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What makes a successful school leader?

What makes a successful school leader?

5 min read
  • Leadership & teamwork

What makes the difference between a successful school and a failing school? Although many factors combine to impact on educational achievement, and shifting the needle is notoriously difficult, the truth is, a lot of it comes down to who’s at the head.

A leader can have a long-lasting impact on their school, good or bad. Their personal characteristics, leadership qualities, and strategies play a big part in not only the school’s results, but in the school environment and the well-being of its staff and students too. So, what makes a successful school leader?

A large study from the Harvard Business Review has revealed that there are 5 different types of school leader — yet they claim only one of them is truly effective in improving school exam results, with this impact continuing long after they leave. Let’s take a look at the research, to find out what successful school leaders look like, and how we can develop them.

What the research did

The researchers studied leadership in UK academies. They interviewed 411 academy leaders and the people who worked for them. They followed the actions of the leaders and assessed the impact they had on each academy’s exam results as well as on their financial performance, over 7 years.

What they found: The 5 types of school leaders

The study identified 5 different types of school leader. Each had different tactics in terms of the decisions they made, how they spent the school’s money, and the actions they took to improve school performance. Interestingly, only one type had a long-lasting, positive impact on school performance in terms of exam results.

According to the report, the five types of leader were:


These leaders are tough, disciplined and decisive. They work on making fast changes, prioritise older students who are about to take their exams, remove poor-performing students and cut out non-essential activities. They make lots of cuts and little investment.


These leaders are cost-cutters. They reduce resources in an attempt to make school staff work harder. They cut non-essential activities, support staff, and try to buy resources on the cheap.


These leaders have a head for figures. Instead of making cuts, they find new ways of making money for the academy, such as offering the school’s facilities for other purposes out of school hours. They make investments so the academy can grow.


These leaders spend a lot of time discussing approaches with other teachers, telling them how important they are and inspiring them with words. They use strategies like observing other schools and sharing ideas with other teachers.


These leaders are humble and insightful. They understand that it takes time to improve a school, and so they take a long-term view. They take actions such as: acquiring a primary school so they can have a bigger impact through teaching students from a younger age, setting up a sixth form to help students get into university, collaborating with the local community, and improving teaching and leadership with coaching, mentoring and development programmes.

Can you guess which one is most effective? Yep, you guessed it: the Architect.

The research found that while Surgeons and Soldiers have a dramatic impact at first on exam results and financial performance respectively, these were both a quick fix. The positive impacts these two types of leader have in the short-term rarely last.

Accountants, unlike Surgeons and Soldiers, do succeed at improving a school’s financial performance long-term; but they have little impact on exam results because they’re too focused on the money. Meanwhile, Philosophers are all talk and no action. Behind their displays of passion and inspiration, little change is actually made on either financial or academic performance.

But the impact of the Architect is slow and steady. And as we know from the famous saying, this is how you win the race. Performance improves slowly at first because Architects are focused on creating a positive environment within the school. But then exam results build and continue to improve long-term, even after the leader moves on. 

How do we create more achitects?

The authors of the research point out that, although Architect leaders are the most effective in improving exam results, they are the least common, least recognised, and least rewarded types of school leader.

So, to find and create more Architects, for long-term positive effects on school performance, the answer lies in recruiting, rewarding, developing and recognising these kinds of leaders.

The report explains that a big part of this should be evaluating the impact of a leader long-term, including after they’ve left, rather than always being hungry for the “right now” results. We can compare this to the impact of interleaving, a teaching and learning technique that involves switching between topics rather than doing them one by one. Students and teachers can often be resistant to interleaving because for short-term tests, blocking yields better results. But, for long-term learning and memory consolidation, interleaving is much more effective.

We can help you develop your school staff into strong leaders who will make a positive impact in education.

A word of caution

It is worth noting that other researchers have asked for more detail about the methodology used in this study (which is understandable given how striking the results appear to be). Furthermore, there is probably a lot more nuance behind the headline findings. For example, we suspect that many leaders are often a blend of several different styles, and so categorising them neatly and completely as one or the other seems unrealistic. As with all studies, we think this research may offer good food for thought and general guidelines on what may be effective, as opposed to definitive truths. 

Final thoughts

Effective leadership can be the key to a successful school. This research highlights some leadership qualities that school leaders and senior leadership teams might aspire to have, and others that they might wish to avoid. Leadership can be tough and lonely. But done right, the ripple effect of their impact can be felt for years and years to come.

For more information, we do recommend reading the full review.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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