Teach First

Leadership in Practice

In a study carried out by Teach First’s Research, Evaluation and Impact team between April and July 2016, we examined the empirical evidence supporting some popular ideas about leadership and asked leaders across a range of sectors to identify the most important attributes of an effective leader and how these might be developed.

Alongside training to become teachers in schools serving low-income communities, Teach First participants undergo a two year leadership development programme (supported by coaching from a Leadership Development Officer). To test some of our ideas about leadership, we conducted a critical review of selected leadership literature.

Search online for theories about leadership and you’ll quickly discover there are a huge range of, often contradictory, ideas about what knowledge, skills and traits are needed for leadership. The field of leadership research is still relatively new; even many well-known leadership models have not been robustly evaluated and often lack much by way of empirical evidence to support them. We also know from the emerging evidence on effective professional development that many methods, like one-off sessions or generic approaches, are unlikely to be very effective.

To further explore ideas about leadership development, we conducted a range of interviews with participants, ambassadors (former participants working in a range of sectors), leadership development officers and senior leaders from a variety of organisational contexts (including education, business and charities). A number of ideas about leadership stood out in the interview responses:

Leadership develops through practical experience of leading – many leaders pointed to essentially a process of learning through trial and error as they tackled the challenges of leadership. However, they suggested that this process can be accelerated in a number of ways:

  • Openness to challenge – The role of challenging feedback in developing leadership appeared important to many of the senior leaders we spoke to. This sometimes took the form of one-to-one coaching, but also through networks of leaders meeting to discuss the difficult decisions and situations they were tackling,
  • Role models of leadership – the opportunity to meet, ask questions and hear something of the way other leaders tackled similar challenges in their role was identified as a useful challenge and stimulus for development.
  • Vision and values – many leaders talked about vision in quite practical terms, relating it to deep knowledge of the organisational context and a credible plan for how key goals might be achieved. Leaders also spoke about the relationship between values and trust – behaving in accordance to your espoused values having an important role in building the relationships within effective teams.
  • Knowledge and expertise – another element of developing trust was related to the credibility of a leader who demonstrates a clear understanding of their organisation and people. Within education, instructional leadership – understanding effective pedagogy and evidence-based approaches to school improvement – may form an important part of such expertise.

The results suggest that developing leadership through the practical challenge of becoming a great classroom practitioner is a sound proposition. It also poses questions for organisations seeking to develop leadership about how best to structure and deliver leadership development programmes, and about how outcomes for leadership development can be more robustly evaluated.