Instilling positive leadership behaviours: a framework

Leaders have an impact on the careers and lives of those they line manage. Make sure that impact is a positive one with this four step framework

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Nickii Messer was a school business leader for 16 years across three school phases, including senior leadership roles. Nickii is passionate about training and professional development for school business professionals, and since 2008 has been...

‘Always remember that leadership is a privilege. When you’re in a leadership role, your influence may affect the trajectories of people’s entire careers (and, often, their lives!). When you do it right, you create a legacy of other leaders who can bring their goodness into the world.’ (Bill Treasurer)

Leadership and management features in both the Ofsted and ISI inspection frameworks, underlining the importance of consistent and effective leadership. Getting leadership right is crucial to the success of any organisation, and equally it can have a significant impact on the professional and personal lives of a great many people.

I am sure that I am not the only one who has been saddened to meet skilled people who have had their confidence wrecked, their passion extinguished, by unkind leadership. You know the saying: People don’t leave bad jobs. They leave bad bosses. With the recruitment and retention challenges facing schools today, we simply can’t afford to let talented, committed staff – with all their experience, knowledge and skills – leave because they don’t feel valued or allowed to thrive. 

You can’t just appoint your best maths teacher to head of department and expect them to be a good leader

When good leadership is in place, it can be felt throughout the school. Staff feel empowered, motivated and energised. The school can attract the best candidates, and the best people stay. But when leadership is poor the opposite becomes true, with everyone losing out – especially the children.

So, what should we be doing to ensure our schools build great leadership? Working with schools to improve their leadership culture, I have found this simple, four-step, framework invaluable.

If I had to highlight one step that really is the most critical, it would be training, because you can’t just appoint your best maths teacher, for example, to head of department and expect them to be a good leader. They need the knowledge, understanding, skills and confidence to grow into their role.

But training in isolation will not be enough. It needs to be part of a wider framework for development, starting with a review to establish where leadership is now.

Positive leadership behaviours framework: review, define, train and performance manage


Your leadership improvement plan should start with an honest review to determine current structure, strengths and areas of weakness. 

Our investigation often uncovers at least one team without a designated leader or line manager

I find a whole school organogram an invaluable reference point, showing current lines of report from governors down. Make sure it includes all staff, whether classroom based or not. The organogram illustrates who is involved at each leadership level, as well as being useful in identifying where line management structures are less clear, duplicated or even non-existent. When I am working with schools, especially in larger, more complex settings, our investigation often uncovers at least one team without a designated leader or line manager.

To drill down into how well leadership works in your school, including how it is perceived by others, questions like these might form part of your investigation.

  • How do other staff regard leadership in the school? Do they feel supported, motivated, and nurtured, for example?
  • How well are colleagues empowered to lead from the top, middle and bottom of the school?
  • What strategies are in place to ensure consistency of leadership at all levels?
  • How well do leaders understand, articulate and drive shared values, vision, practice and policy?
  • Are leaders provided with training to equip them with necessary leadership skills, knowledge and understanding?
  • Do leadership skills and attributes feature in performance management?
  • Can leaders define the impact that their leadership has made on their department or team?
  • How do leaders regard their leadership role?  For example, do they see it as a privilege or a burden?

Such scrutiny will highlight areas of strength and weakness, allowing you to more clearly define what leaderships needs to look like moving forwards, as well as the steps needed to get there.


Job descriptions and person specifications are essential tools for defining a job. They contain the key features of the role, the levels of responsibilities involved, and the skills, experience and behaviours needed for the post holder to be successful. They also provide both post holder and line manager with a structure for on-going performance management, appraisal and training. Yet I find many schools omit to include explicit – sometimes even any – reference to leadership requirements. 

Instil in them the understanding and desire to nurture and motivate the people they lead

Creating a generic job description and person specification for leadership gives the school the opportunity to reflect on what it is that is needed from their leaders. These documents can provide a valuable framework for consistent leadership, aligned to the school’s values and vision. Although generic, including tiers to represent leadership at different levels can be excellent for performance management and measuring progression.

What could you include in a leadership specification?

A generic leadership person specification might include qualities such as:

  • passion
  • resilience
  • judgement
  • curiosity.

As well as interpersonal skills such as:

  • communication
  • motivation
  • inspiration.

Why not also include the essential leadership attributes described in the ASCL ethical leadership framework, and explain what they mean within your school context?

  • Selflessness
  • Integrity
  • Objectivity
  • Accountability
  • Openness
  • Honesty
  • Leadership


In my experience, training is the single most important aspect of effective leadership development. Leadership is such a complex discipline and whilst it is true that great leaders will have certain qualities that make them stand above others, it is equally valid that many leaders have a great deal to learn.

It is important to acknowledge that, whether newly appointed or not, department and team leaders may have limited leadership skills, knowledge and experience. They might be a brilliant teacher or finance manager, for example, but not understand all the imperatives for effective leadership. 

It is not just about training how to be a leader, but:

  • how to carry out the myriad of leadership responsibilities, consistently, fairly and in line with agreed school policies and practice
  • how to build, motivate and drive a team to take their part in achieving the school’s vision
  • how to communicate with a variety of stakeholders
  • what to do when things go wrong.

The table below gives some suggested components of a leadership training programme. Although you might need external consultants or training agencies to support this, it is likely that much of the expertise needed to deliver such training already sits within the organisation. (See also the Middle Leadership Essentials training course.)

Leadership training programme outline

Leadership and management

Explanation of the terms leadership and management. The key differences between being a manager and being a leader, and how management and leadership should combine ‘to get the important things done’.

Strategic leadership The impact of different leadership styles. Mindset for leadership. What inspectors will be looking for in terms of organisational leadership. What strategy means and how to be strategic. The impact of culture (e.g. Peter Drucker – Culture eats strategy for breakfast). Is leadership seen as a privilege – or a burden? Do leaders cast a light or a shadow?
Values, vision, policies and practice What each of these terms mean, their relationship with each other, and how they translate within the school. Effective methods for articulating and driving these coherently and consistently across the school.
Governance and school improvement Understanding the inspection framework from a leadership perspective. The school’s governance structure and how to work effectively and strategically with governors.
School funding and budgets Overview of school finances and budget – where the money comes from, how it is allocated and how to work within the school’s financial framework. The importance of prioritising initiatives and how to construct a basic business case.
Knowledge and understanding How to develop leadership knowledge and understanding, both from an internal and external perspective. What to read, how to network, how to work collaboratively within and outside of the school.
Team leadership What is a team? How well is your team working, and how do you know? How to lead a team, delegate, empower, inspire and motivate – on an individual as well as a team level. Dealing with negativity and conflict. Looking after your own, as well as your team’s, wellbeing and resilience.
Leading change Using a framework such as Fisher’s change curve, understanding the emotional responses to change and the importance of bringing key stakeholders on board. How to analyse before implementing change, for example through SWOT, force field analysis. How to manage people through change.
Communication The differences between communication and information and how to do both. How to communicate to bring people on board. Leading meetings. Communicating with the team and with individuals. Negotiating for a win-win. Dealing with conflict. Listening to understand.
Performance management Explanation of performance management and appraisal and how these are different. How performance management/appraisal is led and managed in the school. Key skills for leading PM/appraisal. How to continually nurture and develop your workforce.

Performance management

Regardless of any appraisal process in place, performance management also plays a vital part in nurturing leadership talent. 

Ongoing performance related discussions, based on praise and critical support, can help build an inexperienced leader’s knowledge, trust and confidence, empowering them to step out of their comfort zone and reach their true potential as a leader. When run in tandem with training and, ideally, coaching and wellbeing, the reward will be a framework for resilient and sustainable leadership behaviours right across the school.  

Clearly such a framework is not just about the leaders themselves. By empowering them to lead well, you not only grow your leaders. You also instil in them the understanding and desire to nurture and motivate the people they lead, building the confidence and talent to positively affect the trajectories of their careers too. 

For me, Jack Welch sums up this critical, yet often overlooked, aspect of leadership.

'Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.'

Last Updated: 
18 Feb 2020