Developing school leaders: traits & skills traps 

Five million of us around the world lead schools.

How can we develop ourselves as school leaders?

For well over 20 years, Tom Rees and Jen Barker have led alongside and heard from thousands of teachers and school leaders. Their thinking on School Leadership Expertise brings deep insights to apply to our development, learning and planning. 

See the traps

Start with problems

Build knowledge

Apply research 


See the traps

Jen and Tom help me to see traps I fall into.

They challenge me to ask myself: what if we *only* did what we know *for certain* is based on the very best research evidence and expert thinking? 

Trap #1: Traits: I am tempted to see leadership as traits: intelligence, dedication, dynamism, tenacity, resilience. I put them into my leader recruitment adverts. Is this approach backed by robust research evidence? One researcher who advocated them in 2008 concludes by 2019: ‘the claim that personal leadership traits, by themselves, explain a high proportion of variation in school leadership cannot be justified.’

Trap #2: Skills: I am tempted to see leadership as skills: vision, change, motivation, projects. I put them into my leader recruitment adverts too. Is this approach backed by rigorous research either? Rob Coe concludes in 2023, ‘little of the claims and advice is well-defined, actionable and grounded in robust evidence’.

Falling into these traps has led me into problems: problematic overloading workload, unreliable lesson judgments, disruption and distractions in classroom lessons, weak assessment and data systems, shaky CPD, troublesome recruitment and retention. Traits and skills alone don’t help as much as deep, broad knowledge of schools’ challenges and the best schools’ approaches.

Tom’s story of his dad, a music teacher of over 40 years, helps me see this. A visionary music leader, he nevertheless would not have visionary change skills if it came to leading early years or language teachers. Contexts vary, and the knowledge needed for them varies too.

Four problems with traits and skills Jen and Tom identify:

1. Skills rely on knowledge. 

Difficult conversations about staff performance, student exclusions, assessment systems or a disability diagnosis depend on very different knowledge. 

2. Knowledge doesn’t transfer easily. 

A head of sixth form’s leadership does not transfer well to an early years setting, nor a hospital leader’s to a school; vision and charisma don’t transfer well from mentor to novice. 

3. Skills and traits are imprecise.

‘Leading change’ or ‘managing people’ do not bring us precise clarity.

4. Time spent has a high cost.

Time is short: our choices must be rigorous and judicious.

I struggle a lot, and have for a long time, in developing CPD that is clear and precise, uses time well, that helps staff and teachers to transfer it across subject and department contexts and that blends staff and expert knowledge well. 

Tom and Jen’s challenges to the skills-led orthodoxy resonate strongly with me. 


Start with problems

Why a problem-based approach to leadership development and not traits- or skills-based? 

Jen and Tom suggest three advantages. 

1. Balance: overly-complex longlists of skills and traits are unwieldy and daunting; oversimplifying to a top three, four, five or six doesn’t reflect the complexity of reality in schools.

2. Practicality: traits differ among us lots; problems affect us all. 

3. Grounding: skills, fads and fashions shift; problems endure. 

How to choose – which problems? Tom and Jen suggest three criteria.

1. A persistent problem must be universal – affecting all school leaders.

2. A persistent problem must be causal having a high impact for staff and students. 

3. A persistent problem must be controllable – school leaders must be able to have high influence over them. 

Tom and Jen select seven persistent problems that school leaders face.

I battle lots in school leadership all the time, and have for over a decade, with overcomplicating and oversimplifying, with working out what’s highest-impact, highest-influence, and preventing shallow misapplications or mutations. 

So Tom and Jen’s insights on persistent problems strike me as having exciting potential.


Build knowledge 

Why expertise? 

Research suggests expertise helps us with decisions, trust, influence and impact.

Why knowledge?

Knowledge is impactful.

It helps us learn, notice, ask and see things. Experts have vast hidden, tacit, contextual, causal, predictive, personal knowledge that they use to understand what’s happening, anticipate what could happen, decide what to do, communicate with others and solve complex, ever-evolving problems.

Knowledge is deeper, broader and more hidden than we tend to realise.

It includes our ideas, our habits, our principles, our approaches, our views, our beliefs, our values. We tend to underestimate the importance of knowledge in learning.

Knowledge is obtainable.

It is empowering that we can all build knowledge – our own, and others’.

What knowledge?

Knowledge that most helps us solve our persistent problems well.

Knowledge that most brings about the expertise that leads to impact.

I’ve puzzled over how best to approach school improvement and CPD for ages, and I love the clarity this approach brings: build expert knowledge.


Apply research 

What most helps learning? 

Knowledge. Priorities: no overload, no distractions. 

Examples. Stories. 

Thinking. Discussion. Dialogue. Applying it in action.

Practice. Revisiting. Summaries.

Habits. Norms. Reinforcement.

Trust. Purpose. Encouragement. Support.

I often fail to apply even just these top few insights when I lead CPD.   


Four question sets for how we develop ourselves as school leaders

1. See the orthodoxy traps: traits and skills.

Where are we falling into the trap of thinking about leadership as traits, like intelligence, charisma or tenacity, that aren’t replicable?

Where are we falling into the trap of separating high-level leadership skills, like managing change or solving problems, from deeper webs of hidden underpinning knowledge, like behaviour? 

2. Start with persistent problems: high-impact, high-influence.

What are the highest-impact, highest-influence problems we most need to address?

How can we keep both simplicity and adaptability to complexity in our CPD? by sharing priorities? what we’ll stop doing, let go of, not do and deprioritise? overload, hornets and barnacles to watch out for? pitfalls? non-examples? adverse side-effects? anticipated unintended consequences? common misconceptions? common mistakes? limitations? preemptions? guidance? guardrails?

3. Build expert knowledge: deep, impactful, obtainable.

What concepts, principles, habits, beliefs and values most help resolve the problems?

4. Apply research insights: examples, thinking, practice, revisiting.

What examples, thinking and practice would help most?

What revisiting would help most?


Tom and Jen’s clear thinking is helping me consider how we develop ourselves as leaders.

See the traps. Start with problems. Build knowledge. Apply research.

Knowledge. Examples. Thinking. Practice. Revisiting.