September 2013


  • The purpose of education
    Everyone has an opinion about what our schools and colleges should be striving to achieve and how they should go about it. For the sake of young people, it’s time to build a consensus. More
  • Inside knowledge
    Understanding leadership styles is not just beneficial for senior leaders, says John Bennett. It can be helpful for teachers early in their careers too, in order to help them realise their full potential. More
  • In the driving seat
    As chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart has been one of Michael Gove’s fiercest critics, despite being a fellow Tory. He talks to Liz Lightfoot about system reform, the latest curriculum controversy and why he’s backing ASCL’s Great Education Debate. More
  • Time to get grounded
    Schools can do even more with parent power if they harness it to improve teaching and learning in a real and credible way, says Jim Fuller. More
  • A wider vision
    A new Recommended Code of Governance for Schools, devised by the Wellcome Trust and education bodies, aims to fill the gaps in governors’ understanding of their strategic role. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
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Understanding leadership styles is not just beneficial for senior leaders, says John Bennett. It can be helpful for teachers early in their careers too, in order to help them realise their full potential.

Inside knowledge

As a direct result of external, mainly political, influence, it seems to me that education is becoming too much of a world of nuts and bolts and cogs and wheels. We continuously have to focus on hard targets, measurable outcomes, strategic impact, effective processes and so on. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we do not lose sight of the human side of our work. We are, after all, dealing with people, all day, every day.

In my school and as a normal part of my work, I used the staffroom from time to time and I often used to hear teachers talking about their colleagues. They didn’t say things like “Doesn’t she write lovely targets?” or “He is the best change manager I have ever worked for.” Instead, I would overhear comments relating to everyday human interaction like “Isn’t she good with the students?” or “I really like working with...”

If these sorts of things – the softer, interpersonal skills of colleagues – are so important and are what people, including students and parents, think about and notice, shouldn’t we be giving this particular skill set more attention in our schools? And if colleagues do not demonstrate strong interpersonal skills with others, both students and adults, can we really get good results in our work?

Missed opportunity

I recently led a twilight training session on leadership styles and the 30 or so colleagues present became deeply engaged. This may have been because none of them had ever looked at this topic. Some delegates were many years into their professional life and it seemed to me that a training opportunity for them had been missed when they were at the start of their careers.

I first came across the concept of leadership styles when I was doing LPSH (the Leadership Programme for Serving Heads, now long gone). The course gave me a greatly improved understanding of my own functioning and proved to be very useful in helping me to carry out my job more effectively. Sadly, I did not happen to come across this training until several years into my headship, but had I have known about it much earlier in my career then it would have proven very useful.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of leadership styles, be assured that they are second nature to us all. Everyone uses a variety of leadership styles all the time, depending on the circumstances in which they are operating. Consider the following scenarios:


  • You are delivering a lesson observation debrief to a student teacher who had tried really hard but got it wrong – and the lesson was very poor.
  • You are doing the same with a cynical and idle colleague who is very experienced but has just taught a very poor lesson. Or:
  • You go to the chair of governors or the head to ask a favour.
  • You ask a favour of a colleague.
  • You ask a student to open the window.

In all of these situations, you will naturally adopt a different style, one that will include a particular way of speaking, a particular choice of words and associated body language. It is natural. We all do it.

What makes it all the more interesting to me is that we all have our own, instinctive way of operating in different contexts – our personal style. This is fine, but there are occasions when the use of a particular style in a given context actually operates against what we need to achieve. Sometimes we need to move outside of our comfort zone – that is, our natural way of working – and adopt a style that is not quite natural to us in order to be most effective in a given circumstance.

Too ‘affiliative’

For example, occasionally colleagues in my school criticised me for being “too affiliative”, meaning that I tried to be too nice to people too often and sometimes I did this when the circumstances required a more robust response. Others who were aware of what had happened said that they wished I would “Just tell ’em!” On occasions like this, I was working in my natural style and this detracted from my effectiveness as a leader.

There are a number of academic models that attempt to define the various leadership styles, and they all use different terminology to define what they see as the key styles. I prefer the list of six in the table (right) that, for me, covers most ways of working pretty well. The information is drawn from Hay/ McBer and was part of the Teacher Training Agency’s LPSH participant manual published in 1998 (Volume 1).

I propose that continuing professional development (CPD) leaders in schools should give greater consideration to the whole area of interpersonal skills in their programmes of professional development and make sure that staff undergo such training relatively early in their teaching career. In addition to leadership style, such work may include coaching, mentoring, counselling and even matters as simple as the human aspects of managing an effective meeting.

After all, if there is any truth in the old adage “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it”, then such work may well prove to be highly beneficial.

Style Primary objective Summary
COERCIVE Immediate compliance Used effectively, the coercive style draws immediate and, for the most part, willing response from staff. When not used effectively, it draws passive resistance, rebellion or resignation.
(meaning ‘having an excellent knowledge’ rather than acting in an authoritarian fashion)
Providing long-term direction and vision for staff Used effectively, the authoritative style motivates staff by focusing their attention on the long-term goals of the school and the ways in which day-to-day efforts support these goals. When not used effectively, this style fails to take full advantage of the natural talents and ideas of knowledgeable members of staff.
AFFILIATIVE Creating harmony among staff and between leaders and staff Used effectively, the affiliative style motivates staff by supporting them during either highly routine or stressful times. When not used effectively, it leads to low standards, lack of clarity and frustration for many staff.
DEMOCRATIC Building commitment among staff and generating new ideas Used effectively, the democratic style motivates staff by empowering them to make decisions about their own work processes and goals. It is designed to create teamwork and team commitment. When used ineffectively, it produces confusion and delays due to lack of direction.
PACESETTING Accomplishing tasks to high standards of excellence When used effectively, the pacesetting style works for staff who are self-motivated and who understand their objectives. This style is less effective in times of organisational change. It can also produce extreme stress as the leader takes on more of the work of his or her colleagues.
COACHING Long-term professional development of staff Used effectively, the coaching style helps staff develop sound thinking strategies that build their confidence in functioning more autonomously.When not used effectively, it leaves staff unsure about what they should be doing next and can result in diminished standards.

  • John Bennett was a secondary head in Norfolk and recently retired from the post of director of ASCL Professional Development. He can be contacted on

Find out more...

Training opportunities through ASCL Professional Development: 

Preparing to be a middle leader: your next step (Wednesday 29 January 2014 in Manchester). There is a section in the course on leadership styles. 

A twilight training series, which includes training on leadership styles, can be provided for a cluster of schools. 

Training about leadership styles is also available via the ASCL Professional Development middle leadership training consultancy service.