A Functional Approach to Leadership

The leadership team is the glue that holds a school’s culture together. Without clarity of their leadership style, strengths, and areas needing improvement, their staff can find themselves lacking the proper support and direction required to achieve overall school outcomes. A leader whose end goal is to transform a school from the inside out should take a holistic and functional approach to their leadership while considering the needs of the staff, the students, and the greater school community.

When I started my career as a school leader, I was anything but “holistic.” I was drawing in admin, constantly “doing” everything for my team, from writing teaching programs to filling out paperwork, and photocopying – the lot! So it was little wonder I burnt out early in the piece. It wasn’t until I had a great mentor say to me, “You need to learn to lead from behind, not from in front.” Not fully understanding what that meant, I set off exploring leadership styles in an effort to protect my wellbeing and better lead the teachers I worked with.

This article will outline four prominent leadership styles that school leaders adopt:

  • instructional
  • strategic
  • servant
  • transformational leadership

I will outline the similar themes and approaches of each and draw attention to how each builds upon the next.

The article will conclude with observations on why transformational leadership is the most likely to increase staff wellbeing and improve overall school culture.

Instructional Leadership

Focuses on improving teaching quality through the professional development of teachers.
Instructional Leaders:

  • Have an in-depth understanding of pedagogy and practice themselves
  • Plan for and facilitate teacher learning
  • Define the school’s mission
  • Manage the instructional program
  • Promote high expectations
  • Provide incentives for teachers and students
  • Evaluate teacher performance
  • Promote mentoring and coaching
  • Focus on accountability
  • Can feel a little “top-down”

In summary: Instructional leaders are more focused on the teaching staff and their capacity as educators and how this translates into student learning and outcomes.

Strategic Leadership

Strategic leadership is based on long-range planning with an assessment of current school performance and takes the necessary steps to improve future results.

Strategic Leaders:

  • Set the direction of the school with a vision
  • Create frameworks, interventions and allocate resources
  • Base their decisions on evidence and research
  • Draw on data and respond with the most suitable approach (staff training, reviewing policies and procedures, or culture building)
  • Are always looking for ways to improve the school environment
  • Invest in partnerships across the school community

In summary: Strategic leaders analyse data sets to find better approaches to improving teacher capacity and student outcomes drawing on partnerships and greater resources to do so.

Servant Leadership

Places emphasis on maintaining high expectations and helping teachers and students to develop their skills to improve their performance.

Servant leaders:

  • Instill the desire for improvement while maintaining a focus on both results and relationships
  • Show characteristics of listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community
  • Remove barriers for teachers by providing resources and open communication with the school community
  • Share the power in decision-making
  • Motivate and persuade their school community towards a shared vision with a focus on the bigger picture

In summary: Servant leaders work towards inspiring the teachers, students, and community with strong leadership characteristics and communication skills, distributed leadership, and through embracing a collaborative vision to improve whole school outcomes.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership takes a collaborative approach, empowering staff to have a say in decision-making processes. Built off a shared sense of purpose and collective goal-setting, transformational leadership promotes and fosters collective innovation and improvement.

Transformational leaders:

  • Have high-performance expectations
  • Develop people through coaching, mentoring, and support
  • Build productive relationships
  • Provide instructional support
  • Engage their staff
  • Inspire trust, admiration, loyalty, and respect
  • Have high emotional intelligence
  • Monitor and manage their own emotions and others
  • Energise teams and drive success

In summary: A transformational leader has high expectations for teaching and learning and supports the school’s success by building teacher capacity, fostering collaboration, engaging their staff and community while embodying strong leadership capabilities and emotional intelligence.

No one leadership style is right or wrong, as all have literature to support and validate that each has its strengths depending on the school’s goals, clientele, and location. We can see similarities between all four. All emphasise teacher capacity, strategy, and vision as foundational elements. However, with so many different approaches to try and school leaders wanting to stand out from the pack with improved student outcomes, it comes as little surprise that some leaders can become heavily focused on the RESULTS of their school and the FUNCTIONALITY falls by the wayside.

I would argue that adopting transformative leadership ticks all the boxes. Emphasising teacher capacity and student outcomes while heroeing leadership attributes, characteristics, and emotional intelligence and making room for distributed leadership and greater community involvement has been shown to improve teacher and student engagement, positively impacting school culture.

The holistic and functional approach that transformative leadership offers is far more likely to lead to collaboration, innovation and result in overall improvement of teaching and learning outcomes that school leaders desire.

Keen to work with me to build your leadership capacity? Learn more about my Leadership Coaching and School Wellbeing Consulting services or book a call to create a package tailored to your needs!

More Readings on School Leadership


  1. Transformative Leadership: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Cam-Caldwell/publication/257541719_Transformative_Leadership_Achieving_Unparalleled_Excellence/links/54ef7d960cf2432ba656e471/Transformative-Leadership-Achieving-Unparalleled-Excellence.pdf
  2. Book: Theories of educational leadership and management T Bush – 2003
  3. Transformational leadership is a theory of leadership that was developed by James Burns (1978)
  4. Servant Leadership: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312566690_SERVANT_LEADERSHIP_EDUCATIONAL_INSTITUTION
  5. Instructional leadership: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/From-Instructional-Leadership-to-Leadership-and-Robinson/8cbc1ccb9d863986cab9198c52f603048d509755?p2df
  6. Strategic Leadership: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248906791_Strategic_Leadership_Reconsidered

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