School Leadership Development – What works?

The Context

While research on school leadership has taken huge leaps and bounds in the past decade or so, there are two things that all research agrees on, and which is crucial to what this article aims to discuss: leadership matters, and leadership can be developed. What research varies on, from context to context and from study is to study is exactly how crucial it is — what are the implications on school improvement, on teaching practices, on student development, and so on. Research also varies on how it can be developed – owing to different contexts and characteristics. However, there are some trends that experiences of leadership development programs agree on. These trends are what this article would explore.

This article is a part of a five-part series aiming to delve deeper into the questions of:

  • What do effective school leadership development programs have in common?
  • What topics or areas of focus are the most common and critical, and through what modes are school leaders more effectively engaged?
  • How might success of school leadership development programs be measured?
  • What are school leaders’ expectations from school leadership development programs?, and
  • A case study of school leadership development in a state in India

What do effective school leadership development programs have in common? 

Interestingly, when school leadership development programs from different countries were compared in terms of their curriculum, many commonalities emerged, “leading to a hypothesis that there is an international curriculum for school leadership preparation” (Bush and Jackson 2002, pp 420-421). These common factors were not only in terms of the content of the training, but also the processes followed.

Through the review of literature and analysis of school leadership development programs, there are five aspects that strongly emerged as common:

The role of school leadership has been undergoing rapid evolution over the years. It has been a tough, yet much-needed shift from definition of educational management as ‘an executive function for carrying out agreed policy’ (Bolam 1999) and as a ‘set of activities directed towards efficient and effective utilisation of organisational resources in order to achieve organisational goals’ (Sapre 2002). Today’s school systems demand a rethinking of both our understanding of school leadership, as well as approaches to developing the same. Taylor et al, (2002) summarize the changes as reversing the six traditional priorities:

  • from theory to practice
  • from parts to systems
  • from states and roles to processes
  • from knowledge to learning
  • from individual action to partnerships
  • from detached analysis to reflexive understanding 

This is helpful in that it highlights the role change of school leaders to be broader, exercising greater agency, and leading connections among actors and processes. In terms of topics covered, there is a high consensus among different programs, boiling down to the usual suspects of:

  • Developing and driving vision and direction
  • Nurturing people
  • Leading and managing learning and teaching
  • Managing structures, processes, and financial management
  • Engaging the community and enabling partnerships
  • Developing self as a reflective practitioner

Interestingly, although all programs and literature recognized the need to expand imagination of the role of school leadership, the importance of focusing on enabling leaders to lead teaching and learning in their school was consistently highlighted. Irrespective of the combination of topics, however, every successful program has a strong integration of theory and practice – with a clear focus on actions that leaders can carry out in their own schools. Critical to this aspect is making space during the training to engage in practice or practical problem solving. Towards this goal, while self-learning material definitely plays a role, it is process-rich approaches like mentoring, coaching, observation, and feedback that cement learning and predict higher chances of application of learning. This is further advanced, accelerated and made more effective by working through cohort groups – connections among, and learning from cohort members also emerged as a strong element in all the successful programs.


A proposed model

Keeping these learnings in mind, a model for school leadership development programs is proposed below:

Every topic or theme which is the focus of the leadership development program can go through this cycle. Here’s a brief overview of each of the elements:

  1. Picture a problem – A case study, story, or even a real example from one of the cohort participants can be used to enable the cohort to think about a problem or a challenge. Another way to enable this is through various kinds of self-assessments that school leaders can engage in. This step of the cycle should enable leaders to dig deeper into an issue, challenge, or opportunity.
  2. Think together – Based on the problem or opportunity identified, the cohort can be split into smaller groups to think together about the issue, and come up with possible approaches and solutions. Coaches or facilitators can also play a critical role in these group assignments or discussions. These could be in the form of facilitated learning circles, or group-led discussions.
  3. Meet a mentor – Once small groups have gotten an opportunity to think through problems and solutions themselves, an expert or mentor can be introduced, who can play a role in: providing their expertise and sharing their knowledge with the cohort or providing feedback on assignments created by the groups.
  4. Lead your learning – At this point in time, leaders would have gotten to apply their own knowledge, as well as get introduced to different perspectives or concepts through the experts. Here, self-learning content can play an important role in – pushing thinking forward, as well as cementing some of the ideas which the experts would have introduced. This also allows leaders to take their time in going through different materials and learn at their own pace. Placing this self-learning material after having a chance to listen to experts as well as engage in problem solving, increases the perceived value of the learning materials.
  5. Apply and act – This step is crucial in ensuring that learning moves beyond the workshop, and into the workplace. It could involve creating action research plans, creating or co-creating development plans for their own schools, or simply identifying the pieces they would go back and implement in their own workspace.
  6. Celebrate the community – While one part of creating a learning community is to engage in joint problem solving, an equally important aspect is to engage in joint celebration and sharing of success. This could be combined with the learning circles, or can be made time for separately. 


Bush, Tony, and Jackson, David (2002) ‘A Preparation for School Leadership: International Perspectives’, Educational Management & Administration, Vol 30(4), pp. 417–429.

Bush, Tony (2008) Leadership And Management Development In Education : Sage publication.

Darling-Hammond, L., LaPointe, M., Meyerson, D., Orr. M. T., & Cohen, C. (2007). Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Stanford Educational Leadership Institute.

McKinsey & Company (2010) Capturing the leadership premium

NANNYONJO, HARRIET () Effective ways for developing school leadership, Available at: (Accessed: 29th June 2020).

National College for School Leadership (2004) Leadership Development: Evidence and beliefs

Pont,Beatriz, Nusche,Deborah, Moorman,Hunter (2008) Improving School Leadership VOLUME 1: POLICY AND PRACTICE, 1 edn., : OECD publications.

Schleicher, Andreas (ed.) (2012), “Developing effective school leaders”, in Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century: Lessons from around the World, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI:

Smith, B., R. Harchar and K. Campbell (2006), “Reality Check: Designing a New Leadership Program for the 21st Century”, National Council of the Professors of Educational Administration, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti.

The Wallace Foundation (2012) The Making of the Principal: Five Lessons in Leadership Training, : The Wallace Foundation.


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