What do leaders need? And what do they need most?

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What do you think are the most important characteristics in outstanding education leaders? Are they universal, or might a buzzing city secondary demand different skills to a sleepy village primary?

Those questions and more are being answered by a pioneering research project being presented at the BELMAS educational leadership research conference this summer – and are already being used by participating schools in helping to develop middle and senior leaders.

Professor Jaswinder Dhillon of the University of Worcester, who is leading on the project, says it has collated 23 characteristics of outstanding leaders and leadership teams. The statements came from people working in schools and colleges rated as outstanding or very good, and also from policy documents and leadership research.

“We also asked those leaders to write down five characteristics from their experience and knowledge of what they consider to be good or outstanding characteristics of the leaders they work with, and of outstanding leadership,” she said, stressing that it is about leadership teams as well as individuals.

The research, which is partially sponsored by BELMAS (The British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society), has now moved into its second phase, asking participants to rank the 23 characteristics in order of importance in their own school or college.

“We’re trying to find out if we can see differences between different settings, but the Q-sort grid and statements can also be used as a leadership development tool for discussion about leadership practice in their own organisation. People are being asked to make choices about what they most and least agree with,” says Professor Dhillon.

Schools which became aware of the research had asked if they could use the characteristics for leadership development, discussing whether some of the 23 were more required in their setting, and how they would develop them. It has also been used as a group activity on leadership courses and a tool for reflection back in their setting.

“We think it’s a reflective tool that can be used in any setting because however refined the characteristics become, people will want to interpret and apply them in their own way in their educational context.

“A few schools contacted us wanting to use it, and because the tool isn’t yet available in that way, they are becoming involved in the research. It’s definitely a very useful thing for leaders in schools reflecting on their issues, as well as thinking that these may be the characteristics that work towards outstanding leadership.”

What are the 23 characteristics of outstanding leaders?

  1. Inspirational leader who leads by example
  2. Ability to bring out the best in people and inspire others
  3. High expectations of all members of staff and pupils/learners
  4. Ability to foster discussion and debate
  5. Clear strategic vision and communicated effectively to others
  6. Open culture of learning where excellence in all aspects of achievement are celebrated
  7. Values and vision developed and owned by all members and staff and governors
  8. Meticulous monitoring of outcomes for pupils/learners
  9. Balancing financial constraints with aspirational educational ambitions
  10. Maximising talent in the team and deploying talent effectively in the organisation
  11. Taking decisive action to address poor performance of staff teams
  12. Taking difficult decisions and communicating them honestly to those affected
  13. Developing an aspirational culture in the school/college and local community
  14. Power and accountability shared and distributed amongst members of the leadership team
  15. Setting ambitious targets and maintaining clear focus on achieving financial as well as educational/academic goals
  16. Passion for providing world class education
  17. Strategic vision based on shared values
  18. High levels of trust between leaders and their stakeholders
  19. Foster collaboration, partnerships and shared decision-making
  20. Empowering others to achieve ambitious targets
  21. Reconciling opposing points of view and summarising agreed points to leadership teams
  22. Engaging the local community in developing a shared vision for educational provision in the area
  23. Develop entrepreneurial and innovative approaches to improve education


'Stakeholder perceptions of outstanding leadership in schools and colleges in England' was presented at the annual conference of the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS), which ran from 7 to 9 July 2017. BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics, and encourages members to generate and share ideas and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management, and membership is free for the first year. Find out more at www.BELMAS.org.uk.

Susan Young


Susan Young is a journalist who has been specialising in education for more than 20 years. She was news editor and an assistant editor on the TES, where she created and edited a section for school leaders, and has also worked for the Observer and the Express.

As a freelancer, Susan writes for and works with a range of educational organisations, including the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and English UK.

She's interested in most things in education, from politics to practicality, but particularly loves hearing from professionals about the initiatives they're putting in place in their schools to make things better. Do get in touch.