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Growing leaders: the challenge of finding tomorrow’s leaders today

Independent Schools Queensland

Effective succession means having a plan and making plans to create positive and coordinated flows of leadership, across many years and numerous people. (Hargreaves & Fink, 2006)

Issues about a projected leadership shortage are well-documented and of increasing concern to schools and education systems as they face the loss of many of their current leaders to retirement and the perceived reluctance of a new generation to take on leadership. While anecdotal evidence suggests the latter might be overstated, the fact is that schools increasingly need to manage succession planning to prepare for the complex educational environment of the twenty-first century.

Effective leadership succession planning ensures schools can provide a steady pipeline of leaders to feed into the organisation. While in the past leaders worked their way up a linear progression, from teacher to the management of others, to the management of managers, the management of function and then to management of the organisation (Charan et al, 2001), today’s organisations need to be more flexible and fast-moving and to develop their own leadership succession plans to fit the needs of the individual and the school.

Recent thinking in education, private companies and government is to move away from the view of leaders as the product of individual characteristics to seeing leadership as collective, shared potential in the organisation (West-Burnham, undated; Hartle & Thomas, 2003; Hargreaves & Fink, 2006).

West-Burnham (undated) characterises this change as a shift ‘from a focus on leaders to a focus on leadership’. This involves fostering greater interest in leadership and creating a sense of possibility so that more people are aware of what leading a school involves (NCSL, 2007).

Hartle and Thomas (2003) outline a six-step process for schools to follow in order to give opportunities for teachers to develop leadership potential (see Figure 1).

Step 1:  Create a culture of growth

Leadership growth presupposes a culture where staff members are encouraged to take on leadership roles, and where innovation is encouraged and mistakes are accepted as part of the learning process. Although the focus of leadership development is on growing the skills and knowledge of individuals, this is unlikely to happen in an environment where aspiring leaders are not given opportunities to take on leadership roles and functions. The first step in building leadership capacity is to grow a positive, collaborative culture where there are clear job descriptions and lines of accountability within which individuals can practise skills in the expectation that everyone has a leadership role. Hartle and Thomas suggest that some of the characteristics of a leadership culture include: modelling leadership behaviour by being visible around the school; building trust by encouraging risk-taking and giving authority; being explicit about the school’s model of leadership; and identifying leadership potential in others through observation and discussion.

Step 2:  Benchmark current practice

Baseline data about where the school is right now with regard to encouraging leadership development gives a starting point for a program of leadership growth. One way to gather this data is to survey staff on their perceptions about how well the school identifies, manages and develops leadership talent, how effectively the school communicates the standards it holds for leadership; how often staff receive feedback about performance and so on. Another strategy might be to audit the leadership spread in the school by identifying policies, projects and responsibilities that encourage leadership.

Step 3:  Define the leadership qualities you want

In order to develop leadership talent, staff members need to know what talents are required for particular tasks. Hartle and Thomas identify four levels of leadership in schools.

  • Teacher as leader
  • Leader of a team
  • Leader of teams across the school
  • Leading the school

These levels roughly equate with teacher, Head of Department, Deputy Principal/Dean of Studies etc and Principal. Each of these ‘levels’ requires particular skills and it is critical to define what leadership excellence looks like in each of them. The National Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals is an attempt to do this for Australian educators; however, there are many other sets of standards around the world to which schools can refer. The important point here is that schools agree on the leadership qualities they require and all staff members know what these qualities are.

Step 4:  Identify the leadership talent pool

In the past, promotion to a leadership position often depended on seniority and years of service. This is no longer enough to ensure a pool of staff ready to take on the many and complex leadership positions in today’s schools. Leadership talent management is about identifying individuals and managing their progression to leadership, rather than managing roles. McCall (1998) cites a research project by the International Consortium for Executive Development Research as useful in identifying leadership talent. The researchers asked 838 senior managers from six international corporations to identify those characteristics which identified individuals with ‘high potential’. The senior managers came up with a list of 11 characteristics.

  • Seeks opportunities to learn
  • Acts with integrity
  • Adapts to cultural difference
  • Is committed to making a difference
  • Seeks broad business knowledge
  • Brings out the best in people
  • Is insightful - see things from new angles
  • Has the courage to take risks
  • Seeks and uses feedback
  • Learns from mistakes
  • Is open to criticism

Some countries and systems are now identifying leadership potential in the first few years of teaching (Darling-Hammond et al, 2007) and developing a continuum of leadership preparation from pre-service to induction to inservice support. This strategy rests on a developmental approach which argues that identifying the people best able to take advantage of developmental opportunities, as opposed to collating a list of leadership ‘characteristics’ and then identifying individuals with those characteristics, may be a more efficient way of growing leaders. Most systems, however, use both identification of individuals and a list of leadership characteristics at various times.          

Byham and colleagues (2003) advocate creating an ‘acceleration pool system’ which develops groups of individuals for executive level responsibility, rather than handpicking just one or two individuals. Pool members are assigned to tasks and projects which stretch their skills, make them highly visible and accelerate individual development. Members of the pool are often assigned mentors, receive more coaching and feedback and have opportunities for specific professional development to grow their leadership capabilities.

Step 5:  Assess individual talent

This step relies on schools establishing effective performance appraisal systems that allow school management to make informed judgments about individual potential. Such a system is predicated on supplying relevant professional development when leadership weaknesses are identified and on using appraisal for development purposes rather than for denying any chances for future leadership on the basis of performance which suggests a candidate is ‘not ready’.

Step 6:  Grow leadership talent

Schools have a responsibility to grow leadership talent, even if doing so means that they will lose talented individuals to other schools. Hartle and Thomas (2003) argue that if all schools accept that they are contributing to a ‘national pool’ of leadership talent, then there is much that could be done at school level to grow leadership talent. They identify a 2002 NCSL report on capacity-building as providing key activities for schools to undertake. Activities include:

  • providing opportunities to exercise leadership
  • giving staff the opportunity to take risks in terms of trying out leadership tasks and then backing them up
  • promoting individual leadership on whole school issues
  • encouraging everybody to see the school holistically so that teachers can see beyond the classroom
  • placing emergent leaders in key roles.

While schools are certainly turning their attention to building leadership capacity throughout the organisation for the projected leadership shortage, some systems are already looking at new models of leadership to cope with the demands placed on current leaders and to cover already existing shortages in some areas.

Three main models seem to have evolved, two of which have gained some acceptance in Australia. These are co-principalship, where two part-time candidates share a single position or both work full-time to share the principal load; and executive principalship, where the principal becomes the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the organisation and has two or three Heads of School to assist in sharing the leadership load. 

This model allows the CEO the time to have a strong strategic focus while also providing opportunities for emerging leaders to practice their skills at a high level while under the mentorship of a skilled CEO.

In the UK, another model for leadership is emerging: the Federation. A Federation is a group of two or more schools that formally agree to work together to raise standards (Hartle &Thomas, 2003). Under this model, one principal oversees a number of schools, challenging the tradition of each school having its own head.  

This option is gaining some acceptance in areas where schools are facing long-standing principal recruitment and retention issues.

The literature clearly identifies that the issue of finding tomorrow’s leaders is a growing preoccupation for schools and systems. Individual schools would appear to be unwise to ignore the need to develop new leaders.

If the much-vaunted leadership shortage eventuates, schools that are prepared will have a clear advantage over their competitors. If it does not occur, the same schools will have increased leadership capacity, more highly skilled staff and will be well-placed to respond to challenges and opportunities.

This article originally appeared in Independent Schools Queensland Briefings August 2008.


Byham, W, Smith, A & Paesc, M 2003, Grow Your Own Leaders, Financial Times/Prentice-Hall, New Jersey.

Charan, R, Drotter, D & Noel, J 2001, The Leadership Pipeline - How to Build the Leadership Powered Company, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Darling-Hammond L, LaPointe, M, Meyerson, D & Orr, M 2007, Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs, Stanford Educational Leadership Institute, San Francisco Bay.

Hargreaves, A, & Fink, D 2006, Sustainable Leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Hartle, F & Thomas, K 2003, Growing Tomorrow’s School Leaders: The Challenge, research carried out by the Hay Group for the National College for School Leadership, Nottingham.

NCSL 2002, Building Capacity: Developing your School, National College for School Leadership, Nottingham.

National College for School Leadership 2007, Leadership Succession: An Overview – Securing the Next Generation of School Leaders, Nottingham.

McCall Jnr, M 1998, High Flyers – Developing the Next Generation of Leaders, Harvard Business School Press, Boston.

West-Burnham, J (undated), 'Building Leadership Capacity – Helping Leaders Learn' in Meeting the Challenge: Growing Tomorrow’s School Leaders, National College for School Leadership, Nottingham.


Subject Headings

School leadership
Educational planning