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MEP learning pack

Masters in Education Practice: Leadership


Characteristics and features of leadership


Personal philosophy and values

What makes a successful leader? Are there certain approaches that are key to success in school leadership? Do all effective leaders adopt the same behaviours and do the same things? Interestingly the answer to these perennial questions is not a straightforward ‘yes’. There are indeed some features that we can identify with successful school leaders, but there is no particular magic formula. Indeed, the crucial factors appear to be not what strategies such leaders use, but how they use them and, most important of all, the personal qualities which makes leaders the people that they are.

The balancing act

Successful leaders emerge as those who are adept at securing a balancing act between a whole range of pressures and expectations, while fundamentally ensuring continuing commitment to a set of both personal and professional values. They are able to take the demands of external accountability and focus these to the school’s own performance objectives. Yes, they set direction and goals, but they do this through caring for and developing people. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the research into successful leadership in challenging schools in the United States by Jacobson, Johnson, Ylimaki and Giles (2005) where they identify three prevailing leadership features.

  • The accountability principle.
  • The caring principle. 
  • The learning principle.

They concluded that:

People need to be nurtured and developed if they are to have both the capacity to produce at high levels and the willingness to do so. Our seven principals, each in his or her unique way, was exemplary at modelling the behaviours and practices they desired.

(Jacobson et al, 2005; page 617)

It’s not what you do but how you do it and apply it

The overwhelming evidence from a range of research suggests that although a small handful of personal traits explain a high proportion of the variation in leadership effectiveness:

. . . the ways in which leaders apply these basic leadership practices – not the practices themselves – demonstrate responsiveness to, rather than dictation by, the contexts in which they work.

(Leithwood et al, 2008; pages 27–28)

The typical leadership characteristics that help sustain the performance of successful principals are:

  • vision and passion
  • appropriate leadership style
  • clear and articulated values
  • personal qualities and skills
  • ability to build relationships
  • being highly engaged and connected to the school and community
  • managing change.

Above all it is how the headteacher goes about the job and relates this approach to the particular school context that is vital.

Similar conclusions are made about successful teacher leaders. Intriguingly the traits most frequently mentioned in research conducted in six secondary schools was ‘quietness’; being unassuming and soft-spoken were highly valued. The next most frequently mentioned specific traits were: having a sense of commitment to the school and/or the profession; having a sense of humour; being a hard worker; and possessing an appreciative orientation to others (Leithwood, 2003).

Personal qualities, credibility and integrity

Throughout the world there is an emphasis on the importance of personal outlook and qualities of successful school leaders. So for instance amongst high performing principals in the Caribbean, their personal philosophy anchored and underpinned their personal behaviours and characteristics (Hutton, 2013). Similarly in the UK it was found that:

. . . heads in more effective schools are successful in improving pupil outcomes through who they are – their values, virtues dispositions, attributes and competences – the strategies they use, and the specific combination and timely implementation and management of these strategies in the unique contexts in which they work.

(Day et al, 2009; page 195)

Adept leaders build trust with colleagues, which in turn foster a belief in the leader’s integrity. They need to be perceived as effective in communicating their values by staff and this is founded on two credibility components:

. . . first the credibility that comes from expertise and the ability to do the job; second, the credibility that comes from the character and integrity of the individual.

(Davies and Davies, 2013; page 85).

These personal qualities of leaders are fundamentally linked to the sense of a moral imperative (see subtopic 3.1 – The moral imperative of leadership). They provide the basis for vision and also the practical tools for dealing with the stresses and challenges of leadership:

This foundation of deeply-held beliefs and code of moral values not only provides a personal paradigm for living, but also gives an innate philosophy of practice which comes into play not only in the face of the day-to-day experiences of school leadership, but also when that leadership is tested by the unexpected pressures of critical incidents and external events.

(Flintham, 2010; page 4)

Activity 3.2.1

Think of a leader who has inspired you and was effective. Try to identify what it was about the characteristics of the person that so impressed you. How do you think these characteristics might be nurtured and developed in others?

Familiarise yourself with the professional teacher standards in Wales and the underpinning values for practising teaching assistants, teachers and leaders.

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