Leadership Styles in Education

Lori McDonald
Lori McDonald
Elementary school teacher; Ed.D. in School Leadership/Administration
Someone stacks wooden blocks with the words “leadership styles” printed on them.

All school leaders are not created to be exactly alike because there is not simply one style that is best for educational leadership. There are any varying styles that are appropriate in different situations or with diverse groups of people. There are also many different positions in education that require leadership.

It is not only principals that require leadership skills. Positions such as teacher leaders, team leaders, instructional coaches, and more benefit from these skills. All of these positions require leadership skills, but the styles could be very different depending on the individual and the situation.

What is Leadership in Education?

If asked, most educators would tell you that the principal is the “leader” of their school. This is very true, and a principal’s influence over the school climate is immense. Good leaders empower and train others to become leaders. Whatever the leadership style of a school leader, the ultimate goal is the same; a school leader helps teachers and students achieve and perform to the best of their abilities. There are undoubtedly many different ways to reach that goal; however, that is the desired outcome for anyone in an education leadership position.

Leadership Styles in Education

Upon entering any graduate program for school leadership, one of the first things you will learn is about different leadership styles. I feel that leadership styles for education cannot be considered the same as leadership styles for businesses and corporations, though some of the styles could apply to both. School leadership is much more about people than a bottom line.

Although there are many more leadership styles than what is listed below, these are some of the most commonly found styles in school leadership.

Transactional Leadership

Leaders create clear structures and requirements. For example, employees are presented with straightforward job descriptions and expectations. Transactional leadership centers on rewards and punishments, and these are made very clear from the beginning. This leader allocates work, and the subordinate is solely responsible for it. Failure results in punishment while success results in rewards.

Transformational Leadership

The transformational leader works to transform an organization through enthusiasm, energy, and having an excellent vision for the future. A transformational leader cares about employees and wants them to succeed.

After this type of leader develops the organization’s vision, it then becomes the leader’s goal to sell that vision to others.

Authoritarian Leadership

An authoritarian leader rules with an iron fist and keeps very close control over the workforce they lead. Rules and penalties are strictly enforced. This style is most effective in areas such as the military, where management is essential and there is little room for error. An authoritarian leader makes decisions, usually on their own. While this is a style used in school leadership, I believe it is probably the least effective.

Democratic Leadership

The democratic leadership style differs significantly from the authoritarian style. Democratic leadership is often viewed as one of the most effective leadership styles because employees are involved in the decision-making process. People usually appreciate a democratic leader because they feel their opinions are valued and important.

Servant Leadership

This leader serves the followers rather than the followers serving the leader. The leader’s purpose of service is to help others accomplish goals and improve. This leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, encourages, supports, and delegates.

Laissez-faire Leadership

This leader’s involvement in decision-making is minimal because they allow people to make their own decisions. However, the leader is still responsible for the outcome. This leadership style could be ineffective in a situation where employees lack drive and integrity.

How Does Leadership Impact a School?

Leadership has a significant impact on the school because the style sets the tone for the entire building. For example, the democratic style of leadership is certainly conducive to educational leadership because it is a style in which the leader emphasizes collaboration. Collaboration is crucial in the education realm.

On the other hand, a transformational leader is one that inspires those they lead to grasp the vision for the organization, in this case, a school, and feel empowered to seek to bring that vision to fruition. Administration who implement this style of leadership infuse their school with energy and enthusiasm.

Finally, there is perhaps no greater call to servanthood than that of a servant school leader. School leaders serve the students, parents, and teachers of their school community by constantly seeking ways to improve the educational experience for all. An effective educational leader gives selflessly of their time and resources to do what is best for the students. If done well, it is a job that demands much of the person blessed with the responsibility to lead.

Because of the considerable impact of leadership has on a school, it is critically important to determine what effective school leadership is and how to implement it. Trying to pin down what makes a school leader effective can be challenging. However, by studying the characteristics and behaviors of consistently effective school leaders, one can observe certain commonalities that reveal effective characteristics.

Some of the most common characteristics among influential school leaders include:

High Expectations

Regardless of disadvantage, economic or otherwise, or disability, effective school leaders resist any barriers to success by having high expectations for every student. These high expectations also apply to the teachers in the building.

Ways to Improve

Whether through self-evaluation for self-improvement or through a search for more significant student progress, great school leaders are constantly searching for ways to improve. That does not only apply to their staff and students, but also to themselves.

Expertise in Analyzing Data  

Influential school leaders are avid interpreters of data. They use this data to seek news ways to help students achieve constantly.


There is strength in numbers. When educators collaborate, research shows us that great things happen. Leaders can also collaborate with the teachers in the building to develop ways to solve problems and most effectively serve the school’s student population.

How Do I Choose a Leadership Style?

Each leadership style has strengths and weaknesses and is more applicable to one area of leadership than another. Educational leadership cannot be lumped into the same molds as leadership styles appropriate for businesses and governments. Educational leadership is a unique entity with a specific set of skills that must be viewed differently from other leadership types.

It stands to reason that there will be certain leadership styles that are better suited to that of a principal than others. All school leaders share the common goal of seeking what is best educationally for the students they serve, and effective school leaders share common characteristics or behaviors. Using those common characteristics of successful school leaders, it is clear that those characteristics align with certain leadership styles, and perhaps more importantly, do not align with others.

Carefully look at your situation, your strengths and weaknesses, and the issues facing the school and faculty you will lead. Only then can you effectively choose a leadership style right for you and your school.

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