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The importance of leadership in high-performing schools


This article originally appeared in ISQ Briefings Volume 16 Number 6, 2012.

There is a growing body of evidence that school leadership has an impact on student outcomes second only to the influence of teachers in the classroom (Hattie, 2003; Leithwood et al, 2006; Tooley, 2009; Day et al, 2009; New Leaders for New Schools, 2009; Day et al, 2010; Barber et al, 2010).

A recent RAND Corporation report found that nearly 60% of a school's impact on student achievement is attributable to leadership and teacher effectiveness, with principals accounting for 25% of a school's total impact on achievement. Furthermore the report found that, while effective teachers have a profound effect on student outcomes, this effect soon fades when the student moves on to another teacher, unless the new teacher is equally effective (New Leaders for New Schools, 2009). In order for students to have high-quality learning every year, whole schools must be high functioning, and this means they must be led by effective principals (ibid).

Other studies support the RAND Corporation findings in relation to the importance of leadership:

  • An analysis of Ofsted inspection results in England showed that for every 100 schools with good leaders, 93 will have good standards of student achievement; and for every 100 schools that do not have effective leadership and management, only one will have good standards of achievement (Barber et al, 2010).
  • James Tooley's research (Tooley 2004), on low-cost private schools in India, Africa and China, concluded that more than inputs or context, learning depends on 'a determined and accountable leader'.
  • A major study in the UK on the impact of school leadership on pupil outcomes (Day et al, 2009) found 'there are statistically significant empirical and qualitatively robust associations between heads' educational values, qualities and their strategic actions and improvement in school conditions leading to improvements in student outcomes'.
  • A research paper written by Leithwood and colleagues (2006) concludes, 'as far as we are aware, there is not a single documented case of a school successfully turning around its pupil achievement trajectory in the absence of talented leadership'.

The RAND Corporation report defines principal effectiveness as consisting of three prongs: student outcomes, teacher effectiveness and leadership actions. The first of these, the report says, is the primary marker of success, and a major criterion on which leadership effectiveness should be evaluated. All schools, no matter how high or low their current achievement levels, can do measurably better.

Since teacher quality is the most important in-school factor in relation to student achievement, the extent to which school leaders are successful in driving teacher effectiveness is another major measure of their success as leaders. Developing human capital for their schools involves leaders in hiring quality teachers, evaluation and professional development, retention, leadership development, providing instructional leadership and, ultimately, dismissing staff members who are not performing. High-performing leaders need, however, to do more than understand theories of leadership or what makes effective teaching; they also need to be able to take effective action to achieve student outcomes and teacher effectiveness.

A report from McKinsey and Company (Barber et al, 2010) points out that not only is the role of school leadership important, it is becoming more critical as the international trend towards devolution of school management to the school level, and the evidence that this is increasingly more important to the success of the system, becomes widely accepted. In addition, schools in themselves are becoming more complex, with effective leadership required to ensure young people acquire the skills and knowledge needed in the 21st Century.

The McKinsey and Company report was composed from an International Review of School Leadership, in collaboration with the UK National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services, during 2010. Data for the report came from a literature review, almost 70 interviews with experts, policymakers and leaders of school systems, and a survey of 1850 middle-tier, high-performing and randomly selected school leaders in eight countries. The countries and regions selected for the review were: Alberta, Canada; England; Ontario, Canada; New York, USA; New Zealand; The Netherlands; Singapore; and Victoria, Australia.

In relation to what high-performing leaders do and the personal attributes they display that make them effective leaders, the report confirmed what is generally known about effective leadership. That is, high-performing leaders:

  • build a shared vision and sense of purpose
  • set high performance expectations
  • role-model the behaviour and practices they desire
  • design and manage the teaching and learning program
  • establish effective teams and distribute leadership among school staff
  • understand and develop people
  • protect teachers from issues that distract them from their work
  • establish school routines and norms of behaviour
  • monitor performance
  • connect the school to parents and the community
  • recognise and reward achievement
  • focus on student achievement and put children ahead of personal or political interests
  • are resilient, persistent and adaptable
  • develop deep understanding of people and context
  • take risks and challenge accepted beliefs and behaviour
  • are self-aware, lifelong learners
  • are optimistic and enthusiastic.

The survey conducted for the report found a number of other interesting characteristics shared by high-performing leaders. The leaders reported that:

  • The biggest contributors to their success were: setting vision and direction; supporting the development of staff; and ensuring effective management systems and processes.
  • The major motivator for doing their work was the desire to make a difference.
  • Their focus is more on instructional leadership and developing teachers than on traditional school management, although this was important.
  • The most important skill of an effective leader was to coach others and support their development; the biggest challenge to improve teaching and the curriculum.

In their seminal text, Balanced Leadership: What 30 Years of Research Tells us about the Effect of Leadership on Student Achievement, Waters and colleagues at the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) organisation (2003), identify 21 leadership responsibilities (see Table 1) that have a significant effect on student learning, and the correlation of each responsibility to academic achievement gains. The aim of identification is to focus on those activities, among all of the things principals do that are essential to leadership success. 

Table 1


The extent to which the principal …

  1. Affirmation

recognises and celebrates school accomplishments and acknowledges failures

  1. Change agent

is willing to and actively challenges the status quo

  1. Communication

establishes strong lines of communication with teachers and among students

  1. Contingent reward

recognises and rewards individual accomplishments

  1. Culture

fosters shared beliefs and a sense of community and cooperation

  1. Discipline

protects teachers from issues and influences that would detract from their teaching time and focus

  1. Flexibility

adapts his or her leadership behaviour to the needs of the current situation and is comfortable with dissent

  1. Focus

establishes clear goals and keeps those goals in the forefront of the school's attention

  1. Ideals and beliefs

communicates and operates from strong ideals and beliefs about schooling

  1. Input

involves teachers in the design and implementation of important decisions and policies

  1. Intellectual stimulation

ensures that faculty and staff are aware of the most current theories and practices, and makes the discussion of these a regular aspect of the school's culture

  1. Involvement with Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment (CIA)

is directly involved in the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction and assessment processes

  1. Knowledge of CIA

is knowledgeable about current curriculum, instruction and assessment processes

  1. Monitor/evaluate

monitors the effectiveness of school practices and their impact on student learning

  1. Optimiser

inspires and leads new and challenging innovations

  1. Order

establishes a set of standard operating procedures and routines

  1. Outreach

is an advocate and spokesperson for the school to all stakeholders

  1. Relationships

demonstrates an awareness of the personal aspects of teachers and staff

  1. Resources

provides teachers with materials and professional development necessary for the successful execution of their jobs

  1. Situational awareness

is aware of the details and undercurrents in the running of the school and uses this information to address current and potential problems

  1. Visibility

has quality contact and interaction with teachers and students

Waters and colleagues found that if leaders focus on these 'essential' aspects of their work and try to reduce the non-essential trivia of leadership, they are more effective in both running their schools and managing change.

Of interest is the fact that high-performing leaders do not work longer hours than less-effective leaders; rather, they work differently. The global average of hours worked during term time was 59 hours for high-performing principals and 61 for the randomly selected group; however, 75% of high-performing leaders worked on teacher development at least once per week, compared with 63% of the randomly selected principals. High-performing principals also spent more time walking the halls of their schools, coaching teachers, interacting with parents and external administrations and spending time with students (Barber et al, 2020). 

In a breakdown of jurisdictions the McKinsey report found principals in New Zealand and Victoria, Australia, spent more time in their offices than heads in other jurisdictions at 60% and 56%, respectively, compared with New York principals at 33% and Singapore at 43%. They also, along with the Netherlands, spent less time in the school but outside the office, 29–30%, compared with New York principals who spent 51% and Alberta principals who spent 44% of their time in the school, with much of this time spent on coaching and developing staff. The third category of work activities was 'outside the school on official business', where all jurisdictions reported similar percentages, between 10–16%, with the exception of Singapore where principals spent 22% of their time on official business.

Leadership in high-performing schools does not, of course, rest with the principal alone. In recent years the notion of distributed leadership has taken hold in schools and some empirical evidence is emerging to support a strong relationship between distributed leadership and school performance (Leithwood et al, 2006).

For example, distributed leadership is linked to successful change management (Graetz, 2000; Blasé & Blasé, 1999; and Hallinger & Kantamara, 2000); to leveraging successful professional learning communities (Morrisey, 2000); and to develop strong collegial relationships (Little, 1990). It seems that distributed leadership can enhance opportunities for schools to benefit from the collective capacities of staff and to capitalise on the strengths of individuals. It also provides the opportunity to develop 'on-the-job' leadership training and to empower people who feel valued by taking on extra responsibility to improve their career opportunities (Day et al, 2009).

Simply deciding to distribute leadership between staff members and delegating to them is not enough. Hargreaves and Fink (quoted in Day et al, 2009) point out, '… distributed patterns of leadership don't always serve the greater good. Distributed leadership is sometimes bad leadership'. They argue that distributed leadership may hide weaknesses in the organisation, it may reduce accountability, and there is some evidence that having fewer leaders rather than more is better because lines of authority and communication are clearer. There is also the danger that those to whom leadership is distributed may have an 'agenda' which undermines the positional leader and that the positional leader may feel threatened by a widely respected leader who has an informal leadership role.

Despite these difficulties the benefits of distributed leadership are strong enough in recent literature for schools to consider this as a way to reduce the significant load on positional leaders and to build capacity within the organisation. It appears that where it is most successful, leadership is distributed to those who have, or can develop, the knowledge and expertise to carry out the role assigned to them, and that there needs to be coordination in a planned way of the initiatives to be undertaken by them (Locke, 2003).

While many of the skills required by school leaders can be learned, 'some people develop those capacities much more readily than others, and some do it to a much higher level' (Barber et al, 2010). Identifying and developing these latter individuals is critical to the overall leadership capacity of the organisation.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that schools are not paying enough attention to leadership succession, although the research finds that high-performing organisations identify potential leaders early and have mechanisms in place to develop their talents over time (Barber et al, 2010). They provide opportunities for potential leaders to gain experience in leadership roles, undertake professional development to develop the skills they need to be successful, and carefully manage the level of leadership they take on as they move up the promotion scale.

The evidence from the McKinsey and Company survey (ibid), showed that:

  • early experience of leadership roles is one of the main reasons for becoming a principal, and is more likely to be cited as a main reason by high-performing principals (48%) than randomly selected principals (34%)
  • more than three quarters of principals say either being identified as a potential leader or opportunities to take on leadership responsibility are major contributors to their development
  • high-performing school leaders who have worked as deputy principals generally describe this is a major contributor to their development.

While none of these findings is surprising, schools do not always provide opportunities for leadership growth within their organisations, although some systems are beginning to realise leadership development is critical to ensure effective succession when the large numbers of baby boomers retire in the next few years.

In Ontario, for example, all school districts are required to have succession and development plans. Some districts, like York Region, have been proactive in this regard and have identified 800 future leaders across 200 schools for whom leadership professional development will be supplied. In Singapore, schools are responsible for identifying potential leaders, normally within their first five years of teaching and, once identified, these teachers are put on a leadership track which provides them with opportunities to take on progressively greater leadership responsibilities while also undertaking formal leadership training. In Australia, systems across each state are more and more identifying young teachers with leadership aspirations and potential, and in Queensland the Catholic and Lutheran systems have comprehensive leadership training programs as does Independent Schools Queensland and the Queensland Educational Leadership Institute.

The evidence, although not comprehensive at this stage, suggests that not only does early identification and development elicit higher performance; it produces school leaders who are more representative of society as a whole. In Singapore, for instance, where succession planning is a tightly managed process, there is a larger proportion of female principals than in the other seven countries or districts represented in the McKinsey study.

When it comes to the selection of individual principals for individual schools there are some examples of systems and schools looking at new selection processes to try to identify the best 'fit'. In particular there is a movement away from interviews and tests during the selection process to observation and practical training. In New York there is emphasis on long-term assessments, with potential candidates having their work observed over periods of up to six months; similarly, in Alberta, those involved in the selection of school principals are expected to 'observe, assess, and support potential leaders over a long period and advise during the application process' (Barber et al, 2010). In the Netherlands, teachers aspiring to be leaders can join a development pool where they undertake a theoretical and practical course, part-time, for up to three years, at the end of which they decide whether a school leadership program is right for them or not.

Finally, mention should be made that there is some evidence that the requirement to hold a leadership qualification for principalship helps improve the quality of school leadership; although, with the exception of England and Ontario, most systems do not make this a mandatory requirement (ibid). 

Overall, the research finds that performance management and succession planning in education is underdeveloped compared with the business sector; however, there is an emerging consensus about how to improve school leadership. The consensus recognises that:

  • leadership focused on teaching, learning and people is critical to the current and future success of schools
  • high-performing principals focus more on instructional leadership and the development of teachers
  • leaders are grown through experience and support
  • leaders learn best in context and from a diverse range of sources (including peers, superiors, online resources, and formal training)
  • maximising leadership capacity means regarding the selection and development of leaders as integral parts of the work of schools (Barber et al, 2010).

The McKinsey report concludes that, although we are a long way towards defining effective leadership, we still have some way to go to capture 'the leadership premium' (Barber, 2010). Schools and their boards cannot afford to ignore the importance of this research or the need to ensure their leaders are supported, nurtured and assisted to develop, if the outcomes all schools desire for their students are to be realised.


Barber, M., Whelan, F. & Clark, M. (2010), Capturing the Leadership Premium, McKinsey & Company, http://mckinseyonsociety.com/capturing-the-leadership-premium/

Blasé, J. R. & Blasé J. (1999), Implementation of Shared Governance for Instructional Improvement: Principals' Perspectives, Journal of Educational Administration, 37 (5)

Day, C., Sammons, P., Hopkins, D., Harris, A., Leithwood, K., Gu, Q., Brown, E., Ahtaridou, E. & Kington, A. (2009), The Impact of School Leadership on Pupil Outcomes: Final Report, UK Department for Children, Schools and Families Research

Day, C., Sammons, P., Hopkins, D., Harris, A., Leithwood, K., Gu, Q. & Brown, E. (2010), 10 Strong Claims about Successful School Leadership, College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services

Graetz, F. (2000), Strategic Change Leadership, Management Decisions, 38 (8)

Hallinger, P. & Kantamara, P. (2000), Educational Change: Opening a Window onto Leadership as a Cultural Process, School Leadership and Management, 20 (2)

Hattie, J. (2003), Teachers Make a Difference, What is the Research Evidence? Australian Council for Educational Research

Leithwood, K., Day, C., Sammons, P., Harris, A. & Hopkins, D. (2006), Successful School Leadership: What it is and How it Influences Pupil Learning, Nottingham, UK: National College for School Leadership and Department for Education and Skills

Little, J. (1990), The Persistence of Privacy: Autonomy and Initiative in Teachers' Professional Relations, Teachers College Record, 91 (4)

Locke, E.A. (2003), Foundations for a Theory of Leadership, in S. E. Murphy, & R. E. Riggio (Eds.), The Future of Leadership Development, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Morrisey, M. (2000), Professional Learning Communities: An Ongoing Exploration, Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

New Leaders for New Schools, (2009), Principal Effectiveness: A New Principalship to Drive Student Achievement, Teacher Effectiveness, and School Turnarounds, New York, NY: New Leaders for New Schools

Tooley, J. (2009), The Beautiful Tree, Washington, DC: Cato Institute

Waters, J.T., Marzano, R.J. & McNulty, B.A. (2003), Balanced Leadership: What 30 Years of Research Tells us About the Effect of Leadership on Student Achievement, Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning

Further Reading

1. Tooley, J. (2009), The Beautiful Tree, Washington, DC: Cato Institute

The Beautiful Tree documents the work of James Tooley and his findings from working in private schools in India, China and African. Tooley found, to his surprise, that private schools are providing quality education to millions of poor children in the developing world. Whereas development experts insist that investment in public schools is critical for the future wellbeing of the poor in developing nations, Tooley found that small entrepreneurs are educating the poor and it appears to be private schools lifting children and families out of poverty, not governments. In one region of India, for example, 80% of urban children and 30% of rural children attend private schools; in China's Gansu province 586 private schools are located in small villages, despite the existence of a comprehensive public system. Furthermore, contrary to accepted wisdom, the modest fees of private schools are within reach of most families, and parents not only find them superior to public schools but struggle against great odds to provide a good education for their child. Tooley argues that development funds should be invested to support private institutions, through vouchers to parents and microfinance loans to the schools. We should, Tooley says, look at what the poor can do – and are already doing – for themselves, and support them to change life for themselves and their children.

2. Barber, M., Whelan, F. & Clark, M. (2010), Capturing the Leadership Premium, McKinsey & Company, http://mckinseyonsociety.com/capturing-the-leadership-premium/

This report is based on the findings of an international comparison of school leadership using a sample of 1800 principals across eight high-performing school systems and concludes that 'apart from classroom teaching, nothing influences improvements in school standards more than the quality of head teachers'. Effective principals spend more time coaching and developing their teaching staff as well as interacting with parents and students. They help each other and establish networks and clusters, which they then use for learning and development and for providing support to weaker schools. The McKinsey report finds that, although we are a long way towards defining effective leadership, we still have some way to go to capture 'the leadership premium'.

Interesting sites: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dis2rTPLIdc


Subject Headings

School principals
School leadership
School administration
School culture
Educational planning