Exploring educational leadership
Exploring educational leadership

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Exploring educational leadership

2 Studying educational leadership and management

Educational leadership sits within the extensive field of leadership studies, which draws from many disciplinary areas including psychology, sociology, anthropology, organisation studies, business studies and the social sciences. Over time, multiple theories of leadership have been developed, each one retaining influences from the discipline in which it originated. For example, examining the behaviours and traits of individual leaders continues to be an area of study for those drawing on a background of psychology, whereas researchers emerging from a business studies background may focus on how leaders respond to change within and around their organisations. Making sense of the multiple theoretical approaches to leadership is, therefore, challenging. This is further complicated by the commercial and policy literature which advocates particular approaches to leadership and leading which may, or may not, be drawn from empirical research.

Educational leadership is a particular area of study within this broader field of leadership. During the 1980s and 1990s, the education sector, particularly in the UK, began to engage with this range of leadership and management concepts. Additional ideas about educational leadership were developed, for example instructional, pedagogic and teacher leadership.

Leadership remains a contentious area of scholarship, and in the literature, you will find competing and contradictory references to multiple leadership types, theories, styles and models.

Activity 2

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

The following animation outlines in summary the varying approaches which have been taken to understanding leadership.

As you watch the video, identify the main models of leadership it mentions and how each might be distinguished from the other.

Download this video clip.Video player: ee811_models_of_leadership_animation.mp4
Skip transcript


In this animation, we’ll be exploring four distinct ways of thinking about leadership – positional, distributional, transactional, and transformational. This is a contentious area of scholarship, and in the literature you will find competing and contradictory references to multiple leadership types, theories, styles, and models. This is because leadership incorporates a considerable range of actions and activities, all of which are underpinned by distinct values and beliefs. Everyone working in an educational context could be involved in some form of leadership activity – that is, any activity that involves influence in the knowledge, views, behaviours, or practices of others. If we argue that everything we say and do is premised on the desire to influence others, the potential range of behaviours regarding leadership is vast. It’s no wonder theories continue to develop new ideas about leadership as a phenomena and find it hard to agree on a single model of what it is and how it is best understood. In providing an overview of leadership discourses, Simon Western points out that different leadership models emerge from and dominate distinct historical, situational, or economic periods, but in the contemporary situation, they coexist within organisations, individual leaders, and leadership teams. No single leadership model has the capacity to close down discussion by asserting leadership as categorically one thing in preference to another thing. As Richard Bolden points out, models of leadership may be used descriptively, to describe things as they are or, normatively, to describe things as they should be. You may also view a leadership model as a heuristic device that helps you to think. None of these models will be found in any context or in any person as a discrete entity. It’s more likely that at certain times aspects of leadership practice can be interpreted through the lens that these models provide. Some theorists suggest that rather than asking ‘What is leadership?’, it is analytically more beneficial to ask, ‘What happens if we think about leadership in this way or in that way?’. For example, if we understand leadership as any activity which is premised on the desire to influence the knowledge, belief, behaviour, or practices of others, this implies that we view leadership as primarily about the individual, the power invested in them, and their capacity to persuade others to comply with their wishes. This is a somewhat individualised view of leadership that locates agency as embodied by an individual, perhaps by virtue of sheer force of character or by the position they occupy in an institution. We may contrast positional leadership with a very popular notion of distributed leadership. Only a few members of an organisation will have a designated leadership role. However, most of us will make some contribution towards organisational goals. Under such, leadership may be viewed as a shared or distributed phenomenon. The concept of distributed leadership recognises that good ideas can come from anyone within an organisation, and as all human beings are endowed with agency, all human beings may therefore take the initiative and develop new practices. Helen Timperley considers distributed leadership to be desirable, as it builds capacity within an institution and allows for the development of intellectual and professional capital. Comprising of dynamic interactions between multiple individuals, the role of the leader and follower are viewed as interchangeable; determined by the nature of the task and the situation. While distributed leadership is the model of choice for many leadership scholars, it does have its critics. The dynamic interflow of ideas, tasks, and responsibilities in which leadership and followership are interchangeable hints at a utopia that few of us would recognise. This imagined utopia is remarkably silent about the use and abuse of power about exclusions from leadership based on race and gender. Jacky Lumby goes as far as to suggest that this silence amounts to ethical complicity. The effect of distributed leadership as a theory is to mask contestation, discrimination, and conflict in organisations. Instead, perpetuating an iniquitous status quo, she dismisses distributed leadership as fashion or fad. This would seem to push us back towards a positional view of leadership instead of viewing leadership as a capacity bestowed on or denied to individuals. In Unit 4.3, Kath McPherson and Alan Borthwick make the distinction between leadership behaviour, which is potentially embodied by an individual, and positional leadership, in which someone has a designated role that requires them to lead others. For example, a head teacher, college principal, or head of department. To say someone holds a leadership position within an organisation does not allow us a great deal of insight into their approach to leadership. And so the model needs to be refined further, allowing us to understand the different ways in which any leader may choose to conduct themselves in their designated role. Transactional and transformational leadership are by far the two most well-established models providing this sort of insight. Transactional leadership is an approach where you influence the behaviour of a follower for rewards or disciplines depending on the adequacy of the follower’s performance. This approach to leadership has two main factors – contingent reward balanced by management by expectation. Contingent rewards requires subordinates to reach prescribed levels of performance, whereas management by expectation allows for intervention if standards are not met. This is a variation on the classical ‘carrot and stick’ approach to leadership. Some people might feel uncomfortable to imagine a transactional approach to managing professional teachers, many of whom feel a deep sense of commitment to working with pupils and students. Transformational leadership might intuitively feel a more appropriate model. In many ways, transformational leadership is very similar to democratic leadership. Both involve a deep respect for the dignity of individuals and their cultural traditions – a proactive facilitation, open inquiry, and active critique. The transformational leader inspires and motivates followers, demonstrating the importance of and fostering a desire to improve and to achieve. They are charismatic, optimistic, and excited about achieving goals. They generate a shared belief in a strategic vision. They mentor followers and attend to their individual needs. If the transactional leader leads with the head, the transformational leader leads with the heart. Transactional leadership is efficient, transformational leadership is effective, but you need to be careful as these are artificial ideal types of constructs. In fact, all leadership models can be dismissed a little more than stereotypes. If questioned, most leaders would prefer to describe themselves as transformational and at times, they probably are. However, if we are to observe their day-to-day practices, we might well observe a transactional approach. Most leaders are both depending on the circumstances or the situation they are in. The value of these models is determined by how we use them. Their analytical value changes according to whether we view these models as descriptive, normative, or heuristic. In this animation, four main models of leadership have been introduced – positional, distributional, transactional, and transformational. Other closely related models have been mentioned, such as democratic leadership, while yet other models, such as delegated leadership or strategic leadership, haven’t been explored at all. It’s possible to identify more than 20 different leadership models – authentic, servant, ethical, situational, pragmatic, professional, eco. The list goes on. It seems as if some leadership scholars have taken the notion of leadership, placed an adjective in front of it, and coined a new model, an approach that has been referred to as adjectival leadership. This approach has led to a field of study that is hotly contested and is rich with theory, philosophy, and empirical research. The challenge for you as an emerging scholar is to critically analyse the literature and find ways of using different ideas to understand the world in which you live.
End transcript
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Please note: ‘Unit 4.3’ in the video refers to part of the Open University course not included in this OpenLearn course.


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