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Research Brief: Understanding School Leadership Models

Nora Patricia Hernández López, Monaliza Maximo Chian

Research Brief - Understanding School Leadership Models
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Hernández López, N. P., & Chian, M. M. (2023). Research brief: Understanding school leadership models. Academy for Leadership in Teacher Education.

School leadership is central to sustaining an effective and harmonious school community to support students' academic success and well-being. To navigate the evolving needs of schools, school leaders must be forward thinkers with a growth mindset to understand the nuances of their community and influence its direction and sustainability. Therefore, having a deep understanding of varied leadership practices and critical judgement to adjust their execution according to specific conditions and desired outcomes is crucial to school leaders' effectiveness (Leithwood et al., 2020). However, given fluid understandings of leadership, school leaders are challenged to keep abreast with the latest thinking on its elusive quality. Therefore, this research brief aims to present a concise description of the school leadership models that are widely applied by school leaders and studied by researchers.

This research brief focuses on two purposefully selected literature reviews on school leadership (i.e., Daniëls et al., 2019; Gumus et al., 2018). We specifically selected two recent literature reviews on school leadership from a focused search in various databases using keywords such as school leaders, school leadership, and leadership models. We conducted reviews of renowned scholars' work in school leadership to elicit state-of-the-art and current knowledge in the field. Taking an ethnographic stance - our reviews of these articles was guided by the questions - how is leadership being defined, and what leadership models are being studied and described?

Gumus and colleagues (2018) frame school leadership as the act of defining specific goals for the development of schools and influencing others towards achieving them. Daniëls and colleagues (2019) conceive school leadership as building an effective learning climate where school organisational processes, including managing resources and monitoring daily operations, are smooth. Both reviews highlight the shift in leadership approaches over the years. They contend that leadership responsibilities are no longer understood as exclusively relying on a single person, highlighting that interactions and collaboration are the core of leadership.

The authors offer definitions of leadership and analyse a range of research on school leadership from which multiple leadership models have emerged. Both literature reviews identified eight major school leadership models as widely used by school leaders and most studied by researchers. Gumus and colleagues (2018) identified distributed, instructional, teacher, and transformational leadership as the most studied models, acknowledging the historical transition from moral and ethical, managerial, and curriculum and instructional models. Daniëls and colleagues (2019) concurred with Gumus and colleagues (2018) and added leadership for learning, which captures an integrative view of leadership in schools (Daniëls et al. (2019). The synthesis of the actions embedded within each model is represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Leadership models in educational research (adapted from Daniëls et al. (2019) and Gumus et al. (2018))

Figure 1

Research on leadership models over the years reflects the evolution of the conceptualisation of school leadership, gradually shifting from hierarchical to decentralised views. Early theories of leadership conceived good leadership characteristics to be innate and leaders as the source of good practice in organisations. Moral leaders are expected to guide moral behaviours in alignment with the school's mission and vision. Influenced by behaviour theory, later theories identified various behaviours leaders must perform to achieve the organisation's goals, resulting in different models (Gumus et al., 2018). For example, task-oriented behaviours delineate leaders as unique, strong figures responsible for ensuring high standards, evident in managerial, instructional and curriculum leadership models. Change-oriented behaviours, leaders are charged to seek improvement of the organisation and motivation of its members, exemplified by transformational leadership. Other behaviours aim to foster quality relationships within the organisation, which are fundamental in situational, teacher, and distributed models, with varying degrees of decentralised power.

Following this trend of decentralised leadership and a response to identified weaknesses of existing leadership models (Daniëls et al., 2019), leadership for learning (LfL; Murphy et al., 2007) has emerged. LfL is a holistic model that encourages participation from all school community members to improve learning and incorporates aspects of instructional, transformational, distributed, and situational leadership practices (Daniëls et al., 2019). Central to LfL practices are improving student outcomes by integrating teaching and learning, curriculum and instruction, and administration and organisation towards creating a healthy school climate.

From this historical perspective, it is possible to see the transition from earlier models, which usually lean towards a sole authority figure, to more recent models, which recognise collaborative efforts leading to successful practices for schools. Differences in the distribution of leadership can be identified from levels of participation. For instance, situational leaders observe and adapt to dynamic school contexts by engaging the most appropriate member for each school goal. On the other hand, distributed leadership subdivides efforts to act collaboratively, involving staff and the wider school community, not limited only to the teachers, as prescribed by teacher leadership. Despite the differences among leadership models, defining and maintaining the vision, mission, and goals are the common responsibilities shared by school leaders across all models.


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Nora Patricia Hernández López is a first-year doctoral student in the Faculty of Education at The University of Hong Kong. Her background in Engineering and Computer Science motivates her dedication for empowering learners in their own learning paths. She has worked closely with a start-up offering STEM education to youth in Mexico, and obtained a second master's degree in Educational Technology and Innovation. Her research is now focused on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in education, both for learning with and about AI.

Monaliza Maximo Chian is a Post-doctoral Fellow for ALiTE and a part-time Lecturer of various qualitative research methods in the Faculty of Education at The University of Hong Kong. Dr. Chian earned her Ph.D. in Education: Teaching and Learning with a specialisation in Qualitative and Interpretive Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). She has over twenty years of experience in K-8 public schools in California, holding various positions: teacher, curriculum leader, support teacher, mentor, and administrator. Her experiences as an immigrant student, an English Language Learner, an educator in a K-8 public district, an instructor in higher education, a researcher, and a parent, shape her research studies in education. Her research interest foci include professional development, teacher leadership, interdisciplinary collaborations, curriculum design, and ethnographic research. Through her research, she aspires to contribute to the body of knowledge that inform program developers and policymakers to design teacher education and professional development programs that promote equitable access to quality and just education for all students.


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