LEADERSHIP COMES IN MANY DIFFERENT GUISES IN THE WORLD OF EDUCATION AND MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT THE THEORETICAL MODELS THAT EXISIT. I HAVE LONG ADVOCATED THAT ONE MODEL CANNOT AND DOES NOT WORK WHEN APPLIED IN ISOLATION – THE BEST LEADERSHIP IS ALWAYS A CAREFUL MIX OF DIFFERENT APPROACHES THAT ARE SKILFULLY BLENDED THROUGH THE PERSONAL INTUITION OF THE EXPERIENCED LEADER. THIS PHILOSOPHY HAS LED ME TO ANALYSE MY OWN LEADERSHIP AND THE STYLES AND APPROACHES I HAVE COME TO RELY ON. I LIKEN MY APPROACH TO THAT OF THE PUB-LANDLORD AND OFFER “VISIBLE LEADERSHIP” AS THE MODEL WHICH I BELIEVE IS TRULY TRANSFORMATIONAL.
The pub landlord paradigm
I know of a public house which is particularly popular. Not just with me – it’s where everyone wants to go. By gosh, its small. Tiny in fact. But it’s the busiest pub in it’s area by far. Really popular.
The landlord, John, is a great guy. He looks the part. Shirt, tie, shiny shoes. When you step inside, John is the first person you’ll see. And he makes you feel a million dollars. First, he’ll reach out and take your hand. A proper handshake. For everyone. Every customer. It’s adapted for the ladies and comes with a kiss on the cheek – old fashioned and not of our time you may say – but John is from a different generation. It’s a busy pub and the clients are the high court judges through to the manual labourers. Everyone gets a handshake.
“Hi Max,” he’ll say to me. He always says “Hi Max.”
John has got an impressive skill. If there is such a thing as a photographic memory, John has it. He remembers everyone’s name. All the time. And there is nothing quite like going somewhere and being welcomed with physical contact and your own name. “Hi Max.”
John also remembers what you drink. He tells you your order as you go in through the door!
“Hi Max – pint of bitter it is?”
And he’ll signal to a bar man to prepare the drink and have it ready for you.
Sometimes it has been a busy week; a tough week. We all know the stresses and challenges of working in schools. Schools are complex places after all. John makes you know that you’re valued. He’ll find time to chat to you once you’re in and taking a sip or two. He remembers little things and asks questions that relate to you. And he’ll listen.
Do you know what he’s doing? He’s making you feel like you matter. He’s breathing life back into you. And do you know what that’s called? It’s called inspiration.
It’s personalised and it’s for everyone. It’s what we in education circles call Inclusion. And it is John who does it – its not delegated to someone else. John recognises it works because he is the landlord, and he is the one we come to see. He leads by example and he leads with high visibility.
The new paradigm of the “pub landlord” is my offering to the educational landscape. Recognising the vital importance of visible leadership means that, like John, you can foster relationships, develop inclusion and take people with you: it’s the winning of hearts as well as minds that makes leadership effective. Visible leadership enables this.
This diagram summarises my model for Visible Leadership and assumes that it creates positive relationships, teamship and trust which in turn deliver transformational change. In the rest of this blog I will explore each element of the model in more detail:
I recall embarking on my second headship and deciding, as a seasoned school leader, that job number one would be to foster positive relationships with all partners – and I use the word “partner” rather than “stakeholder” because that surely better demonstrates the personal investiture that we should look to build with people. This is where John, our friendly pub landlord, had something to teach me: I now begin every morning by standing outside the school and welcoming every parent and pupil who passes me. I stand not in the corner of the playground nor on the steps by the railings. I stand on the corner of the pavement – a strategic spot where I know that everyone has to pass me. I shake the hands of parents, I know them by first name, and I smile as I speak to each child. It’s not a gimmick – and it is without doubt the best thing I do each day because it sets the right tone, it creates the right mood and it makes the school personal.
I’m sure there has been the odd call or letter in to the Governors about my schools during my tenure, but I’m certain that my early morning routine captures 99% of issues early and allows me to “nip them in the bud” before they escalate into anything more serious. Parents feel they can talk informally, and it’s the same strategy – being visible – which I believe helps to build and maintain a positive reputation in the wider community.
My advice is to establish this quickly at your school – it is, as Keith Grint would describe, part of the “art of leadership.” Similarly I sought to get to know my entire staff team as quickly as possible – again, this can only be done through being visible. Most days at school, because I am in early, the caretaker, administrator and support staff are often the first people I see. All have a crucial, specific, role within the school. But they also have a wider role: if you build up a rapport with them they reciprocate ten fold – the influence they have on how everyone else operates is tangible. These people matter so much to the mood, morale and performance of a school. They don’t just do their jobs; they make the team tick.
My argument follows that if visible leadership enables positive relationships it therefore allows leaders to translate those relationships in to a powerful force I call teamship. Developing a sense of teamship is vital, which brings with it ownership by all partners; personal investments of time, effort, professional practice and CPD; and common goals centred around a common vision that is understood by everyone.
I am reminded of the famous story of an encounter President John F Kennedy is said to have had when visiting NASA HQ. He had been talking to scientists, astronauts, the experts charged with putting together the plan to deliver on his bold objective that America should be the first nation to land a man on the moon. As he left, he saw a cleaner, with a mop, and asked him – though it must have seemed pretty obvious – what he did. The reply came: “Sir, I am here to help put a man on the moon.”
I find this story inspiring: the cleaner knew the overall vision, and he had a sense of partnership and of belonging to that vision, because it was being taken forward all around him. Most importantly, he knew that to be successful the people heading moonwards needed to work in an efficient, spotless environment, and his job was to be part of the cleaning team that created it. My message to any school community is this: “whatever your job title, whatever your role, you are here to enable this school to be the best it can be so that all learners are pushed, extended, encouraged and expected to be better learners than they presently are.” Visible leadership enables this.
I would argue that a significant factor in motivating and inspiring others is by trusting them to play an active part in the leadership process. Again, lets look to John the pub landlord and why I choose to go to his establishment. I know the welcome will be personable. I know the atmosphere will be warm and inclusive. I know the beer will good. I know that John will be there to speak to. In other words, the visibility leads to trust.
Even on a very small scale, the ability to trust can yield results far better than authoritarian prescription. In a previous role as the assessment lead I was tasked with implementing ‘Assessment for Learning’ (AfL) throughout a school – a wide remit which came with an expectation to lead and develop the initiative as a high priority within the school improvement process. Discussions with staff about the success or otherwise of my lead on implementing AfL proved useful for the reflective practitioner in me – the teachers I spoke to reported that they liked the bite-size steps and realistic time-scale I had managed. I was pleased that I had appeared to have ‘sold’ the vision and idea to the staff corporately, and had enjoyed some successes in managing its implementation. However, from a leadership perspective, a matter of concern that did arise was that the approach to driving the initiative forward in the early stages may have been too ‘prescriptive.’ In suggesting AfL strategies, some staff argued, and rightly so on reflection, that the techniques shouldn’t have been ‘forced’ upon them. Some would have preferred the option to think up and use their own strategies, which ultimately would have led to the same outcomes. We can all learn from this – one has to be careful about ensuring that equipping people with the skills to manage the tasks and realise the vision occurs without switching off their interest and motivation before they even start. The ‘management of trust,’ as talked about in Sergiovanni (2001) is all important in ensuring a positive corporate response to whole-school projects, and sits with an obviousness alongside the visible leadership model now adopted.
Directing from the proverbial ivory tower is neither visible nor trust-building.
Working as an Executive Headteacher over multiple schools, with a diverse staff to manage made up of teachers, support staff, ancillary workers, cleaners and caretakers and administrative staff, I have been able to explore the Visible Leadership model first hand and relate it to key educational leadership and management theory. Part of the Executive Headteacher role is strategic, such as implementing the Federation’s vision for the Six Rs of learning (based on Claxton’s 2006 work) within our pedagogical approach. Part of how I’ve led on this was through classroom observation – monitoring the shift in pedagogy, and offering critiques on approaches, and feedback on teaching and pupil learning. Lets examine how doing this activity (monitoring and observation) – something many readers will be involved with – draws out the strengths of a visible leadership approach:
A case study in growing trust through visible leadership
Monitoring through observation is an obvious leadership activity to think about – often done to improve standards by encouraging learning within others: leadership for learning if you will. Swaffield and MacBeath (2009) describe leadership for learning as a ‘distinct form of educational practice that involves an explicit dialogue, maintaining a focus on learning, attending to the conditions that favour learning, and leadership that is both shared and accountable.’
In light of this, it is possible to draw considerable links to the leadership activity described in that it involves an explicit dialogue with the colleague being led (for instance, through a verbal feedback meeting) and has a clear focus on learning: in two strands – the learning of the colleague in the way in which they are invited to reflect upon the feedback, draw conclusions and adapt practice; and in the learning of the class of pupils, the aim of which is to improve through adapting pedagogy. Leithwood et al (2009) are clear in their assertion that leadership can have a significant influence on student leadership, and propose four distinct leadership paths along which effective leadership can ‘flow’ in order to bring about improvements in pupil learning. In terms of the leadership activity as described above, observing a colleague’s pedagogical approach with the intention of offering a ‘critique’ and a nudge/push accordingly in the direction that the vision of the school calls for in terms of classroom practice, Leithwood et al’s ‘rational path’ is trodden. The clear aim of this leadership activity, to develop teacher pedagogy so as to impact positively on pupil learning, fits well with Leithwood’s suggestion that teachers’ pedagogy is ‘the most obvious and arguably most powerful variable’ on this path and that the practices most likely to bring about a successful influence upon this variable centre around setting directions, developing people and redesigning the organisation (Leithwood, K. 2011.) An environment based in trust obviously makes all of this more achievable.
What better way, I posit at this interject, than to develop trust and influence through “walking the walk”: tracing it backwards through the visible leadership model allows us to see that it changes practice for the better (becoming transformational); it assumes trust (therefore giving credibility); relies on colleagues learning from one another (working in teamship); and hangs its success or otherwise on the strength of the relationships (if positive, then learning is easier and more likely to occur – if poor, then it can sit as a personal attack.)
The implications can be drawn more assuredly on the wider activity of lesson observation in general. The work of Mark Burns and Andy Griffith is defining in this space and it is their approach to lesson observation which has cemented my belief in visible leadership. How so? Well ask yourself this: “what is the point of lesson observation?”
Certainly, it seems to me that in many schools lesson observation has become all about checking up on teachers (what was that about the importance of trust!?) – it is a rudimentary tool for assisting school leadership with the performance management of their teachers. Visible Leadership, however, invites you to challenge that rationale and encourages you to reflect on some key questions:
- If you’re honest with yourself, how do you feel about lesson observations at your school?
- Are teachers confident about letting people observe their lessons?
- Are observations always centred around performance management or are they ever used for CPD?
- Does lesson observation feedback consist of tick boxes against criteria or a more contextualised meaningful discussion?
- Do teachers get an opportunity to see all of the great practice from around the school like the observer?
- Is there a fear of risk-taking or experimentation?
- Are there pockets of outstanding practice, but a difficulty in sharing this across the school?
- Are there opportunities for peer and self-review?
When looking at the questions above, I found myself thinking about the BBC television programme “MasterChef.” This is the show where talented cooks are shown labouring over a recipe and preparing fantastic meals as they are watched and quizzed by the judges at every stage. Finally, the meals are finished and tasted by the judges who give their feedback. What is interesting though about MasterChef is that although the feedback can be difficult, and the responses it draws from the contestants can be emotional, it is always presented from both sides – judge and contestant – as a constructive process built in trust. The judges want the chefs to learn. The chefs, even when faced with what could be considered as negative feedback, are interviewed afterwards where they almost always self-reflect and start talking about what they need to do next time to improve their practice.
Now obviously there is TV drama and a huge dose of the theatrical in MasterChef. But it does show that a process of observation and feedback can be motivating and developmental. If we apply these musings to the world of education it is not hard to see that lesson observation has traditionally been geared towards performance management. However, paradigms are shifting and the importance of observation for development needs to be increasingly recognised.
I’ve long held an inner-commitment to shift the culture in my school from using observation as a summative assessment towards an open, constructive and collaborative approach. No longer do I want negative feelings from my staff towards the lesson observation process, where observations are perceived as an imposed activity which add to stress and anxiety levels. No longer do I want feedback to be “within 5 days, or 24 hours, or whatever time- frame had been set out. I want it to be immediate and meaningful – not just through a series of tick boxes. And no longer do I want lesson observation to be something done TO you – where are the opportunities for teachers to undertake self-review and see themselves as others do in the way that a chef frequently tastes his own food?
Lesson observations can be one of the most powerful ways to raise standards of teaching and learning but only when teachers become empowered in the process. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to advocate developmental lesson observation at my schools and move us from a “done to” to a “done with” model.
Clearly this only works when built on trust and transformational leadership: most effectively delivered through Visible Leadership. Let me show you how.
I wanted to establish a way of helping teachers to use the observation process as a means of CPD and the first step was to gather them together and tell them about my plan for lessons to be filmed. There were caveats, of course: only the teacher could watch the video – never the observer; the video would be deleted by the teacher after they had watched it – it would never be stored or kept as “evidence” by the observer. We started out with lessons being filmed onto iPads – the observer would watch the lesson in the room, the teacher would deliver the lesson and watch it back later that day. Feedback was replaced with a developmental conversation between two people who had both watched the same lesson – one of whom had actually taught it!
In my school, recognising that leadership and learning are mutually embedded, as recognised by Swaffield, S and MacBeath, J. (2009), we have sought to develop teachers as reflective practitioners, encouraging a pedagogy linked to Guy Claxton’s ‘four Rs’ of learning – and further developed by the school to the ‘six Rs’ of learning – in order to increase learning and, as Claxton suggests, learning capacity (Claxton, 2006.)
My observations and critiques of a lesson are part of the leadership (top down) but go hand in hand with other leadership practices that have already been subtly set up and are pursued through the model of observation. I return to Leithwood’s identification of ‘setting directions’ as a key example of this point. Put simply, unless the teacher is motivated to change, listen and improve, then they will not. Leaders must demonstrably live and breath that which they promote – in a nutshell, by being seen. It is my experience that fear/pressure from observation is less effective than being open to and receptive towards feedback and friendly criticism. It is, as Grint, K. (2003) describes, the arts of persuasion in leadership, and the ‘management of trust,’ as talked about in Sergiovanni, T. (2001) that is all-important in ensuring a positive response to any school improvement process. If teachers are onboard they are motivated, and the way in which I offer feedback following a lesson observation is always mindful of this – getting the sensitivities just so, in order to deliver positive motivational messages alongside constructive criticism and ideas that do not disengage the teacher.
There is also the theme of learner or pupil voice which emerges through the lesson observation example. There is, I believe, a distinct difference between the two, in that in this leadership activity, offering opportunity for a colleague (the adult being ‘led’) to reflect and voice their own opinions about their lesson – the strengths, weaknesses and influence it will have on their evolving and changing practice – one can see that learner voice is exercised. However, with regards pupil voice, eliciting the views of the pupils on the back of a lesson observation and inviting them to take part in reflections and discussions with both the visible leader and the person led (observee) is something that perhaps would have impacted well on this leadership activity. It is possible to reflect that perhaps Lundy’s (2007) central argument that voice is not given significant enough prominence is perhaps borne out in such practice, and in light of the questions raised by Thomson, P.’s (2011) article, could well be something worthy of exploratory in practice.
As a leader implementing significant change, adopting a transformational perspective to inform the approach fits comfortably within an organisation au fait with ‘trust,’ ‘respect’ and ‘teamwork.’ Indeed, the confidence instilled in individuals, as part of drive towards pedagogical shift, is also borne out through the values of a school. Motivating values, those which shape individual and collective perceptions of needs and interest are also there: one could argue that without a motivated workforce, none of the trusting and commitment based values could flourish within my organisation. Getting such a balance within lesson observation and feedback is therefore crucial.
Transformational leadership is therefore seen as focusing on creating change rather than system maintenance, and follows the development of motivation theory towards a sense of collaborative involvement and empowerment. Apply this to the way in which the observation changes described above were led, and it becomes clear that a less prescriptive approach could be more motivational; by that I mean to suggest building in greater opportunity for learner voice (from the staff member). If they were invited to reflect and offer views/ideas before feedback and a critique, could that be successful in strengthening motivation and trust? And how is that best achieved? What does the Visible Leadership theory invite us to think?
Of course, teamship and trust alone do not make a good school. Teamship alone does not guarantee good quality learning. For all the virtues of positive relationships and teamship, visible leadership becomes most powerful when it gives rise to distributed leadership, and later, transformational leadership.
Visible Leadership, as a concept, continues to be evermore ‘key’ in my work in educational organisations, which in turn has given rise to the development of various leadership theories. Here I’d like to explore two such ‘perspectives’ on educational leadership, and invite you to compare these to various leadership roles in existence in your school – perhaps that of a Senior Teacher on the management team of a primary school, with particular responsibilities for assessment. My particular interest here is the notion of distributed leadership, which in so many of the settings I have had the privilege of visiting, is something I often consider in need of some refinement. In addition, because I’d suggest that my new construct of Visible Leadership facilitates – in this order – positive relationships, teamship and distributed leadership – I’d like to investigate how that sits within a model of transformational leadership; the impact that I believe Visible Leaderships delivers.
So to distributed leadership – something often referred to with pride in many settings. I recall working as a senior teacher in a challenging school. Distributed leadership was a principle held with a supposed high regard by the headteacher who prided himself on having established a leadership culture of ‘open government.’ This ‘standard’ of the headteacher – facilitating innovation through active distributive leadership – was, however, at odds with the way in which the model manifested in practice. Hammersley-Fletcher and Brundrett (2005) pinpoint the crux of the matter; in their study of twenty-four primary schools they note that one form of distributed leadership is characterised by subject leaders and curriculum coordinators being limited to ‘implementing the strategies of others.’ Distributed management rather than leadership in my opinion. As a senior manager with a significant school aspect to oversee, I was often presenting my ‘ideals’ – ideas, developmental opportunities, evaluations, aspirations, leadership vision and strategic plans – to the Senior Management Team (SMT) only to then find myself presenting their initiatives to the wider staff, repackaged as my own ‘pet project.’ It is a frustration of the reality of distributed leadership in practice:
In order to ensure that distributive leadership in its truest and fullest guise really comes to existence, Hammersley-Fletcher and Brundrett (2005) suggest that staff need to be put into positions of true leadership, where creativity and innovation are expected and supported by the Headteacher. Such innovations require a substantial amount of confidence on the part of the Headteacher, and thus ‘distributed leadership is itself more of an aspiration than an actuality in many schools’ (Burton and Brundrett, 2005). I propose that visible leadership is the obvious solution to this frustration.
Indeed, a clear argument could be made that for distributed leadership to flourish, a visible model is a necessity for the headteacher and SMT. Visible leaders ‘personally evolve while also helping their followers and organisations evolve. They build strong relationships with others while supporting and encouraging each individuals development’ (Horner, 2003) Here it becomes explicit that Visible Leadership gives rise to the potential for distributive leadership to thrive. Indeed, Leithwood et al’s model of transformational leadership supports the notion of visible leadership and conceptualises the transformational element along eight dimensions: ‘building school vision; establishing school goals; providing intellectual stimulation; offering individualised support; modelling best practices and important organisational values; demonstrating high performance expectations; creating a productive school culture; and developing structures to foster participation in school decisions’ (Leithwood et al, 2003) In the setting described above, one could argue that there was a definite model of transformational leadership, which aimed – with some success – to develop a culture of collaborative involvement of the staff. As a ‘team member’ within the SMT, I ‘bought’ into the vision of my headteacher and did, for the most part, identify with the directions in which I was pushed. Today, as a leader of multiple schools, I use visible leadership to enable this transformational guise; it sets out to achieve two main goals: “getting the job done” and motivating the staff team I lead so as to get the best from them in the future. A careful mix of the authoritative and affiliative leadership styles, as described by Hay/ McBer help imbue the visibility which in turn creates a working transformational model of leadership in practice. As one colleague suggests, visible through to transformational leadership allows ‘a leader to influence through gaining respect and admiration; to inspire through own behaviour; to involve and empower followers and encourage individual development’ (Thompson, 2008.) However, it is Leithwood et al’s last ‘dimension’ that is of crucial significance: in previous settings where I have worked, whilst acknowledging the existence of at least an attempt at genuine transformational leadership, the lack of opportunity for those other than the headteacher to make significant decisions hinders the practice of distributed leadership and brings into question the validity of the claim that the leadership model is truly transformational. Leithwood et al also recognise this point, and acknowledge that ‘most models of transformational leadership are flawed by their under representation’ of such opportunity (Leithwood et al, 2003).
Making it happen
All of the above can almost get lost in the highly theoretical. The living and breathing of anything almost always simplifies an understanding and cements a solid understanding based in context. As an experienced school leader I’ve overseen many whole-school changes. It’s a process that is far from easy, and by no means do I suggest that I have all the answers. However, as an advocate of Visible Leadership, I would offer the following principles as useful starting points in helping you bring about effective change in as quick and efficient a way as possible: that is to use visibility to enable transformational change. Consider the Visible Leadership model as something which creates positive relationships, teamship and trust as you read the following:
Operate with a genuine purpose
Headship and school leadership often calls for a brave approach. One way of doing this is to appear to sit back initially. However, far from doing nothing, this time is spent watching, observing and noticing. It is so important not to go in like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Take a considered approach based on what you see, and fit this to your own philosophy of education. Make every change matter – if you operate with a genuine purpose, rather than changing for the sake of change, you will bring people with you and that becomes a more powerful catalyst for school improvement.
Collaboration – we are all in this together
Schools are about people; first and foremost, the young people who attend each day – but they’re also about the staff, from the teachers to the support team; from the administrator to the caretaker; from the ancillary helpers to the kitchen staff – each has a key role in the running of the school and in the lives of the learners. Schools are about parents who are such key partners in the education of the children. And schools are about community. Recognising this and building on the unique and individual community strengths that surround a school is critical in securing continued improvement. Relationships are everything. Getting this right will mean you can affect change quickly without distancing or alienating staff in the process.
Establish a clear direction of travel
Work with the school community to articulate a shared vision – be clear about the steer you’re putting on that as a leader, but use this as an opportunity to build a shared sense of ownership and buy-in. Experience tells me it is far easier to affect whole school change if everyone has a sense of clarity about what is changing, why it is changing and how it will be achieved. Let your team see that you trust them to have their say and then to deliver.
A relentless focus on communication
A strategy for good communication is built on you knowing your purpose, building relationships and establishing a clear direction of travel. If you want to affect whole school change quickly, you need to have everyone on-side and singing from the same song sheet. Simple things such as active listening, being consistent with your messages and taking feedback are really important to try to get right… but remember that communication can always be better. Never think you’ve cracked it.
Be clear with all partners about your beliefs; build a vision; realise the wider goals to which you are part; and bring people with you. The best people. And help to make them better through appraisal, through coaching, through CPD and through expectation. Never be afraid of helping people become better at something than you. Integrity, trust and belief – it’s infectious, and once you have that it grows quickly in others. And that’s a powerful place from which to build for lasting changes in your school.
And so back to John and his pub. What has his approach taught us about school leadership? A genuine purpose? Great atmosphere, great beer. Collaboration? A warm welcome and conversation with everyone – it establishes loyalty amongst the locals and sense of belonging. Clear direction of travel? John is trying to build a reputation for a great pub that brings in a steady customer base. Communication? That’ll be the personal touch, the handshake and the chit chat. Developing others? Absolutely – there are always young bar staff employed, learning the ropes and watching the master at work.
What does all of this enable? I’d argue it easy to pick up the thread through John’s approach that weaves through teamship, positive relationships and goes right back to the principle of being present and visible.
Visible leadership. It’s vital for change within a school or organisation. But it relies on bringing people with you so by default it is outward facing leadership too. When done with conviction it is incredibly powerful. And when done properly day-in, day-out, you very definitely earn yourself a Friday night drink.
“Now then John, mine’s a pint.”
Burns, M. and Griffith, A. (2014) ‘Outstanding Teaching: Teaching Backwards’, Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.
Burton, N. and Brundrett, M. (2005) ‘Leading the Curriculum in the primary School’, London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
Claxton, G. (2006) ‘Expanding the capacity to learn: a new end for
education?’ Keynote address, British Educational Research Association, Warwick, 6 September.
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Hammersley-Fletcher, L. and Brundrett, M. (2005) ‘Leaders on leadership: the
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Thompson, V. (8 November 2008a) ‘Re (2): Transformational Leadership’ Online OU forum.