Beyond the generic/domain-specific leadership dichotomy

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Date published 30 July 2021

Last updated 21 March 2024

Jennifer Barker

Jennifer Barker

Dean of Learning Design

Tom Rees

Tom Rees

Executive Director

In this blog series, we are attempting to answer the question: ‘what is school leadership and how can we develop it?’ This is an important question for us, given the critical roles that school leaders play in modern society and the responsibility we have at Ambition Institute to provide effective professional development for tens of thousands of colleagues who lead in schools.

In this post, we aim to move the debate beyond the dichotomy between generic leadership skills and domain knowledge, where generic leadership skills are positioned as teachable, transferable skills and domain knowledge is characterised as only formal knowledge, drawn uniquely from the field of education.

There is a lot to say, so we have organised this post into three sections which aim to do the following:

  1. Demonstrate that what are often described as generic leadership skills, are in fact underpinned by a great deal of knowledge – a large amount of which is drawn from the specific subject, domain and context in which a leader works.
  2. Acknowledge that some of what we need to learn as leaders will be unique to our subject/domain, some will be transferable across other fields, and some will have its origins in other domains to education.
  3. Demonstrate that ‘generic leadership skills’ are a problematic focus for organising leadership development due to their abstract nature, poor definition and reliance on domain knowledge.

A dichotomy

In our last post, we explored generic and domain-specific approaches to school leadership and the tension that exists between these perspectives. We argued that generic approaches – which prioritise general concepts like vision, change or having difficult conversations – have dominated that discourse and developmental approaches within school leadership in recent decades. We explored the debate between generic leadership approaches and domain-specific knowledge.

One way of navigating this apparent dichotomy is to conclude that the answer is ‘both’ – that we can acknowledge the importance of domain knowledge, but the answer is to find the right blend of the two (generic leadership skills and domain specific knowledge).

We think it is more complicated than this.

Whilst it might intuitively sound right that leadership development should focus on both generic and domain-specific approaches, this view is built on the assumption that generic and domain-specific bodies of knowledge are two different things. We think such a view misses the important connection between them, specifically that a generic skill, when broken down into component parts, consists largely of knowledge from within a given domain, be that formal knowledge or knowledge of the context and people we work with.

"Is the answer to find the right blend of generic leadership skills and domain specific knowledge? We think it is more complicated than this."

To illustrate this, Tom will use the example of his dad.

Dad was a secondary music teacher for over forty years. During this time, he led several music departments as head of music and, as a result, became quite expert in this. Towards the end of his career, he worked in several different secondary schools, teaching GCSE and A-Level classes and, from time to time, would offer less experienced and usually younger heads of music advice on what to do.

Dad’s experience enabled him to recognise the challenges that different heads of music encountered. He could understand the common pitfalls, see the likely misconceptions and identify more quickly the underlying root causes of problems that needing attending to, rather than being distracted by the symptoms or surface level features of these.

He was able to help colleagues attend to these problems more quickly and successfully than they would otherwise have been able to if left to their own devices. This led to some great things happening in music departments including academic success of students, wider participation in concerts and performances, success for individuals who learned musical instruments and many wonderful moments where music helped to bring communities together in ways that only music can. As a result, he was occasionally praised for being ‘visionary’, being able to make change happen and to take people with him.

Typically, these abilities such as creating a vision, leading people or building relationships can be seen as transferable leadership skills, and a generic leadership approach suggests that these can be developed in isolation and applied to different contexts. However, the limitations of this approach become clear when you consider the example of Tom’s dad. Whilst he may have appeared to have been visionary and to create change in a music department, if he were asked to advise the French department or an early years setting, he would certainly not have come across as visionary and his ability to make change happen would have been diminished significantly. This is because his apparent general leadership skills in fact rested on his wealth of experience from within a specific subject domain and age range.

Why is there a tendency to view skill development as generic?

Despite the popularity of generic leadership skills, literature doesn’t support the idea that something generic and transferable enables individuals' success in a given domain.

‘It is a common assumption in discourse about critical thinking that being good at critical thinking is basically a matter of being proficient at certain mental processes’ write Bailin et al (1999, p273) but this, in the authors’ view, is ‘logically misleading and pedagogically mischievous’. So why is this view so prevalent? The authors contend that when a person succeeds, there is no doubt that something must have gone on in that person which enabled the individual’s accomplishment. This ‘something’ is then assumed to be the same sort of thing that happens within a person whenever they do this thing, or indeed the same thing that occurs in a different person when they also succeed.

However, there is no reason to suppose this is the case, write Bailin et al. They argue that these ‘so-called “processes” are hypothesized, and then reified after the fact’ (p273). The idea that generic skills exist is incredibly alluring, but the evidence for whether it is possible to define and teach a bank of generic skills is not convincing.

"...his apparent general leadership skills in fact rested on his wealth of experience from within a specific subject domain".

Educational leadership requires knowledge from other fields

In defence of the generic leadership approach, it is sometimes argued that there is a lot to be learned from other sectors outside of education, and that an emphasis on domain-specific knowledge is insular or parochial. This is an important point. Education, by design, is a multi-disciplinary domain which draws on knowledge, not only from across the range of different subject disciplines taught within the school but from fields including psychology, organisational management and politics. Clearly therefore, it is important both for school leaders to be open to learning from across many different subjects, fields and sectors.

And can knowledge be useful in more than one domain? Yes, of course – an understanding of how to influence behaviour change, for example, is useful in health, sport, education and many other fields. Implementation is another example of a body of knowledge that will be useful across many fields/sectors. We argue, however, that knowledge of implementation divorced from the context within which it is being deployed is limited. So, whilst leadership development programmes should include content on areas such as behaviour change and implementation, they should be delivered in such a way that inextricably links content to both the field of education and supports participants to make strong connections to their personal context.

It is important to acknowledge that there is valuable knowledge that can be learned from other sectors and that some knowledge will transfer into other fields. Despite this, we remain sceptical that ‘generic leadership skills’ are a useful focus for leadership development.

Problems with generic leadership skills

There are four reasons why we think a focus on developing generic leadership skills remains problematic, particularly when thinking about this question through the lens of leadership programme design.

  1. Generic skills rely on specific knowledge
  2. Knowledge doesn’t transfer easily across domains
  3. Conceptual imprecision
  4. Opportunity cost

1. Generic skills rely on specific knowledge

When generic leadership skills are proposed (e.g. to lead change, create a vision or hold difficult conversations), they are usually couched in general and abstract terms. Their abstract nature is what allows them to be used to describe what leaders ‘do’ across a range of fields. But to observe that there are common things that leaders ‘do’ is different from understanding how we can develop such abilities.

To develop these skills in school leaders, we have to move beyond the abstract term and into more concrete and specific component parts of the skill, and we find that a lot of the component knowledge required within this skill is specific to the domain that is being led.

In our early example of Tom’s dad above, we saw how the ability to create a vision, lead change or build relationships relies to a great extent on extensive knowledge and experience from within a specific subject or domain.

Another example would be that of ‘difficult conversations’ – a common module in leadership development programmes. Although there may be some knowledge of how to structure high-stakes conversations that can be applied in different contexts, the quality of any such discussion will rely to a great extent on a good understanding of the topic which the difficult conversation is about.

Being able to hold a difficult conversation with a parent about whether their child should undergo diagnosis for a particular special educational need requires different, and more specific knowledge, compared to having a difficult conversation with a member of staff about their punctuality. And this is again different from having a difficult conversation with an early career teacher about a misconception they might hold about an aspect of the mathematics curriculum.

Therefore, it is problematic for a leadership curriculum to focus on what leaders do, rather than what it is that underpins their ability to do it. Leadership development, we contend, must be rooted in the domain or field which is being led.

2. Knowledge doesn’t transfer easily across domains

Having established that skills which might look like generic leadership skills are in fact closely tied to the knowledge within a given domain, it follows that these skills are therefore not as transferable as they might first appear.

A skill that appears to be generic, such as the ability to analyse or predict, is in fact deeply connected to the domain within which the analysis or prediction is taking place. Interpreting a rainfall graph is different from interpreting a painting. Predicting a story ending is different from predicting the weather.

In a leadership context, a head of department’s leadership skills will be enhanced if leading a subject in which they have sufficient expertise but diminished if this changes or they take on a different department where they are a non-specialist. Equally, a successful head of sixth form’s ability to lead does not transfer equally to an early years setting.

Fundamentally therefore, it is hard to separate ability in any field from knowledge of that domain and evidence suggests contextualized knowledge is not easily generalized or transferred (Berliner, 2004).


3. Conceptual imprecision

Often, generic leadership skills are abstract terms which describe a very high-level concept like ‘leading change’ or ‘managing people’. These definitions are very broad and, as such, are hard to define and therefore teach or develop in a reliable way. Although the high-level term might sound like something desirable for a leader to have, without being more granular and precise about the underpinning knowledge that lives behind the concept, it is not possible to translate the concept or knowledge into a leadership curriculum.

In his book Leadership BS, Jeffery Pfeffer critiques some of the popular approaches to leadership development and describes this problem as ‘conceptual imprecision’. He writes that ‘[o]ne cannot build a science this way, and more important, it is impossible to develop valid recommendations that leaders can implement’ (Pfeffer, 2015).

4. Opportunity cost

Even if we were to identify generic and transferable knowledge or skills in a precise enough way that we thought could be developed in leaders and was transferable (noting the above challenges), we would also need to be convinced that it was more useful to include in a leadership development programme than rooting development in domain-specific knowledge. There is so much that is useful for school leaders to know yet time for professional development is so short and precious. The inclusion of any content should only happen as a result of judicious and rigorous decision-making.

Currently, the body of evidence as to what is likely to enable success in any given domain does not support a prioritisation on the development of generic knowledge or skills (Bailin et al, 1999; Willingham, 2010; Perkins and Salmon, 1989).


When observing or describing successful school leaders (or indeed anyone), it is common to use abstract or generic concepts as part of our description. However, to inform effective leadership development, we must dig beneath what we observe on the surface and understand more about the knowledge that sits behind this.

We have acknowledged in this post that there is valuable knowledge that can be learned from other sectors, and that some knowledge will transfer into other fields. We have also highlighted several problems that exist with trying to develop ‘generic leadership skills’ and argued that when thinking about how to improve or develop, a focus on generic skills and attributes is of limited value.

We have argued that it is problematic to see generic skills and domain-specific knowledge as two separate categories to choose between as they are almost always entwined. Rather, we think that generic or abstract concepts such as ‘change’ or ‘having a vision’ can be seen as composite – made of component knowledge and that this component knowledge is largely related to the domain and context a person works in.

In summary, we are persuaded that rather than organising a curriculum for leadership development around a set of generic leadership capabilities, a better starting point is to organise leadership development around the core responsibilities of school leaders’ roles.

In our next post, we will explore further how we can better understand the core responsibilities (or persistent problems) of school leaders’ roles, and how these can be used to organise effective leadership development.


Bailin, S, Case, R, Coombs, J. R, & Daniels, L. B. (1999). Common misconceptions of critical thinking. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31(3), 269-283.

Berliner, D. C. (2004) Describing the Behavior and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 24(3), pp. 200–212

Perkins, D., & Salomon, G. (1989). Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound? Educational Researcher, 18(1), 16-25. doi:10.2307/1176006

Willingham, Daniel. (2010). Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? Arts Education Policy Review. 109. 10.3200/AEPR.109.4.21-32.

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Generic and domain-specific perspectives of school leadership

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