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Why is leadership important in education?

Posted on: March 15, 2022
Behind shot of a man in a suit addressing a room of people

Educational leadership encompasses principles that focus on academic success but also on academic management through collaborating with parents, students, and teachers. In fact, effective leadership is highly dependent on the ability to delegate to other academic staff and to empower students to take responsibility in understanding the best ways for them to learn.

The ongoing global pandemic has confronted academic leaders with numerous challenges. Lockdowns and social distancing have meant that online learning has become the norm, but has made practical, hands-on learning difficult. This has affected all subjects throughout the academic year, but some have been harder hit than others: in the sciences, which experienced restrictions on time in the lab for research and experiments; and in the arts, as drama is a subject which, by its nature, requires contact with many people. Both teachers and students have had to apply adaptive strategies to the restrictions.

The International Journal on Lifelong Education and Leadership published a paper in 2020 entitled Navigating Emotional Waters in Schools: Becoming an Emotionally Adaptable Leader. The paper acknowledges the emotional impact of a crisis such as the pandemic on all staff members and the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership roles. It highlights the multifaceted approach that times of flux demand including skills in transformational leadership, complexity leadership, crisis management, cutback management, and resiliency. That’s a lot of leadership skills and professional development required in a short space of time and the effect of the pandemic on the future of education has yet to be measured. The paper offers a framework for becoming an emotionally adaptable leader with short-term and long-term strategic plans.

In the United Kingdom, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education merged with The Equality Challenge Unit and the Higher Education Academy to form Advance HE in 2018. The Leadership Foundation Fellowship is no longer being offered, however, Advanced HE has focused on offering resources such as online workshops for leaders in higher education across the world. These sessions complemented the Final Capstone Report as part of the Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project. Four overarching themes were explored:

  • Leadership: Inspiring a collective commitment and achieving focus with kindness, care, and compassion.
  • Communication: With both staff and students (including supporting staff development needs).
  • Partnership: ‘Working with’ rather than just ‘doing for’ students.
  • Wellbeing: Mental and physical health and wellbeing for students and staff.

What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership is a type of leadership, the rise in prominence of which is generally credited to Bernard Bass who wrote a book of the same name with Ronald E. Riggio. It is defined as a leadership approach that causes change in individuals and social systems. Ideally, it inspires such positive change in the followers of effective leaders that it catalyses them into becoming leaders too. 

Academic leadership has taken cues from transformational leadership in recent years as it has been shown to successfully engage all stakeholders (teachers, parents, students, and administrators) in decision-making and learning outcomes. This is in contrast with transmissional leadership which focuses on conveying information without inviting participation.

Bass notes that authentic leadership that is also transformational is grounded in a moral foundation based on four components:

  • Idealised influence
  • Inspirational motivation
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Individualised consideration

Transformational leadership depends upon:

  • The moral character of the leader
  • The ethical values embedded in the leader’s vision, articulation, and programme (which followers either embrace or reject)
  • The morality of the processes of social ethical choice and action that leaders and followers engage in and collectively pursue

The 2009 paper Transformational Leadership in the Classroom: Fostering Student Learning, Student Participation, and Teacher Credibility cites two other papers that demonstrate the successes of transformational leadership:

“Subordinates of transformational leaders have less role conflict, higher task performance, and higher satisfaction with a task than subordinates with non-transformational leaders (Howell & Frost, 1989) and show more helping as well as compliance (Den Hartog, De Hoogh, & Keegan, 2007).”

Transactional leadership is another leadership style popularised by Bass. This is one of the more hierarchical forms of leadership that is dependent on the formal authority of the leader within the academic department. It involves motivating and directing followers mainly by appealing to their own self-interest and uses a system of reward and punishment.

The future of educational leadership

The pandemic has tested the managerial styles and structures of school leadership. A recent TES (Teaching Education Supplement) article entitled “Teachers most likely to quit over poor management” stated that top-down pressure on school leaders is putting education recovery at risk. Over a third (34%) of respondents to a survey said that management issues in their schools would be most likely to drive them to quit the profession aside from pay, workload, and working conditions. Almost half (49%) of independent school teachers surveyed said that problems with management was the factor most likely to mean they would think about leaving the teaching profession behind.

Academia has been forced to learn quickly about effective leadership during crisis events. Any shortfalls in leadership competencies become glaringly obvious in crisis and can no longer go unnoticed. The paper Resilience, Reorientation, and Reinvention: School Leadership During the Early Months of the Covid-19 Pandemic draws learnings from other crisis events such as the actions of school principals after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. The authors interviewed 55 educators from 43 school organisations from around the world, but predominantly in the USA for the paper. Their findings were that a values-driven approach resulted in actionable responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Key to these responses were the values of relationship, connectivity, collective wisdom, collaboration, empathy, and adaptive risk-taking.

Lead the way with a master’s in education

A master’s in education can play a key role in your professional development, whether you hold a position in the higher education sector or the school system. 

Providing a course that allows you to deepen your knowledge of the challenges facing pedagogy today and develop your critical thinking, the 100% online MA Education Leadership Management from Keele University will help to progress your career. 

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