The importance of leadership role models

leadership ROLE MODELS

By Heather Styche-Patel


“Headteachers occupy an influential position in society …  They are lead professionals and significant role models for the communities they serve.  The values and ambitions of headteachers determine the achievements of schools [and their students].” [1]


Skill sets that were considered strengths in a school head ten years ago, and which typically focused more on management skills and the day-to-day administration of a school, are not enough in schools today.  Increasingly we see school governing bodies recognising that they require a leader who is able to get a handle on the detail whilst facilitating, reviewing and motivating others to produce new ideas, and who is able to follow them through.  A modern head will have a vision of a school that will drive strategy and will be constantly scanning the horizon for new trends and challenges, and will expect others in the leadership team to do this too.  Consequently, we have observed a shift in leadership approach in many schools.


Transformational leadership

There is a plethora of research on leadership styles and models, which build on concepts developed and refined over many decades.  Particularly pertinent to school leadership is the notion of transformational leadership (TL).  Originally developed by sociologist James Downton Jr, Bernard Bass refined the TL concept in the 1990s and created four leadership aspects:

  1. Inspirational motivation: providing meaning and challenging others, fostering team spirit, and clearly articulating expectations.
  2. Intellectual stimulation: encouraging innovation and questioning of assumptions, creating a culture of problem solving and creativity.
  3. Individualised consideration: encouraging communication, actively listening and accepting of individual differences.
  4. Idealised influence: building trust and acting as a role model.

Each aspect comprises leadership qualities that are believed to bring about the development of an organisation’s capacity to innovate and adapt by creating shared purposes.  Schools are complex organisations, bringing together a rich mix of cultural, global, economic and political issues, and require the collaboration and networking efforts of their leaders.

At its most effective, TL in schools focuses on establishing structures and cultures that enhance the quality of teaching and learning to “support the development of changes to practices of teaching and learning” [2], by setting directions, developing people, and (re)designing the organisation to maximise the impact and outcomes of a school.

Our work with governors, supporting the recruitment of senior school leaders and the development of person specifications for these leaders, highlights the emergence of the core TL skills and traits summarised above.  We have found this regardless of configuration of school ownership and governance or a school’s context which, inevitably, create variation and distinctly different job responsibilities.

But it is not just the requirements of a school’s most senior leader where we have witnessed change.  There are shifts in leadership models beneath the senior leader with the parallel move towards distributed leadership.


Distributed leadership

Schools now need not only a wide leadership skill set amongst senior leaders, but also flexibility in their structures to allow a quick response to the changing scene.  In our interviews with heads from around the world, it is evident that regular review of school leadership structures is commonplace.  Drivers of change centre on creating ownership of a school’s vision and collaborative behaviours and give rise to a distributed leadership structure:

“Distributive leadership implies the interdependency of the work roles of leaders and teachers; the articulation of a leadership vision of education, collaboration and leadership as collective interactions… Distributive leadership serves to create both a common vision of learning as well as to organise and shape structures, cultures, processes, and people towards its achievement.” [3]

Alongside a flattening of structures goes a principle that decision making, which traditionally had always been pushed upwards, is now being pushed downwards.  This gives rise to the empowerment of senior and middle managers at a strategic level, but increasingly (and particularly when combined with a transformational leader) we see the empowerment of the class teacher, and increased likelihood of sustainable change and achievement at all levels within a school.


Impact of leadership on students

For many years, education systems around the world have been subject to policymaker scrutiny and reforms designed to improve standards of student achievement.  These reforms have also impacted on school leadership models.  Many research studies (e.g. Hallinger & Heck 2010[4]) have found a clear relationship between leadership, school improvement capacity and student outcomes.  Furthermore, it is where TL and instructional leadership are combined that there appears to be the greatest positive impact on students and their achievements.

Instructional leadership, an approach first defined in the 1980s, involves setting of clear goals, management of the curriculum, monitoring of lesson plans, allocation of resources and regular evaluation of teachers to promote student learning and attainment.  Perhaps, unsurprisingly, we find that there is significant overlap in the characteristics and skills displayed by effective instructional leaders and transformational leaders, namely strong and collaborative communication skills, capacity for and commitment to innovation, and a visible presence within the school.

Not only are these changes creating more effective schools but, importantly, they model behaviours that provide students with a role model to inspire them to develop these behaviours in their own lives.


References and further reading


1 Department for Education (2014) Report of the review of national standards of excellence for headteachers [Online] Available from:

2 Hallinger P (2003) Leading educational change: reflections on the practice of instructional and transformational leadership. Cambridge Journal of Education 33(3): 329–351.

Lee, M, Hallinger, P, Walker, W (2012) A distributed perspective on instructional leadership in International Baccalaureate (IB) schools. Educational Administration Quarterly 48(4): 664–698.

4 Hallinger, P, & Heck, R H (2010) collaborative leadership and school improvement: Understanding the impact on school capacity and student learning.  School Leadership and Management, 30(20), 95-110.


Keller, D (2014) Leadership of international schools: Understanding and managing dualities. Educational Management Administration & Leadership Vol 43, Issue 6, pp. 900 – 917

Gardner-McTaggart. A (2018) International schools: leadership reviewed.  Journal of Research in International Education.  Vol 17, Issue 2, pp. 148 – 16.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2012). Preparing teachers and developing school leaders for the 21st century.  Paris, France.

Philip Hallinger, (2011) Leadership for learning: lessons from 40 years of empirical research, Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 49 Issue: 2, pp.125-142.


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