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Leading change: A reflection on leadership approaches for equity and teacher career progression

9 min read
Judith Bruce-Golding, Researcher and SEND Teacher, University of Birmingham, UK

Studies over the past 10 years have documented different school leadership approaches and how they influence students as well as individual staff members, including teachers’ career trajectories (Mboyo, 2017; Callender 2018, Bruce-Golding, 2019). Given the lack of black and global majority teachers and leaders in schools in England (Rhodes, 2017), critical reflection on school leadership and diversity, especially in terms of representation, is essential. To add a brief note on terminology, I use ‘black and global majority’ to reflect the fact that people of colour are a majority in the world as well as in many Western urban areas (Portelli and Campbell-Stephens, 2009); however, since black and minority ethnic (BME) or black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) are widely used in the British literature, these terms will be used when discussing particular studies.

School leadership and race

Black and global majority teachers are underrepresented in leadership positions in schools, with one of the reasons for this being discriminatory practices in teacher recruitment, role progression and retention (Mboyo, 2017; Miller, 2016; Coleman and Campbell-Stevens, 2010). While there is evidence that racial discrimination can affect recruitment, career progression and retention (McNamara et al., 2009), there are steps that can be taken to address this (Miller, 2019). For example, using the theoretical frameworks of social justice and courageous leadership, Miller (2019) has put forward several ‘positive actions’ for BAME teacher progression, drawing on the experience of three multi-academy trust headteachers who were actively recruiting BAME teachers and providing opportunities such as workplace shadowing and continuous professional development to enable all staff to progress.

Since the strategies adopted by headteachers and other leaders in education can either inhibit or enable teacher career progression, it is important to consider different leadership strategies and their potential impact on teacher career progression. Transactional, transformational, servant and courageous leadership involve different power relations between ‘leader’ and ‘follower’. Transactional or managerial leadership offers a clear distinction between the leader and the follower (Bass, 1985); transformational leadership highlights the importance of fostering a vision to motivate and unite people (Leithwood, and Poplin, 1992); servant leadership, one of the least studied approaches in education, requires the leader to serve the follower (Gumus et al., 2018; Cerit, 2009), while courageous leadership involves being proactive about implementing and leading change – which can involve taking risks and setting and enforcing new standards of behaviour (Miller et al., 2019).

Leadership approaches for equity

Which of these leadership approaches is most suited to addressing discriminatory practices, including racism, in educational settings?

Transactional leadership theory advocates a traditional ‘leader-follower’ approach, which requires staff members to complete tasks in order to achieve the optimum outcome, often with incentives and rewards in place (Bass, 1985). This approach involves close monitoring through structured procedures and short-term goals (see Smith and Bell, 2011, for a discussion of this approach in school settings). Although transactional methods have benefits, such as stimulating motivation through the use of rewards and incentives and recording achievement through structured approaches, there are also drawbacks. Transactional leadership does not generally consider the individual behind the tasks, only the results (Burns, 1978), leaving little room for staff members to demonstrate initiative. The power structure involved in this approach would make it difficult for a follower to challenge any inappropriate or unprofessional actions and behaviours of a leader.

In contrast, transformational leadership theory encompasses a range of leadership strategies that aim to raise the motivation of individual staff members in order to transform organisational cultures (Bass, 1985; Burns, 1978). The four components of transformational leadership – idealised influence, individualised consideration, intellectual stimulation and inspirational motivation – assume that leaders can transcend their own self-interest for the benefit of the organisation and elevate all members of staff (McCleskey, 2014). These leaders may be considered those who lead by example and enable a collective and unified organisational culture (Simola et al., 2012; also see McCarley et al., 2016).

Servant leadership draws on Robert Greenleaf’s (1970) essay ‘The servant as a leader’. It is an empathy-based approach that is compatible with other styles of leadership and focuses on the individual needs of the team and giving them the support needed to progress. Spears (2010) suggests 10 characteristics of servant leadership, providing a framework for leaders in supporting team members:

  • listening
  • empathy
  • healing
  • awareness
  • persuasion
  • conceptualisation
  • foresight
  • stewardship
  • commitment to the growth of people
  • building community

Servant leadership requires compassion (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015), emotional intelligence (Barbuto et al., 2014) and diversity intelligence (Sims, 2018), which involves a leader celebrating and embracing difference while addressing and understanding their own biases. Schroeder (2016, p. 15) described his position as a servant leader as one that includes role-modelling, ‘consistently demonstrating love, honour and respect in the way that I interact with the teacher, students, parents and any other person that enters the school’. Since servant leadership is based on empathy (Andersen, 2018), it may help in supporting marginalised members of staff to flourish. Jean-Marie (2004, p. 58) found that the use of servant leadership enabled a ‘collective mission’ approach, which allowed for problems to be identified and resolved using critical conversations and an ‘us’ mentality. A shift in focus to the person instead of the results could be challenging for some leaders, especially in the context of accountability measures, but leaders could use a blend of approaches, i.e. both transformational and servant leadership, to ensure the completion of objectives at specific milestones (Parolini, 2007).

While servant leadership could potentially encourage conversations that explore structural and institutional inequalities and create a more caring and empathetic school context (Dantley and Tillman, 2009), it might not go far enough towards changing discriminatory practices. Miller et al. (2019) propose that courageous leadership is needed in order to implement organisational changes that will lead to an inclusive and socially just work environment, since this involves moving from ‘talking’ to ‘doing’.

Courageous leadership involves ‘finding or making the right path’ in order to lead change, rather than following the one that may have already been set (Berkowicz and Myers, 2017). Courageous leaders are required to face up to problems and be able to ‘see what others don’t want to see, and do what others don’t want to do’ (Freeman, cited in Miller et al., 2019, p. 991), and this begins by ‘questioning beliefs and worldviews and discovering what is to remain and what needs to be changed’ (Berkowicz and Myers, 2017). Research into the achievement of black Caribbean students in the UK (Demie, 2019) found that courageous leadership and a focus on diversity can improve outcomes, with strong leadership of the headteacher, effective use of a diverse multi-ethnic workforce and valuing and celebrating cultural diversity being factors leading to success.

Courageous leaders can tackle some of the discriminatory practices that act as barriers to career progression for teachers of BAME heritage (Miller, 2019). Miller’s (2019) research into the practices of three headteachers from multi-academy trusts (MATs) identified several characteristics of, and actions taken by, leaders who were proactive about improving recruitment, development, retention and progression among staff of BAME heritage. Crucially, these leaders ‘moved beyond sympathising to tackling, from talking to doing, being conscious their actions were part of a journey and not a destination’ (Miller, 2020, p. 1001). In practice, this meant embedding equity in long-term planning and goal-setting ­– for example, through actively targeting people of BAME heritage when advertising positions; developing a clear process for talent management, including providing opportunities for shadowing and continuing professional development; and seeking and acting on feedback from staff. Alongside these initiatives, whole-school discussions on underrepresentation enabled staff members to ‘own’ the issue of discrimination, helping to build a culture of inclusion that addresses inequality in a sustainable way. 


This reflective article discusses approaches to school leadership that may assist in addressing discriminatory practices within some educational institutions. Research indicates that traditional approaches to leadership have made limited difference in enabling career progression for teachers from black and global majority backgrounds. A change from hierarchy-based approaches might help in building communities that value the individual and challenge discriminatory practices. Specifically, courageous leadership is needed in order to address racial inequality and enable career progression for all teachers in the long term.


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