intellectual stimulation.

“However, both positional and distributive leadership are only indirectly related to student outcomes. Organisational learning (OL), involving three sequential stages of trusting and collaborative climate, shared and monitored mission and taking initiatives and risks supported by appropriate professional development is the important intervening variable between leadership and teacher work and then student outcomes.”

Leadership contributes to OL and that influences what happens in the core business of the school: teaching and learning. It influences the way students perceive that teachers organise and conduct their instruction and their educational interactions with, and expectations of, their students.

“Students’ positive perceptions of teachers’ work directly promote their participation in school, academic self-concept and engagement with school. Student participation is directly and student engagement indirectly (through retention) related to academic achievement. School size, socioeconomic status (SES) and, especially, student home educational environment make a difference to these relationships. However, this was not the case in terms of teacher or leader gender or age, having a community focus or student academic self-concept.”

“Leadership in each of the case study schools was strongly influenced by the principals’ core personal values and by the development of a shared organisational values base. The core values of leaders strongly influenced schools and the internal and external school context influenced the way in which they were translated into school practices and procedures.

Successful principals also displayed a core set of basic leadership skills regardless of school context. These included a shared vision, individual capacity building and organisational redesign. All principals, but particularly those from low SES schools, promoted equity plus social justice through the creation of strong school communities and socially just pedagogical practices and by focusing on the development/reinforcement of a strong learning culture within the school community.

In broad terms three major, sequential and aligned elements of practice typify successful school reform. Being innovative is not the first! The first element relates to how people are communicated with and treated. Success is more likely where people act rather than react, are empowered, involved in decision making through a transparent, facilitative and supportive structure and are trusted, respected, encouraged and valued. “The second element concerns a professional community with shared norms and values, including valuing difference and diversity, a focus on implementation and continuous enhancement of learning for all students, deprivatisation of practice, collaboration and critical reflective dialogue especially that based on performance data. The final element relates to the presence of a capacity for change, learning and innovation.”[8]

“The head teacher who is transformational focuses on:

If pupils like the way teachers teach, see constant challenge and good organisation and teacher expectations they will do their best work and discuss their work with them. They have good academic self-concept, are confident of their success and satisfied with their learning. Moreover they are satisfied with their relationship with teachers and see the usefulness of schoolwork as useful for future life.

An extraordinarily important point emerging from the research points to the vital importance of getting the social processes right first. “One needs to first get the personal/interpersonal, distributive leadership, collective teacher efficacy or trusting and collaborative climate ‘right’. [then] it can be used to focus on the educational/instructional, including having a shared and monitored mission…  Once the educational/instructional is ‘right’ and there is confidence in what the school is doing and why it is doing it, then the leaders and school can move to development/learning/change, including working with others schools in a ‘nested’ model.”

Summarising the eight country study of successful school principalship , Dr David Gurr of the Centre for Organisational Learning and Leadership at Melbourne University and colleagues found that despite differences in systems and government policies, all countries have in common increases in levels of self-management, change, marketisation, accountability and expectations of higher student performance; hardworking, ‘can do’ principals who engendered trust and respect were a common feature.

International Perspectives on School Leadership

School leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning and almost all successful leaders draw on the same repertoire of basic leadership practices.[9] Numerous other studies support these conclusions of the studies by Mulford and colleagues reported above. [10] For instance a major document What we know about School Leadership [11] asserts a core set of successful leadership practices:

1. Building vision and setting directions.

2. Understanding and developing people

3. Redesigning the organisation

4. Manage the teaching and learning programme

“The most successful school leaders are open-minded and ready to learn from others… flexible rather than dogmatic in their thinking within a system of core values, persistent (e.g. in their pursuit of high expectations of staff motivation, commitment, learning and achievement for all), resilient and optimistic.”


A measure of independence from control by some bureaucratic centre is important to success but often this is ignored. School reform in Chicago revealed factors quite distinct from bureaucratic control as important. The Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study found that alignment between curriculum, pedagogy and assessment was hindered by inconsistencies between the policies and practices of Education Queensland and the Queensland Studies Authority. In Tasmanian “high-needs” schools, successful “principals were more independent of the structures within which they worked and were focused on student outcomes rather than the approval of those higher in the hierarchy”.[12]

The OECD Report on improving school leadership published in August 2008 found one of the principal issues affecting school performance to be a tension arising from a lack of clear demarcation of tasks between school board and school principal.[13] This is a common feature of governance in organisations: “school leaders can make a difference in school and student performance if they are granted autonomy to make important decisions. However autonomy alone does not automatically lead to improvements unless it is well supported.”

The Report urged policy makers to recognise that school leaders need time, capacity and support to focus on the practices most likely to improve learning. It emphasised that distributed leadership, succession planning and leadership teams should be supported and that leadership development needs to be seen as a continuum from induction through in-service training and made attractive through professionalization, salary levels, opportunities for knowledge sharing and career development.

One interesting feature of leadership in schools is the finding that the way leadership is structured may depend on the subject. Principals may be more involved in leadership routines such as grade-level meetings and school improvement planning for literacy related subjects than for mathematics or science subjects.[14]

Michael Fullan of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto asserts that the essence of a principal’s power involves six steps to move theory to practice.[15] These include a bias for action including building relationships and communication during implementation, participating as a learner in helping teachers, making instruction a priority, developing others in a way that is integrated into the work of the school and developing a strong two-way partnership with the school’s community. Highly effective principals “consume” research as they go, they “set out to solve problems and see how research can help them”.


[1] Kent Peterson & Carolyn Kelley (2001), ‘Transforming school leadership’, Leadership  30(3): 8-11.

[2] Kevin B Lowe & K Galen Kroeck (1996), ‘Effectiveness Correlates Of Transformational and Transactional Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Review Of The Mlq Literature’, Leadership Quarterly 7(3), p385, 41p.

[3]  Transformational school leadership is sometimes contrasted with instructional leadership (Philip Hallinger (2007), ‘Research on the practice of instructional and transformational leadership: Retrospect and prospect’, ACER Research Conference 2007, available at

[4] David Reynolds (2001), ‘Effective school leadership: the contributions of school effectiveness Research’, National College for School Leadership.

[5] I have not heard Mulford’s name in any of the education debates; in fact I have seldom heard the word leadership!

[6] Bill Mulford (2007), ‘Quality Australian evidence on leadership for improved learning’, ACER Research Conference 2007 – The Leadership Challenge – Improving learning in schools; available at

[7]  Mulford loc cit.

[8] Bill Mulford and Halia Sillins (2003), ‘Leadership for organisational learning and improved student outcomes’, Cambridge Journal of Education 33(2), 175–195.

[9] Kenneth Leithwood, Alam Harris and David Hopkins (2008), ‘Seven strong claims about successful school leadership’, School Leadership and Management 28(1), p. 27-42.

[10]  Christopher Day, Kenneth Leithwood and Pam Sammons (2008), ‘What we have learned, what we need to know more about`, School Leadership and Management, 28(1), p. 83-96.

[11]  David Reynolds (2001), “Effective school leadership: the contributions of school effectiveness research’, National College for Leadership of Schools and Children. (Related papers by Reynolds are at; see especially ‘School Leadership Today’ .)

[12]  R. L. Lingard  et al. (2001),  The Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study: A Strategy for Shared Curriculum Leadership. Teachers’ Manual. Edited A.R. Thomas. Brisbane: Department of Education;  James G. Ladwig (2007), ‘Modelling Pedagogy in Australian School Reform’. Pedagogies 2: 57-76.

[13] Improving School Leadership, OECD Directorate for Education, Paris, 2008; available at,3343,en_2649_39263231_41165970_1_1_1_1,00.html

[14] James P. Spillane (2005), ‘Primary school leadership practice: how the subject matters’, School Leadership and Management 25 (4): p 383-397.

[15] ‘The Awesome Power of the Principal’, Principal, National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2010.