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Pioneering Leadership: adopting a vertical approach

Written by: Antonia Spinks and Mark Pritchard
9 min read

In transforming our organisation, Pioneer Educational Trust is investing in developing leaders who can thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. As such, we have drawn on research into vertical leadership development to design our own leadership programme supporting teacher agency and building leadership capacity at all levels.

Why traditional leadership development fails

Leadership is crucial in complex, uncertain times. Schools need more leaders, but not through appointing onto leadership teams. We need a leadership revolution in schools where everyone sees themselves as leaders, acting with the empowerment, agency and confidence needed to take on the complex work of educating young people in the 21st century.

Traditional leadership development programmes (a day’s course or NPQ) often fail to make the profound changes in mindset and personal capacity needed for professional growth. These traditional methods adopt a horizontal approach (Petrie, 2014) focused on knowledge acquisition, skills development and competencies related to specific roles. But research suggests that horizontal development on its own is insufficient in developing leaders for an uncertain world.

Research (Petrie, 2014; Gurdjian et al., 2014; Beer et al., 2016) proffers reasons why leadership development programmes typically fail:

  • They are often too short and delivered as an event, rather than recognising that leadership development is a process. One-off courses can give leaders ‘breathing space’, but creating the conditions for profound personal change is unlikely to occur on a day’s training. Moreover, upon returning to school, the ‘to do’ list is waiting for the leader. Back at the day job, the content of the programme quickly fades.
  • The content of traditional programmes usually covers skill development, rather than bringing about a fundamental shift in the person themselves. Leaders already know what they need to do; rather, they struggle to be who they need to be.
  • Learning often occurs in isolation away from school and the leader’s colleagues. Co-workers can struggle to understand or recognise the shift in the leader, resulting in hostility, confusion or a lack of support for ongoing development. 

Pioneering leadership principles

Petrie’s white paper for the Center for Creative Leadership (2014, 2015) proposes an alternative to traditional leadership development, suggesting that whereas horizontal programmes transfer information to the leader, vertical development is essential for the transformation of the leader. Recognising the myriad leadership models, this particular approach resonates with Pioneer’s values and ethos and our strategic vision to empower all colleagues to own their development and act with professional agency. Furthermore, the clarity of the model provides an unambiguous, coherent and simple framework that is easily integrated into our working practices, inspiring innovative and pioneering approaches.

The evidence suggests that there are three primary conditions that enable vertical development: heat experiences, colliding perspectives and elevated sense-making (Petrie, 2015).

Heat experiences are intense stretch experiences that give leaders a task or responsibility that they have to grow to ‘survive’. Providing heat experiences makes the ‘work and the ‘development’ inseparable, growing the leader’s capacity to lead authentically.

Colliding perspectives provide leaders with differing views and perspectives. Being confronted by difference and diversity enables leaders to begin to see the world through multi-frame perspectives, giving greater and deeper insights.

Leaders then need time and space to make sense of their experiences. This elevated sense-making is best done with a tool or a coach to facilitate structured reflection. It is through making sense of the learning from real experiences that new stages of learning are reached.

Together, the primary conditions of heat experiences, colliding perspectives and elevated sense-making are a powerful formula for growing leadership at all levels and in all contexts.

Our journey

Pioneer Educational Trust want all staff to self-conceptualise as leaders, and aim to apply vertical leadership principles to facilitate this development in our staff at all levels.

In developing our own ‘Pioneering Leadership Programme’, applying the principle of colliding perspectives, we assembled a seemingly disparate group of staff from across our schools who perform different roles, ranging from a finance assistant to a headteacher. They attended a launch, having been given Leadership Matters (Buck, 2016) and another leadership text as inspiration.

The leadership texts shared with the team included: Drive (Pink, 2009), Fierce Conversations (Scott, 2002), Black Box Thinking (Syed, 2015), Leadership: Plain and Simple (Radcliffe, 2012) and Start with Why (Sinek, 2011). This supplementary reading provided an intellectual stimulus from influential thinkers outside of education, thereby expanding the team’s collective knowledge. As the core text, Leadership Matters was chosen as it coheres an array of leadership models and applies them to an educational context. Collectively, these texts informed the content of the programme as well as modelling engagement in wider reading and evidence-based practice.

The team were challenged to use their new knowledge and unique perspectives to develop and resource a leadership programme for our Trust: a real heat experience for a group who did not previously know each other well and who had never undertaken a task with the same scope and reach.

The group was facilitated by a leader familiar with vertical leadership principles, who applied the techniques to the group’s collective learning. Halfway through the challenge, the group were explicitly taught about vertical leadership principles and encouraged to apply them to their programme design, having experienced elevated sense-making through the facilitation of the launch event.

The outcome? A fully resourced leadership programme, rooted in vertical leadership principles, designed by our staff for our staff. Roll out began in 2018 for every member of staff: caretakers and co-CEOs alike.

Practical guide

The right organisational factors are essential to the success of any leadership development programme. First, in seeking to embed a vertical approach and achieve systemic change, it is imperative that senior leaders demonstrate a mindset that encourages risk-taking and embraces the concept of distributed leadership. Second, a revision of organisational structures and processes is required to eliminate any dissonance between policy and practice that might act to undermine the approach and the achievement of teacher agency.

As argued by Petrie (2014), Gurdjian et al. (2014) and Beer et al. (2016), traditional leadership development programmes fail as they: are too short and delivered as an event; focus on skills development rather than the person themselves; and are delivered in isolation. To enable our programme to flourish, we interwove the three principles into all aspects of our practice, developing individuals ‘personally and professionally’. We communicate clearly to all staff that ‘the work is the development’ so that they can explicitly link their day-to-day activities to their development as a leader.

How can individuals or schools apply a vertical approach? Some examples taken from our vertical leadership handbook can be seen in Table 1.

Individual Organisation
Heat experiences · Present to governors/SLT on a project

· Research and lead an impact initiative and disseminate findings

· Organise and deliver a CPD event for teachers

· Introduce an element of ‘heat’ to CPD, e.g. real-play rather than role-play

· Assign tasks to those who will learn the most (rather than those already possessing the skills)

· Delegate projects, co-creating the vision, but don’t provide the path to achieving the goal

Colliding perspectives · Complete a 360 and discuss with a coach

· Shadow a pupil/leader/teacher in a different context

· Join Twitter and contribute to online discussions, e.g. #SLTchat


· Provide ‘open SLT’ meetings where any colleague can attend

· Recruit a cognitively diverse workforce

· Build teams of colleagues who don’t typically work together (e.g. to lead CPD or to problem-solve)

Elevated sense-making · Ask for coaching from a colleague or external body, e.g. the Women Leading in Education Coaching Pledge

· Keep a reflective journal

· Schedule time and use tools to facilitate reflection

· Deliver an appraisal system that provides deep reflection

· Timetable scheduled reflection time

· Build a coaching culture, including accredited training


Table 1: Extract from our vertical leadership handbook

Impact to date

Colleagues increasingly view the work and their leadership development as inseparable. The impact has been to create a common language for leadership, making the implicit explicit: colleagues see tasks not as a ‘to do list’ but as an opportunity to grow as leaders through heat experiences, colliding perspectives and elevated sense-making. In continually evaluating the impact of this approach, we use Guskey’s (2016) five-stage model, which appraises the effectiveness of the programme over a period of time, considering different layers of impact: reaction, learning, organisational, behavioural and results evaluation.

The personal impact on individuals has been palpable in diverse and unexpected ways – for example:

  • Through being part of the team developing the programme, a teacher developed the confidence to act with agency and move from a ‘dependent-conformer’ to an ‘independent-achiever’ (Petrie, 2014, p. 6). As a result, she pitched an idea to SLT to lead a whole-school event, bringing one of the school’s values (unity) to life. This in turn empowered pupils to celebrate their diverse backgrounds and develop their leadership confidence.
  • Having attended one cohort, a teacher was inspired to push herself beyond her comfort zone in applying for a significant leadership position, which she previously would not have considered. She was successful in securing a middle leadership position, which enables her to now apply the vertical leadership principles in her work with pupils.
  • Through the coaching element of the programme, a school receptionist has been empowered to formulate a new strategy for building resilience in the pupils. This work has involved working with a range of stakeholders (including pupils and parents), supporting the realisation of one of the school’s values (resilience).

The above examples demonstrate how the application of the vertical leadership principles has inspired colleagues to act with agency, giving them the autonomy and the confidence to lead. Added to which, as a result of this work, there has been widespread systemic changes, including the redesigning of structures to support and encourage professional agency and to create greater consonance between policies and practice – for example, developing the principles informing CPD planning and delivery; recruitment processes; our appraisal model; the way in which we plan the academic curriculum, and more.

As demonstrated above, the impact of this work can be evidenced in the classroom and in pupils’ experiences more widely, whether this be in terms of explicitly and purposefully developing pupils’ resilience or through the application of these techniques in engaging pupils in heat experiences. The next step in our journey is to reconceptualise the programme for pupils across the full age range – from three to 18 – providing our young learners with the opportunity to understand and apply the same vertical development techniques as our colleagues.

What we are working towards – through modelling, providing the Pioneering Leadership Programme and underpinning policies and structures with these principles – is embedding a culture in which everyone sees themselves as a leader and has the agency to take ownership of their professional growth. Our approach has initiated a mindset shift and has begun to transform our organisation, both horizontally and vertically.


Beer M, Finnström M and Schrader D (2016) Why leadership training fails – and what to do about it. Harvard Business Review. Available at:  (accessed 6 January 2020).

Buck A (2016) Leadership Matters. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational .

Gurdjian P, Halbeisen T and Lane K (2014) Why leadership development programs fail. McKinsey and Company. Available at:  (accessed 6 January 2020).

Guskey TR (2016) Gauge impact with 5 levels of data. JSD: The Learning Forward Journal 37(1). Available at: (accessed 25 June 2019).

Petrie N (2014) Vertical leadership development – part 1: Developing leaders for a complex world. Center for Creative Leadership. Available at: (accessed 6 January 2020).

Petrie N (2015) The how-to of vertical leadership development–part 2: 30 experts, 3 conditions, and 15 approaches. Center for Creative Leadership. Available at: (accessed 6 January 2020).

Pink DH (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Radcliffe S (2012) Leadership: Plain and Simple. Harlow: FT Publishing International.

Sinek (2011) Start with Why. New York; London: Portfolio/Penguin.

Scott S (2002) Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time. New York: Viking.

Syed M (2015) Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success. London: John Murray.

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