Dimensions of an effective leader


Viviane Robinson, The University of Auckland and Visiting Professor, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education  

It sounds obvious – good educational leaders are those who make a difference to the learning and well-being of their students. But is that the yardstick we use in our formal and informal evaluations of school leaders? Possibly not. The public, politicians, and even fellow educators, are more likely to comment about whether a school is well managed, how well a head is liked by parents and staff members or the extent to which the leader is “innovative” or “leading edge”. All of these yardsticks stop short of asking about the difference the leader is making to the learning and well-being of their students.

A well-run school is an essential prior condition for learning, but it is not sufficient. Good relationships with staff and parents are also important, but good relationships with the adults do not necessarily translate into benefits for the children. More problematic still is the assumption that the adoption of “innovative”, “creative” or “twenty-first century” approaches indicates effective educational leadership. Leaders who get on board with the latest innovations in school organization, curriculum, or community outreach often have high profiles and are showcased as effective leaders. But like good staff relationships, innovative practice is not necessarily predictive of student learning. We know that many innovations do not work and that leaders engaged in multiple innovations can burn out staff, create incoherence in the teaching programme, and actually make things worse for their students (Hess, 1999).   

One of the reasons that school management, staff relationships, and innovative practice have overshadowed student impact as the criterion for leadership effectiveness is that it is very difficult to isolate the contribution of leadership to student outcomes. Except in the smallest of our schools, leaders influence students indirectly by creating the conditions required for the improvement of teaching and learning. Sophisticated research designs are required to measure these indirect effects accurately and until recently there were few such studies available. Fortunately, that situation is changing and more research is providing trustworthy evidence about the links between leadership and student academic and social outcomes. If we know the effects on students of broad types of leadership practice, then our development and evaluation of educational leadership can be based on knowledge about the types of leadership that have a demonstrable rather than assumed impact on student outcomes.

Student-Centered Leadership

My 2011 book “Student-Centred Leadership” provides research-based guidance on the leadership practices associated with increased learning and well-being of students (Robinson, 2011). At its core is a meta-analysis of 30 research studies which have examined the links between various types of school leadership and students’ academic and social outcomes.  In about half of these studies, leadership was measured by asking teachers to complete surveys about the practices of their headteacher. In the other half, teachers were asked about the leadership of their school. That is why the findings in Figure 1 tell us about the impact of school leadership rather than just headship. The five leadership dimensions presented in the figure were derived by examining the types of leadership practice that had been measured by the surveys and then calculating an average effect size for each type. The effect size statistic alongside each of the horizontal bars indicates the average impact of the leadership type, or dimension, on student outcomes. (More details about the methodology of the meta-analysis can be found in Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe, 2008.)

While there are no hard and fast rules about how to interpret this statistic in educational research, an effect of 0.2 is usually considered small, 0.4 a moderate effect and 0.6 and above a large effect (Hattie, 2009). Given these rough benchmarks, Figure 1 presents a very positive story about the contribution leaders can make to the achievement and well-being of their students.

Some, if not all, of the five dimensions in Figure 1 will be familiar to many readers. After all, the importance of leadership that is focused on teaching and learning has been a recurring theme in much recent leadership research and policy thinking. But knowing that leadership involvement in teacher learning has, all else being equal, a strong effect on student outcomes is not the same as knowing why it is influential and knowing how to bring it about in particular school contexts. Leaders need to know the conditions under which their increased involvement in teacher professional learning is more or less likely to have a positive impact on students. They need to understand why professional learning that, for example, does not focus on the links between how teachers teach and what students learn, that offers content that has not been validated, or that lacks requisite expertise is unlikely to be beneficial to the students of the participating teachers. Making a bigger impact requires moving beyond a “general idea” about the importance of these five dimensions, to a more precise understanding of how they work to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Five Dimensions of Student-Centered Leadership

The first dimension of student-centered leadership involves setting and communicating clear goals. Goal setting is a ubiquitous feature of leadership work. It is part of strategic and annual planning, head and teacher appraisal and many other school development and review processes. Yet despite this, much goal setting remains a paper exercise that fails to focus the collective effort of staff on agreed priorities. This, in my view, is because leaders do not sufficiently understand the principles that underlie effective goal setting. It requires gaining commitment of all those involved by linking goals to values which people hold dearly; ensuring that staff have or can acquire the capabilities needed to achieve the goals and using evidence about current levels of student achievement to set important and realistic targets.

Goal setting is a powerful leadership tool in the quest for improving learning and teaching, because it signals to staff which things are more important than others. Clear learning goals, together with the associated organizational routines, ensure that staff effort and attention are focussed on reducing the gap between aspiration and reality.  Without clear goals, staff effort is dissipated in multiple agendas and conflicting priorities, which, over time, can produce burnout, cynicism and disengagement.

Since considerably more happens in schools than the pursuit of explicit goals, even the most goal-focussed leaders need to skilfully manage the constant distractions that threaten to undermine their best intentions. Such distractions, in the form of new policy initiatives, school crises, calls for goal revision or abandonment, and the need to maintain school routines that are not directly goal-related, all threaten to undermine goal pursuit (Levin, 2008). Clear goals enable leaders to recognize that they are being distracted and to decide what to do about it. Without that focus, there is no distraction to recognize and the routines and crises will continue to dominate leaders’ work. 

Once clear goals are established, the second dimension of effective leadership – resourcing strategically - comes into play. Scarce resources – money, time on the timetable, teaching materials and staff expertise - are allocated in ways that give priority to key goals. Staff can see an alignment between where money is spent, what initiatives are being adopted, and school goals. Efforts to recruit and develop expertise are aligned to the student needs that have shaped current goals.

Strategic resourcing and strategic thinking are closely linked. Strategic thinking involves asking questions and challenging assumptions about the links between resources and the needs they are intended to meet. Too often leaders invest time and energy in an innovation without asking “What conditions are required to make this resource work for the students in my school?” What evidence do I have that this type of resource allocation will help me achieve this goal?” Dimension Two leadership is easy in times of abundant resources. When resources are scarce, the challenge is often around the re-allocation of existing resources so they better serve new priorities and reflect what is known about the effectiveness of different patterns of resource allocation.

The third dimension of student-centered leadership involves ensuring the quality of teaching. The evidence suggests that in schools where teachers report that their leadership is heavily involved in these activities, students do better. This type of leadership is at the heart of what is called instructional leadership in the North American literature. In secondary schools, much of this leadership would be carried out by subject specialists such as department heads and curriculum leaders, and the headteacher would be best described as the leader of instructional leaders. Increasing the impact of Dimension 3 leadership is not simply a matter of mandating more classroom visits, teacher observations or more discussion of teaching and learning at staff meetings. More classroom visits and teacher feedback could make matters worse if the feedback was based on a faulty theory of teaching quality. This type of leadership requires a defensible and shared theory of effective teaching that forms the basis of a coherent teaching programme in which there is collective rather than individual teacher responsibility for student learning and well-being.

Student-centered leadership focused on ambitious learning goals soon uncovers shortfalls in teacher knowledge and skill. In many cases, those shortfalls are shared by their leaders. A powerful difference can be made by teachers and leaders learning together on the job about how to achieve their student learning goals.

The goal of Dimension 4 leadership is to develop the capacity of teachers to teach what students need to learn, while being open minded about what that is and how to achieve it. It has a strong focus on collaborative analysis of the relationship between what has been taught and what students have or have not learned. Much of this work should be collaborative, because it is hard work, because relevant expertise is not found in the head of one person, and because collaborative learning reduces undesirable variation in teaching quality and the isolation of teachers. Central to this dimension is leaders’ knowledge of the types of professional development that are more and less likely to make an impact on the students of the participating teachers. Just as for research on leadership, the ruler I use to judge the effectiveness of teacher professional learning is its impact on the students of the participating teachers.

The fifth dimension of effective leadership provides a foundation for all the rest. Effective leadership ensures a safe and secure environment for both staff and students. Teachers feel respected, students feel their teachers care about them and their learning, and school and classroom routines protect students’ learning time. Student-centered leadership reaches beyond the school gates to parents and the wider community. The work of ensuring an orderly and safe environment (Dimension 5) is enhanced by strong parent-school ties borne of a deep respect for the aspirations that parents have for their children, and an empathy for the conditions under which they may be trying to realize them.  Strong ties are developed by bringing relevant cultural resources into the school and classrooms and by more direct involvement of parents in the educational work of the school.

Using the Five Dimensions in Your School 

Although the five dimensions tell leaders what to focus on to make a bigger difference to student outcomes, they say little about the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to make the dimensions work in a particular school context. Research is suggestive of the importance of three interrelated capabilities: (a) using deep knowledge of teaching and learning to (b) solve complex school-based problems, while (c) building relational trust with staff, parents, and students (Robinson, 2010). Student-centred leadership involves a skilful integration of these three capabilities into the work described by each of the five dimensions.

At one of the first professional conferences where I presented these findings, I was asked if the five dimensions would be a good framework for evaluating headteachers. I replied that I would prefer they were used to evaluate the strength of leadership across the school or in particular subject departments. The scope of the work is too great, and the expertise required too broad, to reasonably expect a single leader to demonstrate high or even moderate levels of competence in all five dimensions.

Individual leaders may wish to reflect on, or get feedback on how strong they are in leading each area, but such developmental purposes are very different from holding individual leaders accountable on all five dimensions. Such accountabilities reinforce unrealistic conceptions of heroic leadership and deny the reality of distributed leadership in schools (Spillane, 2006). A more useful exercise is to involve the whole senior leadership team in a discussion of the emphasis currently given to each of these dimensions. One leadership team I have worked with reallocated leadership responsibilities to ensure that at least one team member had oversight of each the dimensions. Other teams have independently rated the strength of school leaderships on each dimensions and then discussed their reasons for their various ratings.  However the five dimensions and the three capabilities are used, the yardstick for progress should be their impact on the learning and well-being of students.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
Hess, F. M. (1999). Spinning wheels: The politics of urban school reform. Washington DC: The Brookings Institution.
Levin, B. (2008). How to change 5000 schools: A practical and positive approach for leading change at every level. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Education Press.
Robinson, V. M. J. (2010). From instructional leadership to leadership capabilities: Empirical findings and methodological challenges. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 9(1), 1-26.
Robinson, V. (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Robinson, V. M. J., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership type. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(5), 635 - 674.
Professor Viviane Robinson is Visiting Professor at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning (LCLL), Institute of Education and will give LCLL’s 2013 annual lecture ‘The Impact on student outcomes – Five things that really matter (and how to make them happen in your school)’ on Monday 22 April 2013. See advertisement on p??? and
londoncentre@ioe.ac.uk for further information and to book.


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