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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Learning leaders matter

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

This article is based on extracts from the report
 Literature review: learning leaders matter, prepared for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) by Dr Philip Riley of Monash University. © Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, used with permission.

The Australian Professional Standard for Principals sets out what principals are expected to know, understand and do in their role. One of the key expectations of principals under the Standard is the professional practice of developing self and others. As well as helping their staff to learn, principals are called upon to model effective leadership. At the same time, they are expected to demonstrate a commitment to their own ongoing professional development and personal health and well being, ‘in order to manage the complexity of the role and the range of learning capabilities and actions required of the role’ (p9).

The practice of developing self and others is closely considered in the resource Literature review: learning leaders matter, prepared by Dr Philip Riley of Monash University for the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL).

The review examines a range of issues relevant to the Standard, and in particular those which relate to the developing self and others professional practice. The current article notes a few key points made in the review.

Learning leaders draw communities together and direct the focus of the community onto learning

Effective leaders work to improve staff relationships, which in turn aids the learning of staff and students. Such leaders may also use the learning process to improve staff relationships (Ingvarson, Meiers & Beavis 2005). While the research literature sometimes emphasises one or other of these factors, it is clear that both are important.

Learning leaders promote the development of all members of a school community and position leaders as the key drivers of learning-focused school improvement

The work of a leader of learning contains points of tension. One relates to the nature of teaching: teaching is a form of leadership, as teachers are the leaders of their classes, so formally appointed educational leaders actually lead leaders, not followers. This adds to the complexity of the principal’s role: principals must simultaneously cultivate teachers’ ability to lead, and to follow.

Another point of tension relates to the principal as learner. When principals position themselves as learners they model openness to new ideas. However, this must be balanced against a potential risk: in the eyes of staff, their status as learner might diminish their status as expert instructor, and the sense of security this imparts to the school community.

Fostering good working relationships among staff is key to developing both self and others. This means that learning leaders have to play a role in managing the emotional climate of their school communities.

Principals need to create safe learning communities, able to continuously reinvent themselves for a changing world. To do so, principals need to apply their whole selves to the task. This approach to leadership requires courage, a healthy dose of emotional self-awareness (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski 2002), and emotional labour. Emotional labour is the continual monitoring of emotional displays, informed by cultural knowledge of an organisation’s display rules (Zapf et al. 2009). Learning about emotions is crucial for learning leaders in order to manage the learning culture within their schools. This requires genuine connectedness with self and peers, during mentoring and also during leaders’ own ongoing learning (Ehrich, Hansford & Tennet 2004).

Understanding attachment processes helps learning leaders to manage good working relationships

Attachment theory is one of the leading approaches to researching interpersonal relationships. The theory proposes that children form attachment styles as they seek care from significant others (Bowlby 1969/82). As children grow they develop an ‘inner working model’ of the physical world, of others, and of self (Knox 2003), and form a cognitive map of the world and a set of implicit rules, beliefs and expectations for survival within it. The inner working model developed in childhood tends to persist into adult life, influencing professional interactions.

Attachment styles are a useful way for principals to conceptualise the relationships they form with teachers and why some of these relationships seem more difficult than others.

Teachers feel secure when supported by leadership, which leads to better teaching. In developing a culture of learning in a school, it is important that leadership imparts a feeling of security.

There are various attachment styles, one of which is the ‘Secure Base’, or safe haven: a predictable, emotional home base, from which the child leaves to explore the world and returns to for comfort, nurture and safety when needed. Consistent responsiveness to the child’s emotional as well as physical needs promotes the feeling of the secure base in the child (Ainsworth 1982), and increases the level of curiosity about the world (Bowlby 1969/82).

Effective leaders create a similar sense of security among their staff by taking a consistent and therefore predictable approach to their role. In eight separate studies, Gillath and colleagues (2010) found team functioning improved when leaders had created a safe and secure environment.

The more visible and supportive principals are, the lower the incidence and intensity of student misbehaviour. This suggests a concurrent increased focus on learning, creating the cultural conditions for sustained development of self and others.

A recent study of student misbehaviour management in 3,500 schools in England (ISQ Briefings 2007) listed common features of classrooms where student misbehaviour was well managed. One of the protective factors for students, as perceived by teachers, was the level of support coming from their principals. The more visible and supportive principals were, the lower the incidence and intensity of student misbehaviour, preparing the ground for an increased focus on learning. The study also suggested that teachers who are given support by leadership are able to respond earlier and more appropriately with students.

All these issues are explored in depth in the review. The review also considers a range of other issues, such as the different philosophical stances evident in the literature on leadership and learning; neurology and learning; and the differing nature, and contributions made by, coaching and mentoring.

Further resources

AITSL’s School Leadership eCollection provides access to reading lists, books, websites, multimedia resources on leadership and learning.

The review’s reference list provides an extensive range of further resources. The following references are a selection from this list, cited in the article.


Ackerman, RH and Maslin-Ostrowski, P 2002, The wounded leader: how real leadership emerges in times of crisis, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Ainsworth, MDS 1982, 'Attachment: retrospect and prospect' in Parkes, CM and Stevenson-Hinde, J (eds), The place of attachment in human behavior, Basic Books, New York, pp. 3–30.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership 2011, Australian

professional standard for principals, AITSL, http://www.aitsl.edu.au/schoolleaders/australian-professional-standard-for-principals/australian-professionalstandard-for-principals.html

Bowlby, J 1969/82, Attachment and loss, 2nd edn, Harper Collins, London.

Cassidy, J and Shaver, PR 2008, Handbook of attachment: theory, research, and clinical applications, 2nd edn, Guilford, New York.

Ehrich, LC, Hansford, B and Tennet, L 2004, ‘Formal mentoring programs in education and other professions: a review of the literature’, Educational Administration Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 518–540.

Gillath, O, Sesko, AK, Shaver, PR and Chun, DS 2010, ‘Attachment, authenticity, and honesty: dispositional and experimentally induced security can reduce self- and other-deception’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 98, no. 5, pp. 841–855.

Ingvarson, L, Meiers, M and Beavis, A 2005, ‘Factors affecting the impact of professional development programs on teachers’ knowledge, practice, student outcomes and efficacy’, Education Policy Analysis Archives, vol. 13, no. 10, pp. 1–28.

ISQ Briefings 2007, ‘Managing challenging behaviour: how do we help young people with emotional, behaviourl and social difficulties?’ ISQ Briefings, vol. 11, no. 6, pp. 1-3.

Knox, J 2004, ‘From archetypes to reflective function’, Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 1–19.

Zapf, D 2002, ‘Emotion work and psychological well-being: a review of the literature and some conceptual considerations’, Human Resource Management Review, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 237–268.


Subject Headings

School culture
Professional development
School principals
School leadership
Teacher-student relationships
Teaching and learning