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Thought-provoking ideas for more effective school leadership


In many cultures in the modern world, having a leadership position often involves doing less and being served more. It can mean using others for the leader’s own gain.

Whilst the world generally teaches that leaders must be mighty, the wise know that they must be generally meek.

Worldly leaders gain power and influence through their talent, skill, and wealth. Prudent leaders gain power and influence by persuasion, by aligning people to a vision, and anchoring it in moral purpose.

Of course we see many leaders who crave public recognition, measuring themselves by applause, awards, promotions and financial reward. Today, we live in a world centred on individual success and wealth. We often hear that the ultimate goal in life is to be the best, the richest, or the most famous. Advertising hawks it, television and social media reinforce it, business and government leaders tweet it. So it’s not surprising to then find careerists in school leadership positions spouting the expected rhetoric of 'improving education' or 'elevating the student experience’ while their heart’s compass is actually set on self-aggrandisement as an end in itself.

Which type of school leader do you choose to be? Which type does the school need?

The 'Surgeon' style of leader defaults to the quick fix plan and will then bask in the recognition of having culled low-performing staff and low-scoring students and the cut budgets, to give their school a dramatic short-term performance lift.

They are often also rewarded with bonuses, promotions, titles, and frequently receive new assignments to repeat their magical effect at other schools requiring turnaround. They and others can be drawn in by the cult of apparent success. Yet this Surgeon doesn't typically stay at a school long enough to manage it onwards once their initial cuts are made.

After they move on, the incoming headteacher can inherit a school where the staff are dispirited and defensive, paranoid about job security, frustrated at having to do more with less, voiceless and undervalued.

The school's governors can be, shall we say, less than supportive of their new head. How so? They enjoyed how the previous leader bent up the grade curve as they saved on spending but those trend rates don’t continue under their new leader. They fail to spot how the Surgeon’s approach is 'slash and burn' akin to what a logging company produces when it focuses on short-term output yet without a sustainability strategy. It doesn’t take long before a denuded forest's loss of wildlife and biodiversity leads to gaps in the food chain, to soil erosion and dust clouds. Green turns to brown. Before long all the board of governors and senior leaders have to preside over is a desert . . . on special measures.

The Architect style of leader takes a different approach. Unapologetically a servant-leader, they focus away from themselves and on the greater good with a longer-term, evidently systemic approach, incrementally but solidly lifting school performance. They not only improve both staff effectiveness and student results, but do so in a way that isn't personality-dependent. Most impressively, their schools continue to flourish for years after their tenure ends.

The good news is that these school leader types are now understood and the insight gained is being applied intentionally by heads, Governors are collaborating to meet the school’s goals with whoever is currently in charge or by appointing the right head for their context.

With the ground-breaking research that featured on BBC Newsnight (Nov 2016) and the published in Harvard Business Review (2016, 2017), the official ‘Architect Leader’ school leader development programmes for current and aspiring school leaders provide governors, school heads and senior leadership teams with tertiary education, use-now tools and in-role coaching. To make a profound and lasting impact on your schools, students and communities, choose the type of school leader to be.

#ThisIsaMovement. This year’ The Schools and Academies Show in (NEC Birmingham UK 13th-14th November 2019) will explore The Architect Leader revolution in British schools and show how you can get behind it as part of your school's 2020 vision.

Based in Melbourne Australia, Nic Read is a founding director and lead mentor of The Architect Leader worldwide.

Learn more at or by talking with Ian Hilton-Turvey on 01905-617-871 (

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Updated: Mar 10, 2020

In October 2016 the NGA's CEO Emma Knights said on BBC Newsnight "This new research throws up into question whether we are hiring the right people to be our head teachers and whether we're rewarding the right people to be our head teachers. It looks at things from a very different angle and it may mean that we have to go back to step one."

Now Christopher Hilton, a Chair of Governors, ex-headteacher and school leadership advisor offers boards a fresh way to reinvent and navigate senior appointments and get the right leadership for their vision and strategy.


Why do we persistently think we can produce a different result whilst doing the same old things in the same old way?

Before embarking on the recruitment and selection process, boards should first take some time to consider afresh the current situation of their school, their future aspirations and, from there, determine the type and style of leadership they need to best enable them to achieve their objectives.

Think first about your current context and the future you desire and then the type of leader that you will really need. This critical investment of effort will equip you before you proceed.

Different roles have evolved in recent years and boards should be clear about which role they are recruiting to and why. These factors have an impact upon the type of leader that the school needs to recruit.

Research published by the Harvard business Review suggests that those leaders appointed to make quick changes and rapidly improve results may not be the solution to the long-term challenges and aspirations for the school's future.

The research provides schools with an important message about the need to reflect on individual and organisational leadership styles and their processes in relation to attracting and developing leaders.

"We found five types of leaders, but only one that was truly effective. We also found that the most effective leaders were the least well-known, least rewarded, and least recognised; although they did a great job, the results took time to show, allowing them to be overlooked.

Yet they were the only ones who built a school where exam results continued to improve long after they had left. If more of them can be identified, developed, and appointed, we believe the whole education system will improve."

Hill, Mellon, Laker, Goddard, HBR 2016/17

The research outlined five types of leaders:

Surgeons, who boost exam results by removing poor-performing students and focusing on Year 11 pupils, but see results drop dramatically in the one or two years after they leave. Often, they will be from a PE or religious studies background.

Soldiers, who cut support staff and non-essential activities, but see exam results remain static, while costs “bounce back” after they leave. Usually from IT or chemistry.

Accountants, who focus successfully on improving school revenue, but exam results remain static. Usually these leaders have a primarily maths backgrounds, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Philosophers, who like debating and sharing ideas and knowledge, will make little evident difference to exam results or finances. English or language teachers are prevalent in this group.

Architects, who re-design their school for the long-term, see performance starts to get better in their third year, and the school continues to improve after they leave. Usually they will have studied history or economics and had a career in industry.

It is my view that the style of leadership required depends upon the context of the school and that leaders need to develop their skills sets, adapting and changing as the school moves forward. We need to assess where are leaders are in terms of skills and personal attributes. This should be achieved through selection processes, CPD and long-term programmes.

How can we appoint more Architects more effectively?

  1. Identify leadership qualities during the recruitment process. (Architect Leader Leadership Style Profiling Questionnaire)

  2. Plan to develop the Architects array of skills through CPD/ Architect Leader or other National training programmes- NPQH, NPQSL

  3. Select a leader closer to the current context of the school but who has the qualities to adapt and change with CPD and self-reflection, then support an fdevelop them through mentoring and performance management.

  4. Work with Trusts/Governors and Trustees to define the type of leader and implement a tailored recruitment process:

Utilise a relevant leadership style questionnaire, customised question design, activities, profiling via digital platforms and selection.

Ensure all understand and have a common view in terms of what the organisation may need.

Embed in the process outlined by the National Governance Association.

Require documented evidence showing a track record which illustrates the traits and behaviours you seek.

How can we find and develop more Architects? Grow your own!

- The 'GROW' model outlines four basic components or stages in the coaching process:

(Identify and grow your own leaders: Succession planning. National College) Baines, 2010

G - GOAL - What do you want?

R – REALITY- What is happening now?

O - OPTIONS -What could you do?

W - WILL - What will you do?

To grow your own Architect Leaders, work with this and a set of criteria guided by Architect Leader types and characteristics :

  • Explore at senior leadership team meetings how to make the best use of the existing leadership pool.

  • Identify potential leaders who could step up to meet organisational needs, including improvement priorities - and give them useful experience in relevant change projects.

  • Hold discussions with aspiring leaders - for example within performance management reviews – about their behaviours so they are clear about their strengths and areas they can develop - and give them relevant opportunities to do so.

  • Publish the leadership criteria as a framework and key part of the school’s professional development documentation so that all staff are aware of them and understand how the criteria relates to them individually.

The research provides schools with an important message about the need to reflect on individual and organisational leadership styles and their processes in relation to attracting and developing leaders.

Key Next Steps -

The importance of having a long term plan:

  • Audit – What you need, who you need for the context

  • Plan for the specific needs of the school- The future

  • Develop Leader styles within of ethos the school/MAT

  • Start developing a local network and positive local culture, spreading the culture of Architect Leader.

  • Take a proactive approach do not wait for the need for new leaders.

  • Use systems and processes that positively to support the school.


To act on this, go to 'Engage' on

Chris Hilton is a widely experienced and successful ex-headteacher, Chair of Governors, passionate educator, school leadership development advisor, based in the UK Midlands.

References and resources


2. Headteacher Recruitment Guidance Document – Central Bedfordshire Council 2014 2.

3. A guide to recruiting and selecting a new headteacher NCSL & NGA 2012 Recruiting headteachers and senior leaders: Seven steps to success NCSL

4. Recruiting a new headteacher: Guidance for Governors Babcock and Surrey CC 2014

5. Guidance for the successful appointment of headteachers The Learning Trust 2009

6. Governors’ Handbook DFE 2014

7. School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document 2014 DFE 2014 (updated annually)

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This blog will publish in April 2020 - watch this space!

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