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Inspiring leadership in education


It often amazes me how conversations about inspiring leadership in education get the synapses firing and the passion flowing. A recent conversation with Norm, President of the Australian Primary Principals Association did just that … and beyond … a research project was born! It all started with a statement from an inspiring leader in my initial researchwe don’t often sit back and say, “Did I inspire anyone today?” If someone asked me that question I might say, “No, but I made my performance targets”. In contrast, John Clemens and Douglas Mayer, in their book The Classic Touch, wrote, ‘the central aspects of effective leadership are motivation, inspiration, sensitivity and communication and these have not changed for 300 years’.  Despite the body of knowledge on inspirational leadership gathered over 300 years, little attention has been paid to the process by which leaders inspire others. Furthermore, inspiring others not a performance measure we commonly use.

Norm pondered, ‘Do people in the educational environment share that sentiment?’ With a growing emphasis on community engagement in school management and performance, APPA was keen to explore the statement in the National Professional Standards for Principals (2011), ‘Principals are the leading educational professionals in the school. They inspire students, staff and members of the community to continuously enhance the learning of all.’ The paradox, however, is reflected in this comment by a principal from a National Partnership School I spoke with, who said, ‘Finding the time and the energy to inspire others in the frenetic pace of day-to-day school operations can be difficult’.

The gauntlet was thrown down, and with a sense of excitement … and duty … I picked it up and charged onward. The first quest was to identify principals across Australia that were considered inspiring. How did we do that? Presidents from a number of Principals Associations were approached to provide the names of principals who were considered inspiring! To assist them a list of key behaviours were provided. The interviews were built on a semi-structured framework consistent with phenomenological research design. So far, 7 Principals from Government and private schools across Australia have been interviewed .

Here are some of the key elements that stand out as a common threads that tie the inspiring principals together:

1. The bleeding obvious

Principals have an overwhelming passion for being able to make a difference in people’s lives through education and learning

2. The interesting

Consistent themes included:

  • setting high and clear standards/expectations across the school community
  • commitment to fostering and enabling new ways of doing things
  • a clear and simple vision that people contribute to and embody
  • emphasis on de-privatising the classroom
3. The surprising

Inspiring others is a must. A Queensland Principal said, ‘Inspiring others is critical … if you can’t inspire you’re not going to get the best outcomes.’

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