Understanding Leadership

Challenges and Reflections

By: John West-Burnham , Libby Nicholas


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Products specifications
Attribute name Attribute value
Size: 234 x 156mm
Pages : 240
ISBN : 9781785830266
Format: Hardback
Published: May 2016

Are current leadership roles and relationships appropriate in a rapidly changing world? Do we need to rethink key assumptions about leaders and leadership? Are you confident about the appropriateness and effectiveness of your chosen leadership styles and behaviours? These are questions facing leaders today and Understanding Leadership by Libby Nicholas and John West-Burnham can help find the answers, with an approach that is neither normative nor prescriptive but rather exploratory and developmental. Applying research and case studies from inside and outside the educational canon, Libby and John challenge prevailing orthodoxies and invite readers to reflect on their personal understanding as the basis for translating theory into practice. All leadership behaviour is based on a number of fundamental personal assumptions about the nature of human relationships and the basis on which human organisations function. Understanding Leadership helps leaders make their implicit understanding explicit and so informs and aids development of professional practice.

Effective leaders develop and grow by understanding their personal mindscape – the mental map with which they make sense of the world – and developing it through reflecting, exploring, testing and questioning. The usefulness of any map is determined partly by its scale and partly by the information it depicts. As leaders develop, so their personal mental maps become more sophisticated and more detailed. The purpose of this book is to help leaders understand and refine their maps through reflective self-awareness – facilitating the journey to understanding leadership.

Leadership is fundamentally concerned with the complexity of human relationships, performance, engagement and motivation – leadership has to be seen as relational. Leadership involves emotional engagement and sophisticated interpersonal relationships. The idea of a hero-leader single-handedly transforming a school is perhaps not a particularly useful or relevant vision of effective leadership for today. Libby and John encourage leaders to arrive at their own working definition of effective leadership and analyse how the myriad of carefully examined models and case studies might apply in their own school context.

The eight chapters are underpinned by the following themes, questions and points of reflection:

• Why leadership?

• Creating a preferred future – leading change

• Leadership as a moral activity

• Learning as the core purpose of school leadership

• Leading through collaboration and cooperation

• Building capacity – sharing leadership

• Leading through relationships

• Leadership and personal resilience

High performance, effective leadership can be truly transformational. Leadership cannot be taught; it has to be learnt. It could be argued that school leadership is primarily concerned with learning: the leader’s own, and facilitating that of the children. Questioning, interrogating and analysing ideas and practice are fundamental to that learning process. Libby Nicholas and John West-Burnham prompt leaders to do just that. 

Suitable for school leaders at all levels – head teachers, principals, assistant and deputy heads, middle leaders aspiring to senior roles – and in all educational settings. The book will also be of interest to education system leaders – chief education officers and directors of education – and, indeed, anyone concerned with developing effective school leadership; for example, governors and trustees, CPD trainers, coaches and mentors.

Picture for author John West-Burnham

John West-Burnham

John West-Burnham was an independent writer, teacher and consultant in education leadership. He is the author, co-author and editor of many books including Rethinking Educational Leadership and Understanding Leadership. He was a director of three academy trusts and a trustee of two educational charities, as well as an Honorary Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Worcester.

Picture for author Libby Nicholas

Libby Nicholas

Libby Nicholas is Chief Executive of the Reach4 Academy Trust. She was previously Regional Director ' South and West for the Academies Enterprise Trust. She has wide experience of headship and senior leadership in the independent and maintained sectors and across the full age range of schools.


  1. Just yesterday, I read Understanding Leadership by Libby Nicholas and John West-Burnham. I went straight to the chapter on relational leadership. Wow! The way Libby and John build a practice of leadership as an alternative model for leadership in education sings to me. I love the way they bring love into the picture and how they see relational leadership as a gestalt. The authors frame relational leadership succinctly and provide clear ways of carrying it out. Clearly, they describe relational leadership as an approach, not a recipe. If only the system could embrace it.

    Thanks again for an amazing book.
  2. John West-Burnham and Libby Nicholas are what I would describe as big players in education scene with a career spanning age groups, leadership positions and big roles on the academy scene.

    This ensures that whether you particularly take a side in the academies debate, you're interested in this book.When I first flicked open to the chapter on leadership as a moral activity, it was clear that big ideas are tackled using greatly appraised research. This is not just a(nother) book on leadership, it's one that stands out from the others in style and substance. Indeed, part of their opening gambit is to make no apology for -˜confrontational language and questioning.'

    When I was first sent this book, it dawned on me that it wasn't one I had seen being bandied around on Twitter. To be fair, Twitter has brought my attention to some wonderful leadership books recently, including Mary Myatt's High Challenge, Low Threat. Mary cleverly intertwines excellent, moral purpose-guiding leadership advice with her clear, presentational voice coming through. Perhaps a better choice if you want a book with substance but flows easier.

    That's not to say that this book is poorly written. The book's structure is chosen to force you to reflect on personal challenges and offers examples and research to guide your thoughts. Each chapter starts with questions allowing the reader to dip in and out of useful sections. In fact, the whole book works like this. Evidence, research, anecdotes and experiences are used to flesh out deep and meaningful questions to allow the reader to gain a greater understanding of each area. Best of all, reflective questions are put in to allow the reader, or leader if you will, to consider their own skills and abilities.

    An area I particularly wanted to read up on was on leading change. I consider myself to have my moral compass firmly rooted in the right place, and my job is to be life-changing. The best leaders I have ever met have been relentless on this quest - overcoming seemingly impossible barriers to ensure more for the pupils in their schools. When beginning to teach maths through the new curriculum, there was at first a dip for many reasons. I assumed at the time it was down to my leadership. This chapter excellently discusses the barriers to change and almost certainly could have allowed me to feel less pressure and create a clearer path for moving forward. Change and leadership is hard - a clear message in this book - but it's worth doing and it's worth doing well.

    I actually quite like exploring new books and finding a gem. While this wasn't the diamond in the rough I might have hoped, this could be perhaps due to the stage of my career. I am, I believe, a competent middle leader. Early in my career I scoured internet blogs, books and Twitter looking for answers to my immature, misguided questions.

    This book contains countless snippets and ideas that would have helped guide my understanding of the what, how and why of leadership. If I had owned this book to dip in and out of, those questions about my own ability and whether I was doing the right thing wouldn't have been able to keep me up at night. I can picture my newly promoted self now, sitting up at 2am with a head torch*, relaxing as I found answers to questions or just alleviating my self-doubt. *Head torch not included with book.

    I would suggest that if you are brand new to leadership or taking up a new role, refreshing yourself with this book would be nothing short of essential. And for those concerned with regular reflection on the finer details, it is easy to dip in and out of the book's chapters.

    If you know an experienced leader who isn't putting learning as the core purpose of leadership, or who views leadership as a bulldozing tool as opposed to building capacity, then allow me to suggest this book as an excellent belated Christmas or birthday gift.

    Click here to see the review on the SchoolsWeek website.
  3. In recent years more and more educators have been saying that in our profession it is not just about being teachers; we also need to become leaders. Leadership in education taps into the nature of human relationships and the way organisations work, among other schools. To understand the theory of leadership, and to become familiar with the ways it can be implemented, is the best way to develop professionally and to undergo a professional if not personal transformation. The eight chapters in the book, among others, touch upon the nature of leadership, how to initiate change through leadership, and how effective learning involves collaboration and cooperation. The book is very accessible and a very good read. Where appropriate the book has bullet points, diagrams, tables, and other visual material that clarify the points the authors are making. The book will certainly help the reader to develop and implement leadership in their roles as teachers.
  4. Understanding Leadership is an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in the importance of school leadership. The book certainly challenges us to re-focus on reasons why we chose to be involved in school leadership through its relentless focus on learning. The regular opportunities to reflect on our own and others' practice through regular questioning certainly challenges us to adapt and refine our approach to school leadership. The authors skilfully encourage us all to develop our ability to develop our professional practice which is an essential requirement as we seek to navigate our way through an uncertain educational landscape.
  5. -‹Whilst finding consensus on what, exactly, it is that makes one school -˜better' than another is next to impossible, one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that truly great schools must have excellent leaders. What, then, are the qualities of effective leadership to which all those in a position of responsibility should be aspiring? Are they innate, or can they perhaps be learnt and nurtured? In this rich and readable resource, the authors examine what -˜leadership' really is, tackling some of the myths that have grown around it over time, and contextualising it within the current educational and wider social landscape. Throughout, they encourage leaders at all levels to challenge assumptions, to question, analyse and reflect on their own practice and what they observe around them - and to take charge of their professional and personal development for the benefit of themselves and the establishments are charged with steering through uncertain and unstable times. It's inspiring, empowering stuff.
  6. Teachers are all leaders. It might not seem like it as you get entwined in the politics which each school offers, but close the classroom door, and you are the leader of the students looking at you for inspiration, challenge and creativity in your teaching. And that's what leadership is but, to some people, taking the next step up and leading your teaching colleagues is another matter entirely. Many lack confidence, but we all have ideas on how we could improve certain aspects of school life, the curriculum, or teaching in a certain way, and taking on the next level in your career can be a rewarding experience if managed professionally.

    The book description from the publishers above is quite comprehensive, and that is certainly a word that describes this book - comprehensive. Following on from his recent publication, Leadership Dialogues: Conversations & Activities for Leadership Teams, John West-Burnham has teamed up with Libby Nicholas to explore on of the most challenging roles within education. The reasons why people choose leadership are many and varied, but the authors are clear in defining leadership roles, providing clear signs to the reader of the actions, behaviours and expectations which behold such responsibility. This is demonstrated from the table below, which is printed early on in the book:

    Leadership; Management; Administration

    Doing the right things; Doing things right; Doing things

    Path making; Path following; Path tidying

    Engaging with complexity; Creating clarity; Securing consistency

    Backed up with theory, further reading, and questioning throughout, this book is valuable reading for those thinking of a leadership position in education, and really should be made available in staff rooms, for those considering this next step in their career. Or not. The book is also an interesting read on understanding leadership, being easily digestible, encouraging and relevant to many -˜non-managerial' tasks required in daily school life.

    Click here to view the review in full on the UKEdChat website.
  7. Understanding Leadership provides the reader with a range of illuminating opportunities to seriously think and reflect on their effectiveness as a leader in responding to the fundamental challenges in schools today. The text is characterised by regular opportunities for personal review and a series of challenging, and sometimes provocative, questions. This is a must-read for any school leader operating within the current constantly changing educational landscape.
  8. Understanding Leadership could not have been written at a better time! School leaders across all sectors and in all areas of school life are going through a time of substantial change and uncertainty. Indeed many leaders at the moment are wondering how and if they will be able to adapt at all.

    Understanding Leadership is the perfect antidote to all this uncertainty and an excellent resource for leaders at all levels and across all sectors. In fact, one of the main points that the book makes is that -˜virtually all the ideas and principles discussed in this book apply to everyone who works in the school community', as the authors are very clear that leadership -˜should be regarded as a collective capacity rather than the status of the few'.

    The book sets out very clearly the reasons why leaders in education play such a vital role in society. In each chapter the authors do an excellent job of enthusing and inspiring practitioners at all levels with the potential for good that exists within the various remits of leadership.

    It would be difficult to find another book that sets out the principles, philosophies, challenges and theories of leadership with such clarity, with so many excellent sources to illustrate various trains of thought and with so many opportunities for self-reflection and for re-energising one's own practice.

    The way that Libby Nicholas and John West-Burnham have written this book gives the reader a very clear picture of the principles that underpin each of the ideas and ways of being. They also provide the reader with a very clear understanding of how these ideas may look in practice and the benefits that one would see having established them within one's own organisation. The book makes aiming for certain goals, certain cultures and certain ways of being a really plausible proposition: time and time again I found myself reflecting on how much sense the concepts make. It is fascinating how the authors are so skilled in placing leadership within the context of society and of real-life scenarios by emphasising the link between leadership and moral purpose throughout the book.

    The book is structured in such a way that it would make the perfect accompaniment to school improvement - three year school strategic plans could easily be based on the principles outlined. INSET days, away days, CPD could all be very easily aligned around the structure of each of the chapters. I cannot wait to look at my own short, medium and long term strategic plans, together with our whole school professional development and philosophy of education now, and begin to adapt these to match the sequence of the chapters in this book. Indeed the authors place great emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between leadership and learning and, very interestingly, note that -˜leadership in education exists to enable learning'.

    The book is also excellent at linking the various theories and ideas with not only current pressures but also with exciting opportunities that the current climate is bringing to educationalists. The sections on learning, partnerships and evidence-based practice could not be better set out and the words of wisdom within these chapters stand out as an absolute must for all leaders of today.

    The book is very informative and it is written in a way that enables the reader to reflect, think, question, hypothesise, wonder and, at the same time, be inspired and feel skilled and equipped to design and put next steps into practice. The way the book focuses on the personal qualities of successful leaders is hugely impressive and, I feel, will be quite transformational. The authors make an excellent and quite unique link between love and leadership, to remind the reader that -˜the current emphasis on performativity and competition has to be reconciled with the centrality of effective human relationships'.

    It is a book that school leaders will have both as a quick reference point whenever they need inspiration and ideas and as an essential tool that enables them to think strategically to drive their own visions and create learning climates where all children are able to maximise their potential.
  9. This is a rich resource for leaders at all levels in educational settings. The authors use a range of national and international examples and include resources which are accessible and ready for practical application. The questions at the start of each chapter and the self-review at the end of each chapter will help to support individual reflection, as well as providing stimuli for teams and coaching conversations. The authors challenge traditional assumptions about leadership, management, social equity and collaboration. They provide evidence for readers to construct alternative perspectives with the imperative on the core business of learning and leadership for the future.

    At the centre is the message that each learner, child or adult is unique. Around this fixed point the authors open up the layers of leadership and learning in each of the eight chapters. The book is valuable on many different levels; in supporting an individual leader to articulate their personal construct of leadership, through to supporting a leadership programme as a core text. The book provides a coherent and logical framework for examining leadership - individuals and teams can use it to tell their leadership story.

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