Extract: Professor Viviane Robinson's foreword to 'School Leadership Expertise' by Jennifer Barker and Tom Rees

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Date published 31 October 2022

The foreword of our newest School Leadership Expertise publication by Jennifer Barker, Senior Dean of Learning Design, and Tom Rees, Ambition's Executive Director of Programmes.

To read the full publication, 'School Leadership Expertise: What is it and how do we develop it?', click here.

I recently received three automated emails from a state department of education in Australia, requiring me to complete mandated courses on human rights and responsibilities, addressing workplace bullying, and equal opportunities. I received the emails, along with all leaders in the state’s public schools, because I consult to the department on various leadership development contracts. I have no doubt that such mandated courses are important, but what puzzles me is why there are no such mandated courses on the core business of teaching and learning. Is it assumed that by the time teachers become leaders they will have sufficient educational knowledge, and therefore that it is knowledge of leadership and management that is important for their development as leaders?

Interrogating the validity of this assumption, as Ambition Institute is doing through its thought leadership and its new suite of professional programmes, is critical to achieving the goal of having effective leaders in every school. Effective leaders are those who have the ability to solve the kinds of complex social problems that arise in their organisation (Mumford & Higgs, 2021). For educational leaders, this requires the ability to use relevant knowledge to resolve problems of teaching and learning while building trust with those involved (Robinson, 2011).

Two questions about the design of professional learning follow from this view of effective educational leadership. First, is it correct to assume that educational leaders in general have gained sufficient educational knowledge from their classroom teaching experience to warrant its absence from leadership development programmes?

"Is it assumed that by the time teachers become leaders they will have sufficient educational knowledge,"

Second, which types of leadership and management content are most likely to increase the effectiveness of educational leaders? Will educators benefit from generic leadership theory – that is, theory that is believed to be readily transferable from one type of organisation to another (Shamir, 2013)? If generic theory is appropriate, then programmes for educators can be designed and delivered by facilitators whose expertise is based in business or public service management. If, as passionately argued by Jen Barker and Tom Rees in this publication, generic leadership curricula are not fit for purpose, then domain-specific leadership should be taught, firmly anchored in the purpose and core business of educational institutions.

Ideally, these questions would be answered by multiple empirical studies, but in their absence, I put forward a few arguments in support of Ambition Institute’s thoughtful consideration of the relationship between generic and domain-specific approaches to leadership development. Specifically, I argue that curricula are needed which integrate relevant generic theories with theories of teaching and learning. Such integration is accomplished, not by asking leaders to “apply” generic material to their educational contexts, but by designing and delivering a curriculum which shows how such integration can be achieved under the conditions each participant is working in.

With regard to my first question, about the sufficiency of experienced teachers’ educational knowledge, it seems to me that the persistence of inequitable student outcomes suggests that there are thousands of teachers, who, despite trying their best, are struggling to lift the engagement or achievement of particular groups of students. A frequent cause of these teachers’ difficulties is that they, and the leaders who are supporting them, lack the depth of knowledge required to diagnose the school and classroom-based contributors to such inequities, and to implement more effective solution strategies. In short, the knowledge needed to solve these problems has not been routinely acquired through their years of classroom teaching, nor through the professional learning they may have undertaken in that time.

"I argue that curricula are needed which integrate relevant generic theories with theories of teaching and learning."

If leaders need to deepen their educational knowledge, what implications does this have for my second question about the content and design of professional learning? This is where the debate between advocates of generic and domain-specific leadership development becomes critical.

Advocates of the former would argue that generic approaches to such leadership functions as strategic planning, goal setting, leading change, and exercising influence are highly applicable to educational leaders because these functions are required of leaders in any organisation. That is of course true, but the crucial question is whether or not the theories that guide how these functions are carried out in non-educational organisations are applicable to how the work is or should be carried out in education. By way of illustration, take the key leadership function of influencing others.

I recently reviewed a module on this topic that was included in a government-funded aspiring principal programme. The module included nine possible “influence tactics”, based on the work of Gary Yukl (1994), a widely cited management academic. At least half of the nine tactics e.g., ingratiation, pressure, and exchange of favours, are incompatible with the ethics and interpersonal values, such as respect and collegiality, that would be espoused by the great majority of educators. That is why I would argue that the non-educational management theory of Yukl should not be used in professional learning for educational leaders. Sometimes generic theories are useful for educational leaders, if they are taught in ways that enable them to be integrated into the contexts in which they are to be applied. Take the example of goal setting – a theory which has a rich research base in social psychology and is now widely used in management.

There is no doubt that knowledge of the conditions required for effective goal setting could assist educational leaders to improve their strategic and annual planning processes. Advocates of generic approaches could argue that the application of this generic theory to the specific educational context of participants is achieved by providing rich opportunities for discussion and work-based practical projects. But in my experience, limitations of educational knowledge, such as knowledge of age-related benchmarks and of curriculum progressions, often prevent leaders from using student data to identify priorities and set the challenging yet attainable goals that are required by goal theory. Designers and facilitators of professional learning should not assume that, having taught generic goal theory, participants will have the educational knowledge and skill required to apply it to their own databased planning processes.

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My second example of the limitations of a generic approach is about the critical interpersonal skills that leaders need to address problems of teaching and learning while building trust with those involved. For many years, I have based my approach to this work on Argyris and Schon’s (1974) theory and practice of interpersonal and organisational effectiveness – an approach that has been extensively researched and used in for-profit and not-for-profit organisations. Their theory teaches that a leader builds trust in such situations, by, among many other skills, consistently providing reasons for their views. In hundreds of workshops with educational leaders I have found little difficulty in teaching this generic interpersonal process, as most leaders are quite capable of giving reasons for their point of view.

The challenge comes, not in providing a reason, but in providing one that is educational rather than managerial. For example, when leaders notice that a teacher has not, as expected, followed a lesson plan, provided students with success criteria, organised mixed ability groups, or followed protocols for moderation of assessments, rather than discussing the educational rationale for such requirements, many leaders reiterate a team or school agreement or an external policy requirement.

Their rationale, in other words, is based on the need for compliance, rather than on the educational rationale that supports their request.

When leaders provide managerial rather than educational reasons, the source of their leadership influence, is their authority or the authority of those they represent, rather than their educational expertise. Such influence is unlikely to build trust.

"That is why we no longer teach the content-free process of giving reasons for one’s point of view. Instead, we teach the importance of giving relevant educational reasons,"

Sometimes leaders provide managerial reasons because they do not have sufficient relevant educational knowledge. At other times the educational worth of what is requested is so taken for granted that leaders have difficulty articulating what they do know. That is why we no longer teach the content-free process of giving reasons for one’s point of view. Instead, we teach the importance of giving relevant educational reasons, and in doing so provide opportunities for participants to discover and fill gaps in their ability to provide them.

I have used these two examples of goal setting and building relational trust to show how generic knowledge is made domain-specific when it is integrated with educational knowledge, and with the requirements of context-specific problems.

I applaud the fact that Ambition Institute is modelling such integration in their new leadership curricula through their twin emphases on domain-specific knowledge and on educational problems of practice. Their approach greatly increases the chances that participants in their leadership programmes will succeed in improving teaching and learning in their schools.

For the full, downloadable publication click here.


Argyris, C., & Schon, D. A. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mumford, M. D., & Higgs, C. A. (Eds.). (2021). Leader thinking skills: Capacities for contemporary leadership New York: Routledge.

Robinson, V. M. J. (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Shamir, B. (2013). Leadership in context and context in leadership studies. In M. G. Rumsey (Ed.), The Oxford Handook of Leadership (pp. 343- 355). New York: Oxford University Press.

Yukl, G. A. (1994). Leadership in organizations (3rd ed.). London: Prentice-Hall International.

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Viviane Robinson
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, The University of Auckland

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