by Liz Free


Posted September 26, 2019

What is great leadership in 2019?

Leadership looks exactly the same today as it always has; or does it?  I was recently asked by Independent Education Today ‘What does great school leadership look like in 2019?’  Well, I would argue that in many ways it looks the same as it always has been, but with a few very visible bells and whistles! 

Photo Source: The Dollywood Foundation

I am very much drawn to the leadership of a musical legend and a global educationalist, the rather unexpected leadership genius that is Dolly Parton.  She said in a quote, that is all too frequently and incorrectly attributed to John Quincy Adams, 

If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.

And whilst it may be easy to dismiss this as ever so slightly whimsical and idealist, the very sense that great leaders inspire greatness in others appears to me to be a universal truth; a truth that is backed up by weighty education research that is.  

The proof is in the research

Viviane Robinson , education royalty, completed research for the New Zealand ministry of education where she undertook a best evidence synthesis of research into the most impactful education leadership, and published her findings in Student-Centered Leadership1.  She concludes that the average impact of the leadership dimensions ‘leading teacher learning and development’ had the greatest impact on student outcomes with a weighty effect size of 0.84.  This was double the second most impactful leadership dimension of ‘establishing goals and expectations’ and ‘ensuring quality teaching’. 

In my own early experience as a head teacher in the UK and internationally, I was influenced by the greats of Jim Collins, Michael Fullan, Dylan Wiliam among others.  I dutifully and diligently focused on moral purpose, alignment, messaging, being authentic, visible alongside ensuring I had the right people in the right seats and on the right bus; all of which were, and continue to be, important.  However, the simplest and most profound realisation to me was that the glue that holds all of this together, and that will ultimately lead to the realisation of any vision, are the people who will bring about any change. The people around you are your greatest asset. 

What does great leadership look like in 2019?

A school quite simply cannot exceed the quality of its staff and so, when asked what does great leadership look like in 2019; an age of social media where every leadership decision, action and motion is seen? 

I answer that great leadership in 2019 is about inspiring, enabling and facilitating all staff in your school to be great.  Throw out compliance inducing limitations of performance management and performance related pay, and start to build a self-improving culture and climate.  Start conversations with every single member of staff about how they can improve their practice and ask what you can do to support them.  Incremental gains lead to cumulative greatness!   

Be a loud, proud and visible leader of learning in all its guises.  Use the tools and technology around you to model and amplify the message, this action and this vision.  Inspire greatness through the potential of greatness of all those around you.   

An excerpt of this was first published by Independent Education Today in “What makes an inspirational school leader?”, Monday July 1, 2019


1 Robinson, Viviane M. J. Student-Centered Leadership. Jossey-Bass, 2011. 

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