Effective leadership at all levels

Jan. 10, 2017

It is important that school leaders know which actions drive the greatest impact. Here, we have collated the latest research on what the best leaders do at each level.

Download the report PDF

Middle leadership

LKMco’s 2016 report, Firing on all cylinders: What makes an effective middle leader?, commissioned by Teaching Leaders, investigates which behaviours, characteristics, enabling factors and barriers contribute to or hinder a middle leader’s success.

The strengths of a great middle leader

Effective middle leaders are particularly good at management, especially building and managing their teams. They see team competencies and dynamics as important factors in underpinning their effectiveness as well as attaching importance to planning and resource management.

Three key characteristics seen in an effective middle leader are:

  1. Strong teamwork and interpersonal skills.
  2. Assured organisation, planning and resource management ability.
  3. Being professionally informed.

Enabling/limiting factors for middle leaders

The report’s literature review identifies five main enabling/limiting factors for middle leaders.

  1. Quality of senior management: some characteristics of senior management teams are particularly important to cultivating effective middle leadership, including a collaborative culture and the extent to which expectations are clear.
  2. Institutional culture: good leadership at all levels is more likely where the culture is collegial rather than strongly hierarchical.
  3. Team members: departmental effectiveness depends crucially on the cohesiveness of the team, in part because middle leaders find their affirmation as leaders more often from team members rather than from their formal title or position, or from senior management.
  4. Professional development: development, either as part of a professional leadership network or through mentoring and coaching from senior management in the school, is critical to helping middle leaders gain confidence and knowledge in their leadership role.
  5. Time pressures: middle leaders often cite lack of time as the biggest constraint on their effectiveness due to the number and diversity of tasks they are expected to handle, in addition to policy pressures to perform.


A recent study by the Centre for High Performance found that there are five different types of headteacher, but that only one is truly effective. The architect leader is the least well-known and rewarded, yet most successful leadership approach.

Architect headteachers’ schools offer a model of long-term, sustainable improvement; while their results tend to improve more slowly, their impact is deeply embedded and lasts even after they leave.

What does an architect headteacher do?

Architects quietly redesign their schools and transform the communities they serve. They look at long-term goals to achieve the greatest benefit for all children. Importantly, they also support their teaching staff, offering coaching, mentoring and development programmes.

Who are architect headteachers?

Typically architects are more likely to have experience in industry outside of education. They consider a child’s whole educational journey, and so look to work with or expand into other phases. For example, secondary heads often set up primary or sixth form provision. They believe in the benefits of holistic support, and invest in engaging with the local community to bring students’ attention to the opportunities around them.

Why isn’t the architect headteacher celebrated?

Architects’ examination results do not start improving until their third year, and so they do not deliver immediate, dramatic results. Unlike surgeon headteachers, they exclude very few pupils but instead put them on a separate pathway offering tailored support.

Adjusting how we measure success for schools would be one way of recognising the value of these leaders. Instead of looking just at exam results and spend per child, we should also consider how leaders achieve these results and their added value and investment in society.

Our programmes encourage leaders to develop and implement a long-term vision for their school which delivers the best outcomes for every child. They give headteachers the skills to use a range of leadership styles to deliver this, including many of those seen in architect headteachers.

Executive headship

An executive headteacher (EHT) “directly leads two or more schools in a federation or other partnership arrangement”. In a 2016 report, Executive Headteachers: What’s in a Name?, the National Governers Association, National Foundation for Educational Research and The Future Leaders Trust looked into the new, evolving and variable role.

The report found that, broadly, an EHT post will have one of three priorities:

  1. Improvement: turning around ‘failing’ schools by filling temporary posts for rapid turn around; expanding headteachers’ roles to take on failing school(s); absorbing schools into federations and MATs through new EHT posts.
  2. School/site expansion: overseeing large (sometimes multi-school) sites.
  3. Partnership leader/partnership growth: building and growing new partnerships between schools, to a greater degree than school/site expansion above.

Characteristics of the executive headteacher role

Unlike the role of the traditional headteacher, that of the EHT is more strategic. Many EHTs take responsibility for coaching and mentoring the staff (particularly senior staff) in their schools. In training and mentoring staff EHTs can empower headteachers to better fulfil their roles, allowing the EHTs to withdraw from the operational side of running schools.

Ensuring consistency across a group of schools demands sharing best practice, and collaboration between staff on different sites. EHTs take on a wide outward-facing remit, dealing with ‘politics’ and external meetings.

Enabling/limiting factors for executive headteachers

Having an effective EHT in place with clear lines of responsibility can help with establishing good governance and accountability. They must ensure that each role in the group of schools is clearly defined and communicated.

Centralised practices and processes across schools aid consistency, efficiencies and improvements. Other group-wide roles, such as executive business manager or leader of teaching and learning, ensure consistency of these areas across a number of schools, sites or phases.

The role is new and evolving, and requires very different skills to those of standalone headteachers. Executive headteachers must find ways to develop these skills in order to have the greatest impact.

Characteristics of a successful MAT CEO

The MAT chief executive (CEO) role is so new that there is no formal research on their impact. We have collated the most common practice-led examples of great MAT CEOs from the Executive Educators MAT Success Framework and the National Schools Commissioner’s model of the nine characteristics of successful trusts.

The strongest MAT CEOs keep pupil outcomes and school improvement at the core of their approach. They underpin this with a focus on:

  1. Setting a clear vision and unifying purpose for the trust.
  2. Translating their vision into reality through a clear operating model with a defined role for the trust’s central office, supported by quality assurance, governance and risk processes.
  3. Building leadership capacity, retaining talent and succession planning.

Building on success

Growth is a key priority for successful MAT CEOs. The highest performing CEOs are encouraged to grow their trusts, whether from starter, established, national or system MATs. Knowing how to lead change and manage through growth transitions and key turning points is a vital skill for successful CEOs to master.

Challenges of the CEO role

While many of the responsibilities of a MAT CEO appear similar to those of a headteacher, leadership as a CEO looks very different. Successful CEOs realise this and are able to let go of behaviours which made them successful as headteachers but hinder their performance as CEOs. This includes: shifting from school-level governance to understanding ‘corporate’ governance; creating the conditions and resources to enable others to lead school improvement rather than doing it themselves; and leading across multiple schools and communities where it is impossible to know everyone personally.

School leaders at every level need development in order to have the greatest impact on their pupils and communities.

Our programmes are proven to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, and we can work in partnership with you to deliver improvement where your school most needs it.

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This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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