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School leadership in perspective

Written by: Andy Buck
8 min read

We seem to love a false dichotomy in education. Whether it be the battle for supremacy between knowledge and skills or the tussle between adopting a zero-tolerance strategy on behaviour versus taking a more child-centred approach, we just don’t seem to be able to resist polarising issues in a way that isn’t often helpful. In this article I will argue that we are at risk of creating another false dichotomy when it comes to how we codify effective school leadership.

On the one hand, we have what is often referred to as transformational leadership, which focuses on the personal qualities and universal leadership skills that underpin a leader’s ability to create a powerful vision and to inspire others to join them on a shared journey to help create a better future for all the students they serve.

On the other hand, as some are increasingly arguing, what really matters is leadership knowledge and role-specific expertise that ensure that leaders are able to take good decisions, embark on effective courses of action and implement them really well. With its strong focus on classroom practice, this approach is often referred to as instructional leadership.

My view is that rather than see these approaches as a choice or dichotomy, we need to consider both perspectives as essential for effective school leadership, tailored to suit the context of the school or team.

Leadership practices

Over 10 years ago, Kenneth Leithwood et al. (2008), in their seminal work Seven strong claims about successful school leadership ‘’, included the assertion in their second claim that that ‘almost all successful leaders draw on the same repertoire of basic leadership practices’ (p. 27). Last year, the same team revisited its work (2019) in the light of more recent research and evidence. Their second claim has remained unchanged, although there are a number of additions to the list that describe these actions in more detail. The revised list of leadership practices relate to four domains of practice. The domains and some examples of specific leadership practices associated with them include:

  • setting directions, involving practices such as building a shared vision; identifying specific, shared, short-term goals; creating high-performance expectations and communicating the vision and goals
  • building relationships and developing people, by providing support and demonstrating consideration for individual staff members, modelling the school’s values and practices and building trusting relationships with and among staff, students and parents
  • redesigning the organisation to support desired practices, including building collaborative culture and distributing leadership, maintaining a safe and healthy school environment and allocating resources in support of the school’s vision and goals.
  • improving the instructional program, by staffing the instructional program, providing instructional support and monitor student learning and school improvement progress. (Leithwood et al., 2019)

These have been particularly influenced by the work of Viviane Robinson et al. (2009), which stresses the importance that school leaders participate with teachers in their professional learning activities.

What is striking about this list of leadership actions is how the four key domains fit with the well-respected organisational leadership model proposed by David Pendleton and Adrian Furnham (2012) in their brilliantly intuitive Leadership: All You Need to Know. Based on a literature review of over 100 years of key research, they have synthesised leadership into three key domains, each of which overlap to give a total of six areas, as set out in Figure 1.

Figure 1 is titled "Six key areas for leadership action" and shows a Venn diagram. The top circle is labelled "Setting strategic direction" and is coloured in green. The bottom right circle is labelled "Building and sustaining relationships" and is coloured in red. The bottom left circle is labelled "Delivering results" and is coloured in blue. The area where the green and red circles overlap is labelled "Creating alignment" and is coloured in yellow. The area where the red and blue circles overlap is labelled "Team working" and is coloured in purple. The area where the blue and green circles overlap is labelled "Planning and organising" and is coloured in light blue. The area where all circles overlap is labelled "Leadership" and is coloured white. The area covered by the green circle and its overlaps is labelled "Strategic domain". The area covered by the red circle and its overlaps is labelled "Interpersonal Domain". The area covered by the blue circle and its overlaps is labelled "Operational Domain".

As well as noting how the two domains that relate to (i) direction-setting and (ii) relationship-building are mirrored almost exactly in both models, it’s interesting to note that key elements of each also relate to both generic and role-specific knowledge and skills. For example, if we examine three of the five most powerful dimensions identified in Viviane Robinson et al.’s work (promoting and participating in teacher learning and development; planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum and establishing goals and expectations), we can see the importance of leaders knowing how to support teachers to improve their practice, knowing how to create a positive climate for learning and being able to plan and evaluate teaching and curricular effectiveness. These all require in-depth knowledge and expertise about teaching and learning if leaders are to have impact.

Equally, there are key elements within both models that relate to more generic leadership actions, such as building relationships, planning or creating buy-in. Engaging colleagues is a fundamental part of a leader’s role. You can be pursuing a great strategy but will not be having the desired impact if your team don’t understand the approach or care about what you are trying to improve.

Personal qualities

But when it comes to the potential false dichotomy, this is only half the story. In its seventh claim, the Leithwood report also states that ‘a small handful of personal traits explains a high proportion of the variation in leadership effectiveness’ (Leithwood et al., 2008, p. 28). In other words, there are some key personal qualities, knowledge and skills that appear to underpin what effective leaders do. These are grouped into three key domains – cognitive resources, social resources and psychological resources. What is once again striking about this list of personal attributes is how it relates to both expert knowledge, such as the elements of domain-specific knowledge and problem-solving expertise, and more generic personal qualities, such as resilience, self-efficacy and proactivity (Leithwood et al., 2019). As with leadership actions, it is the powerful combination of both that this evidence suggests leads to the greatest impact of leadership on outcomes for pupils. To think of this as an either/or choice is unhelpful.

A synthesised model

Drawing both perspectives together, I would like to suggest that there are therefore two key realms for school leadership at all levels: (i) role-related leadership knowledge, skills and expertise, and (ii) personal qualities and universal leadership skills. As Figure 2 illustrates, there is a set of specific leadership knowledge and role-related expertise that a teacher needs in order to be able to lead an effective lesson, which requires effective curriculum and pedagogical expertise. This knowledge is represented by the box in the first row in Realm One. As teachers take on more formal leadership responsibilities, there is a cumulative requirement for additional expert knowledge and skills to carry out each role effectively. These are shown by the additional shapes for increasingly senior roles. For example, headteachers need specific knowledge in relation to budgetary or HR issues that a middle leader does not usually require.

But leaders at all levels also need to demonstrate a set of personal qualities and be able to use a range of generic leadership skills that are shown in Realm Two (represented by the grid). For teachers, this includes generic skills such as building and sustaining relationships with students or planning and prioritising time effectively. As the scale and scope of a leadership role increases (shown by the spheres), unlike with Realm One, there are no new personal qualities or skills. Rather, individual leaders need to apply the very same traits but in an increasingly broader context, adapting their approach to suit their wider context or situation.

Figure 2 is titled "Leadership realms" and shows a table with two columns and four lines. The first column is titled "Realm One. Leadership knowledge and role-related expertise". The second column is titles "Realm Two. Personal qualities and universal leadership skills". The first line is titled "Teacher", the second line "Middle leader", the third line "Senior leader", and the fourth line "Headteacher". In column one, line one shows a square. Line two a square and a circle. Line three a square, a circle and a triangle. Line four a square, a circle, a triangle and a pentagon. In column two, each line shows eight smaller red squares and eight smaller teal squares. The amount of red and teal squares stays the same in all four lines. In addition, each line contains internally touching circles in increasing number and size in column two. Beginning with line one and one circle, each line gains one additional circle, which increases in size.

This is where David Pendleton’s model from earlier is so helpful, and why at Leadership Matters we have placed his ‘primary colours’ model at the heart of our thinking about school leadership. Whether we are talking about teachers leading a lesson or heads running a school (and everything in between), what matters is having the right balance between the six key elements in the model, which combine both expert role-specific knowledge and the personal qualities and generic leadership skills needed for success.

Typically, leadership development in the UK has tended to focus on the second realm, often at the expense of the former. But this is changing. A number of national organisations are successfully revisiting the balance between these two realms and giving greater emphasis to the role-specific expertise required for successful school leadership. This is a positive development. But we need to proceed with care. Programmes that shift too far in this direction run the risk of creating a cadre of leaders that know exactly what they want to achieve and who have the precise evidence-informed expertise and approaches to get there but nonetheless fail to deliver the outcomes they are seeking. Unless leaders recognise that this is not a binary choice and also continue to pay attention to developing the generic leadership skills and personal qualities of the second realm, they run the risk of becoming the leader who, rather than creating fellow leaders who lead alongside them, is leading from the front with all the right strategies but turns around only to wonder where everyone is.


Leithwood K, Hopkins D and Harris A (2008) Seven strong claims about successful school leadership. School Leadership and Management 28(1): 27–42.

Leithwood K, Harris A and Hopkins D (2019) Seven strong claims about successful school leadership revisited. School Leadership and Management. DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2019.1596077.

Pendleton D and Furnham A (2012) Leadership: All You Need to Know. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan.

Robinson V, Lloyd C and Rowe K (2009) School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Summary of the Best Evidence Synthesis (BES). Available at: (accessed 18 March 2020).

Further reading

Buck A (2018) Leadership Matters 3.0. Woodbridge, UK: John Catt Educational.

Collins J (2001) Level 5 leadership – the triumph of humility and fierce resolve. Harvard Business Review 79(1): 67–76.

Covey SMR and Merrill RR (2006) The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. New York, NY: Free Press.

Hattie J (2008) Visible Learning. Abington: Routledge.

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