Great School Leadership

Great School Leadership

Not long ago, I was asked to write a chapter in a book on what great school leadership looked like. I was tempted to reply, "I don't know, but you know it when you see it". But, then I thought I should probably do better. So I put the following reflection together which I hope you enjoy.


Evidence of authentic leadership skills in some school heads can be ambiguous. Although the memory of their headship may be golden in the minds of a few, if it is not valued highly enough by sufficient enough, obscurity can threaten. To be considered outstanding, a school leader needs to give sufficient reason to a sufficient number.

Outstanding school leadership is evidenced when a school runs well. A well-run school will see students enjoying their learning and teachers profiting from their teaching.

Many schools describe themselves as ‘leading schools’ but have not been genuine leaders in anything. Most schools are ‘me too’ schools. Outstanding school leaders typically make a strong contribution to educational debate. They find something to be expert on – something that distinguishes them, and their school, as being a pioneer.

Not unrelated is the fact that many outstanding heads refuse to be bound by developmental theorists who tell them what is age-appropriate and pedagogically necessary in the classroom. Instead, they explore what can be achieved if things are done differently. Not for them the sticky miasma of mediocrity. Students and their teachers are given permission to find out and fail.

The ability to cope with failure is an important quality in a successful school leader. Challenge and condemnation is the required price for achievement. Therefore, the pioneering head usually has something that keeps them going during the dark moments. It’s usually a compulsion. It’s often a messianic calling. It can be the thrill of doing something differently.

There are educational practices that should be challenged. Excessive bureaucracy and red tape is one of them. Another is a narrow focussing on a curriculum, the majority of which will be totally irrelevant when students leave school. The vision of most outstanding school leaders extends beyond preparing their students for an exam or ticking the right box.

School leaders are allowed to have quaint habits, but they are not allowed to be socially inept. ‘Rangatira’ is a New Zealand word that describes the person who is able to gather people and weave them together. This is what outstanding school leaders do. They create teams and direct communities. This is an important point. Why? Because the measure of a head’s effectiveness is not whether they can do something. It’s whether they can get it done.

Put another way, it is essential for a school leader to have good people skills and the ability to build around them a support network that is able to make them look better than they are. This requires a particular style of leadership. The autocratic and individual must be replaced by the democratic and collegial. The dictator who fosters conformity must become the facilitator who values diversity. The mechanical must be replaced by the relational. Devolution, empowerment and delegation are the tools of leadership today.  

That said, some things cannot be delegated. Heads are always required to:

  • Give direction.
  • Achieve goals.
  • Be an example.
  • Enhance reputation.
  • Encourage productivity.
  • Manage processes.
  • Ensure wellbeing.
  • Solve problems.

In a frenetic and fast-paced world, other tasks are required such as being able to cope with change and manage complexity. School leaders must also be able to build on strengths, eliminate weakness, neutralise threats and seize opportunities.

Many heads content themselves with looking after their school. However, outstanding school leaders are often effective in other domains such as self-leadership and societal leadership.

Self-leadership: A head shows little promise in leading a school if they cannot lead themselves. Outward expressions of leadership are borne of inner character. Leadership centres on who a person is as much as what a person does. Outstanding school leaders often have a physical, spiritual, mental and social strength. They look after themselves, and by so doing, are able to look after their schools.

Societal leadership: Society wants their school leaders to be prophet, parent and priest. They want someone who can interpret the times and prepare their children for the future. They want someone to fill in their parenting gaps. They want someone who will promote sound values. For this reason, the outstanding school leader often has an influence on both sides of the school fence.

Finally, the outstanding school leader is often identified as such because they are a ‘servant-hearted’. The term is a strange one. Almost oxymoronic, it hints at an impossibility. Not so. Those who often have the most impact on schools are those that have set out to enrich the lives of others.

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