February 2020 edition: Leading with Impact: How Successful Leaders Use Instructional and Transformational Strategies to Make a Difference

Leading with Impact: How Successful Leaders Use Instructional and Transformational Strategies to Make a Difference

"Good leaders change organisations; great leaders change people.” (Hoerr, 2005)

Why school leadership matters

Successful school leadership is, in essence, about leading change. The past 20 years have witnessed remarkably consistent and persisting efforts by educational policy makers to raise standards of achievement for all students through various school reforms. These external policy initiatives – whether they are foreground or background noises that schools can or cannot ignore – represent the unavoidable political realities of education that schools face in their everyday working worlds.

Common to school trusts where children and young people continue to achieve and thrive irrespective of their backgrounds is strong leadership. In navigating successfully through changing social and policy landscapes, these ‘great’ leaders know how to weave their educational values and deep calling into the fabric of school trusts’ daily activities and create the intellectual and social conditions that engage the heads, hearts and hands of their community. In addition, what they appear to be doing exceptionally well is using policies and reforms as opportunities for organisational learning and change – purposefully, progressively, and strategically – to regenerate coherent systems and collaborative cultures that enable and inspire their staff to learn, to renew their practice, and ultimately, to fulfil the meaning of professionalism in what they do.

How leadership makes a difference: both transformational and instructional leadership are necessary for success
There is no single leadership formula or ‘best’ model for achieving success. Increasingly debate about how school and trust leaders make a difference has moved beyond the overly rigid distinction between transformational leadership (which is essentially about managing organisational contexts and change) and instructional leadership (which centres upon enhancing the quality of classroom teaching and learning). Evidence from our research on the impact of school leadership on pupil outcomes (Day, Gu & Sammons, 2016) shows that promoting any particular types or models of leadership as the key to enabling success is, at best, over-simplistic because it fails to recognise that what leaders do (i.e. strategies and actions) and their personal qualities (i.e. values and relationships) are more important. The research (Day et al., 2011; Gu et al., 2018) points to three key observations about leadership effects.

First, the impact of principal leadership on student outcomes may be indirect, but instrumental. Successful principals achieve and sustain improvement over time through building and sustaining the right conditions for a sustained focus on the quality of teaching and learning. The combination and accumulation of various relatively small effects of leadership practices create synergistic influences that promote and effect school improvement processes in the same direction. As such, the various effects of transformational and instructional leadership strategies on school and classroom processes are not discrete, but interactive and interdependent; and together, they contribute to the synergy of leadership influences on student outcomes.

Figure 1 shows the results of the structural equation modelling (SEM) analysis on the relationships between leadership, school improvement processes, and changes in pupil academic outcomes. The SEM model reveals that the leadership practices and trust of the principal (Group 1: red dimensions) and of the senior leadership team (SLT) (Group 2: orange dimensions) influence, directly and indirectly, the improvement of different aspects of school culture and conditions (Group 3: blue dimensions), which then indirectly influence the change in pupil academic outcomes (Yellow) through improvements in several important intermediate outcomes (Group 4: green dimensions). Principals’ leadership effects operated most closely via their influence on developing teachers, improving teaching quality, and promoting a trusting school climate and culture that emphasize high expectations and academic outcomes.

Figure 1: Example of leadership practices and changes in secondary pupil outcomes over 3 years: A structural equation model (N=309 principal survey responses)

Second, context matters but is not everything. Successful principals in our research apply contextually sensitive combinations of the basic leadership practices. The ways in which they apply these leadership practices – not the leadership practices themselves – demonstrate responsiveness to, rather than dictation by, the contexts in which they work. Schools’ abilities to improve and sustain effectiveness over the long term are not primarily the result of the principals’ leadership style. Rather, they result from the principals’ understanding and diagnosis of the school’s needs and their application of clearly articulated, organisationally shared educational values in the school’s work, culture, and achievements.

Common to school trusts where children and young people continue to achieve and thrive irrespective of their backgrounds is strong leadership.

Qing Gu

Third, successful principals draw differentially on elements of both instructional and transformational leadership and tailor (layer) their leadership strategies to their particular school contexts and to the phase of school improvement (i.e. foundational, developmental, enrichment, or renewal). By ‘layering’, we are referring to the ways in which, within and across different phases of their schools’ improvement journeys, the principals selected, clustered, integrated and placed different emphases upon different combinations of both transformational and instructional strategies that were timely and fit for purpose.

In summary, successful principals use the same basic leadership practices. Their ability to respond to their context and to recognise, understand and attend to the needs and motivations of others defines their level of success.


Day, C., Gu, Q., & Sammons, P. (2016). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: How successful school leaders use transformational and instructional strategies to make a difference. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52 (2), 221–258.

Day, C., Sammons, P., Leithwood, K., Hopkins, D., Gu, Q., Brown, E., & Ahtaridou, E. (2011). Successful School Leadership: Linking with Learning and Achievement. Maidenhead, England: McGraw Hill Open University.

Gu, Q., Day, C., Walker, A., & Leithwood, K. (2018). Editorial: How successful secondary school principals enact policy. Policy and Leadership in Schools, 17 (3), 327-331.

Hoerr, T. (2005). The Art of School Leadership. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.