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How to be an effective educational leader

Posted on: August 2, 2021
Female teacher sat in front of a young boy smiling

Educational leaders play a key role in the school, university and organisations they work for. Not only are they responsible for growing the reputation of their organisations, they are also pivotal to the climate and attitude within.

For instance, simply pushing students, and the teachers and educators teaching the students, to hit certain grades isn’t effective leadership. Instead, students must be seen as individuals with different needs and ambitions and must be nurtured and given a strong foundation to learn from with clear guidance and direction.

By building a strong foundation for the whole organisation, educational leaders create a place where the learning and teaching community can flourish, as learners will feel supported and encouraged whilst having trust in those that lead the way.

Key successful education leadership skills

A successful leader in education understands the importance of building a community and building trust. When the community is inclusive and caring and leaders are seen displaying these traits to both students and fellow colleagues, as well as, for example, parents in a school setting, it enables all people connected to the community to feel motivated and supported. When people feel positive about the place they learn or work in, they are more likely to achieve good outcomes.

One way to help educators to feel positive about their work is by empowering and mentoring them as they cultivate their own leadership skills, allowing them to progress in their own careers. Creating collaboration across educational organisations also enables a bigger and better sense of community.

To foster an open and trusting community within an educational setting, leaders must also lead by example. By being role models rather than leading with the outdated adage of ‘do as I say, not as I do’, respect will be built. Leaders who are passionate about their work and who encourage risk-taking amongst the whole community they work within are leaders who students and staff can look up to.

What are the different leadership styles in education?

While there are many different approaches to leadership in educational settings, there are four major styles which are often adopted. 

Servant leadership

In servant leadership, the focus is on the people being led rather than the end goals. Those in leadership roles step back and support the interest of other educators, with no self-interest on the leaders themselves. Leaders who follow this type of leadership style prioritise guidance, empowerment and a culture of trust, and there is an assumption rather than active encouragement that those within the organisation will be self-motivated to align to the wider goals.

Transactional leadership

Transactional leadership is modelled on a business transaction – on the give and take. Employers need work done and employees do that work in exchange for money. This principle  is the heart of the workplace, and it only works if everyone in the community sees it in the same way. In education, this style of leadership may not always be successful as teaching is often seen as a vocation and so money is not the main motivating factor. Though this leadership style is easy and straightforward, when deployed by school leaders, it has been seen as unlikely to be effective long-term.

Emotional leadership

Emotional leadership requires leaders that have a high emotional intelligence and are able to tap into the feelings and motivations of staff. The leader then influences staff to achieve a common goal with this emotional approach, by instilling a positive outlook with charisma and optimism. As the emotional output of a leader is often passed on to the team below them, leaders with a positive mood often create groups with more positive feelings towards each other, and a leader displaying happiness and satisfaction when progress towards goals is made is motivating to those around them.

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership is an amalgamation of all the key characteristics of servant leadership, transactional leadership, and emotional leadership. It takes the best qualities of each and motivates teams with a deep sense of shared purpose. This approach works well in educational settings as it taps into the emotions of educators whilst still offering compensation for their work. A leader who adopts a transformational leadership style is often said to be a model of integrity and fairness, to set clear goals for staff and the organisation, and to be one that has high expectations but encourages others and provides support and recognition. Transformational leaders inspire people to achieve the best outcomes.

What is ethical leadership in education?

The Ethical Leadership Commission was established in 2017 by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). With the aim of creating some guiding principles for ethical leadership in education, they published a framework in 2019 to give principles to those in education settings to support leaders in their decision making.

These principles laid out key characteristics that should be displayed by ethical leaders in education, which included:

  • Selflessness – acting solely in the interest of children and young people
  • Integrity – avoiding placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations who may try to inappropriately influence them in their work
  • Objectivity – taking decisions impartially and fairly
  • Accountability – submitting themselves to scrutiny from the public for their decisions and actions where necessary 
  • Openness – taking decisions in an open and transparent manner
  • Honesty – being truthful
  • Leadership – exhibiting these principles in their own behaviour, actively promoting and supporting the principles, and being willing to challenge poor behaviour when it occurs

Ethical leaders should also display that they are trustworthy, use experience, knowledge and insight in their decisions, demonstrate kindness and respect, are fair, conscientious and dutiful, and are positive and encouraging.

How to become an effective leader in education

Being an effective leader in education requires constant learning and practice. One way to take your educational leadership skills to the next level is to study Keele University’s MA Education Leadership and Management. 

Studied entirely online and part-time, this postgraduate degree will allow you to continue working and developing your leadership practice as you learn. Ideal for headteachers and leaders in schools and universities, as well as those in politics, the civil service, policy think tanks, business and NGOs, your professional development will take place through independent study and group tasks with peers all around the globe.

Find further information on this innovative degree, tuition fees, and entry requirements on our programme page. With six start dates a year, you could begin within weeks.

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