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Generic and domain-specific perspectives of school leadership

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Date published 16 July 2021

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 society and the responsibility we have at Ambition Institute to provide effective professional development for tens of thousands of colleagues who lead in schools.

So far in the series, we have explored the concept of school leadership itself. In our first post, we established that despite a large amount of research literature in this area over recent decades, the concept of school leadership lacks a clear definition, means different things to different people and can be seen as a low-validity domain. In our second blog, we explored the complex nature of schools and how the work of school leaders can be understood as problem solving in nature.

In this low-validity and high-complexity domain, it is understandable that different ideas are often proposed which try to simplify the work of school leaders. Often these ideas can be quite abstract and generic and drawn from the work of leaders in other fields.

In this post, we now explore generic approaches to leadership development, which we argue have become the orthodox way of describing and developing school leaders in recent years, and compare these to more domain-specific approaches.

Generic leadership:

Skills, knowledge and attributes linked to the field of leadership as opposed to a specific domain.

This often refers to the individual traits and characteristics of a leader themselves or to leadership practices, like setting a vision, implementing change or communication. The transferable nature of personal traits and leadership practices suggests they can be developed in any domain and could therefore be relevant in any organisation.

Domain-specific expertise:

Knowledge and skills with a specific field, domain or type of organisation.

The focus here is on a deep knowledge and understanding of the domain for which a leader has responsibility and the context they work in. In school leadership, this includes subjects or specialist domains such as behaviour, Special Educational Needs, teacher development or school finance. It could also relate to an age range or type of school.

In a paper considering the debate between generic and domain-specific approaches to school leadership, Neil Gilbride writes:

‘There is tension between research and policy for whether school leaders need a specific set of knowledge and skills. Within academic educational leadership research, tensions exist between those that promote transformational approaches (e.g. Leithwood et al 2006) and instructional approaches which imply the need for subject-specific knowledge (Robinson, Lloyd and Rowe 2008, Hallinger and Heck, 1998)’.

‘However, policy direction over the last 20 years has granted the impression that there is far less priority for the specific knowledge and experience of schools. Successive marketing has advertised how teachers can be senior leaders within schools in a short time scale, for example the “Fast Track” scheme (DfES 2005). In 2010, the UK Government introduced the Tomorrow’s Heads programme, which allowed individuals without teaching experience to train as a headteacher (NSCL 2010).’ (Gilbride 2018, p1)

Despite the importance of leaders holding deep domain-specific knowledge, this is a concept often overlooked in the discourse around school leadership and in approaches to training and development. Instead, it’s far more common to read about leaders' personal traits, values and behaviours, or their generic leadership skills such as creating a vision, communication or leading change.


Personal traits

The personal traits or characteristics of individual leaders play a prominent part in the discourse around school leadership, as well as in leadership training and development programmes.

Throughout the last decade, for example, it has become commonplace for leadership programmes to include personality tests, designed to help leaders learn about themselves and to consider how they might work with others.

Adverts for Headteacher posts too can often focus on personal characteristics, for example seeking leaders who are dynamic, inspirational or charismatic. Ofsted reports are also known to praise the inspirational and passionate headteacher and praise their bold or uncompromising leadership.

Reasons for the influence of ‘trait-based’ leadership are complex. One seminal paper written in 2008 contributed to this perspective by stating that ‘a small handful of personal traits explains a high proportion of the variation in leadership effectiveness’ (Leithwood et al., 2008). However, in 2019, the same researchers revisited this claim and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support it, writing that ‘the claim that personal leadership traits, by themselves, explain a high proportion of variation in school leadership effectiveness cannot be justified’ (Leithwood et al., 2019).

Generic Leadership Skills

As well as a focus on the traits or characteristics of an individual leader, a common focus for school leadership development is around ‘generic leadership skills’ such as creating a vision, leading change or project management.

Generic approaches to leaderships underpin a number of leadership development frameworks, including the outgoing National Professional Qualifications (NPQs). Qualifications for middle, senior, executive leaders and Headship have, in recent years, been organised into the following six content areas which, with the exception of ‘teaching and curriculum excellence’, could apply to managerial posts in many other sectors or industries (DfE 2019):

  • Strategy and improvement.
  • Teaching and curriculum excellence.
  • Leading with impact.
  • Working in partnership.
  • Managing resources and risks.
  • Increasing capability.

Within these outgoing frameworks, we can see further examples of generic approaches. For example, teachers undertaking an NPQ in Middle Leadership (NPQML) have been required to ‘anticipate other peoples’ views or feelings and moderate [their] approach accordingly’ and ‘adopt different leadership styles to ensure the team meets its objectives’. Each of these statements can be applied as easily to other sectors as they can to schools and education which implies that leadership is something that can be learnt as a generic skill, rather than within a specific domain.

Another, recent development is the apprenticeship levy, which has been used by some schools to fund leadership training for its leaders and rests on a general leadership and management qualification, rather than an education-specific framework. For instance, school leaders undertaking leadership training linked to the Team Leader/Supervisor standard will be taught content including ‘operational management’, ‘understanding learning styles’ and ‘project management’ (Institute for Apprenticeships, 2019).

Despite their popularity, there is limited evidence to suggest that generic leadership skills in themselves are something that can be developed in a way that allows leaders to have a positive impact on pupil attainment.

Having briefly explored these generic approaches to leadership (both personal traits and generic leadership skills), we now turn to the role of domain-specific knowledge.


The role of domain-specific knowledge in school leadership

The work of Professor Viviane Robinson provides significant support to the domain-specific argument. In 2019 she writes that ‘the field has been dominated until quite recently by abstract theories of leadership which are not closely aligned to the specific work of educational leaders’ (Robinson & Gray, 2019).

Robinson acknowledges that there has been important learning to come from research into generic approaches, but that a fresh focus on the leadership of teaching and learning has the ‘potential to put education back into educational leadership – that is, to ground leadership in the core business of teaching and learning’ (Robinson, 2006, p64).

Robinson suggests two ways that further research into the leadership of teaching and learning can be useful:

  1. It tells us about what school leaders need to know and understand if they are to lead the improvement of teaching and learning.
  2. It identifies some of the features of school and teacher culture which support principals or their designees in the leadership of teaching and learning.
    (Robinson, 2006)

More recently, Robinson reiterates her argument that leaders ‘need to be increasingly knowledgeable about the core business of teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum’ and that ‘they need to be able to use that knowledge to make good decisions’ (Robinson, 2017, para 15).

In headteacher Matthew Evans’ recent book, ‘Leaders with substance: an antidote to genericism in schools’, Evans argues that leaders should not rely on a toolkit of generic skills but on ‘our schema of knowledge’. He suggests that the best leaders don’t study the field of ‘leadership’ but build relevant knowledge which helps them to solve the educational problems they face in their school (Evans, 2019, p43).

Further critique of the generic approach to school leadership training lays some of the problems in our school system at the door of leadership genericism and the absence of domain-specific expertise amongst school leaders. Christine Counsell (2018), for example, argues eloquently for greater curricular knowledge, writing that:

‘the absence of an adequate model of senior curriculum leadership seems to me to deepen fundamental and longstanding problems in schools with which we have all wrestled, from weak assessment systems to problems with generation and interpretation of data, from problematical judgements about teaching and learning, to attraction and retention of fine teachers, from teacher development to the effectiveness of CPD’ (Counsell, 2018, para 7).

Counsell goes on to argue that the danger of generic approaches to leadership, where individual subjects or domains are not sufficiently understood or respected, transcends educational ideologies, noting that “The problem of genericism is no respecter of ‘prog’ or ‘trad’.” (Counsell, 2018).

Expert Leadership

A relevant model when considering the domain-specific knowledge of school leaders is ‘Expert Leadership’, defined by Amanda Goodall (2016). She calls it a ‘theory of expert leadership’ (TEL) and it is based on evidence from psychiatry, higher education and sports. Goodall’s research demonstrates that there is ‘a strong relationship between a leader’s knowledge and expertise in the organization’s core business activity, and future performance’ (Goodall, 2016, p232).

In the TEL model, the influence of expertise is thought to operate along two channels: first, through the decisions and actions expert leaders take including, for example, around goal setting, work evaluation and staff development; and secondly through the way they signal their expertise to internal and external stakeholders in relation to, for example, strategic priorities or working conditions.

This is important because often a domain-specific approach can be characterised as being limited to only formal textbook or ‘technical’ knowledge, when in fact Goodall finds that those with ‘core business’ expertise and experience in the domain are more likely to understand the challenges of their teams, show more empathy and form stronger professional relationships.

Domain knowledge therefore isn’t just ‘knowing stuff’ or ‘technical knowledge’ (although it can often be relegated like this within debate). It is also the knowledge of the customs and cultures, the traditions and histories of different subjects and specialist areas. It forms the basis of conversations, relationships and intelligent, ethical leadership.

A shifting consensus?

There appears to be a shifting consensus on the limitations of a generic approach to school leadership development, both through research as we have outlined in this post so far, and also through England’s reforms to national professional qualifications which adopt a more domain-specific approach (more about this later in the series).

We can also see that there is a greater acknowledgement of the role of domain-specific leadership development within the wider discourse. For example, in his 2020 paper, ‘A new paradigm for leadership development?’, Steve Munby, former CEO of the National College of School Leadership (NSCL), writes ‘I welcome and applaud this new thinking on leadership development’. Munby goes on to state that, ‘I believe that there needs to be a greater focus on domain-specific knowledge and complex problem solving, and that we need to move away from some of the stereotypical leadership models of the past.” (Munby, 2019).


In this blog, we have looked at the generic and domain-specific perspectives of school leadership and the tensions that exist between these two viewpoints. We have argued that there is limited evidence that a focus on developing personal traits or characteristics of school leaders themselves has a causal impact on pupil outcomes.

We have also examined the important role of domain-specific knowledge for school leaders and the debate that exists between developing generic leadership skills in absence of domain knowledge.

One way of navigating this apparent dichotomy would be to conclude that the answer is ‘both’, and that the answer is the right blend of the two (generic and domain specific).

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 they (generic leadership skills and domain specific bodies of knowledge) are two different things.

In our next post, we will explore this further.


Apple, M. W. (2005) ‘Education, markets, and an audit culture’, Critical Quarterly. doi: 10.1111/j.0011-1562.2005.00611.x.

Counsell, C.M., (2018) In search of senior curriculum leadership. https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/in-search-of-senior-curriculum-leadership-introduction-a-dangerous-absence/

Courtney, S.J., McGinity, R and Gunter, H. (2018) Educational leadership : theorising professional practice in neoliberal times. London: Routledge.

Department for Education (2019) National Professional Qualification (NPQ) Content and Assessment Framework.


Evans, M. (2019) Leaders With Substance: An Antidote to Leadership Genericism in Schools. John Catt Educational Ltd.

Gilbride, N. (2018) The Relevance of Domain-General and Domain-Specific Skills for Educational Leadership. Unpublished Paper.

Goodall, A., (2016) A theory of expert leadership (TEL) in psychiatry. Australasian Psychiatry. [Online] 24 (3), 231–234.

Gronn, P., (2003) The new work of educational leaders: changing leadership practice in an era of school reform. London: P. Chapman Pub.

Institute for Apprenticeships (2019) Apprenticeship Standards (Team Leader/Supervisor) https://www.instituteforapprenticeships.org/apprenticeship-standards/team-leader-supervisor/

Leithwood, K., Harris, A., and Hopkins, D., (2008) ‘Seven strong claims about successful school leadership.’ School Leadership & Management. Taylor & Francis Group, 28(1) pp. 27–42.

Leithwood, K., Harris, A. and Hopkins, D., (2019). Seven strong claims about successful school leadership revisited. School Leadership & Management, 40(1), pp.5–22. [online]. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13632434.2019.1596077.

Munby, S. (2020) A new paradigm for leadership development. Centre for Strategic Education http://atrico.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Occasional-Paper-164-February-2020.pdf

Robinson, V. (2006) ‘Putting Education back into Educational Leadership’. Leading & Managing, 2006, volume 12, 62‐75.

Robinson V. (2018) Reduce Change to Increase Improvement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Robinson, V. and Gray, E. (2019) ‘What difference does school leadership make to pupil outcomes?’ Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 49(2), 171-187.

Jennifer Barker
Jennifer Barker
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Tom Rees
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