Learning to lead in the 21st Century

Those who aspire to the role of leader in the 21st Century must learn to lead. Education in New Zealand is currently experiencing its most significant change since the educational…

Those who aspire to the role of leader in the 21st Century must learn to lead. Education in New Zealand is currently experiencing its most significant change since the educational reforms of the 1980s that led to self-managing schools.

The opening decades of the 21st Century has seen educators question the fundamental principles of what it means to educate students who will join the workforce in 2025. Academics and practitioners alike are grappling with issues of developing new pedagogies that are congruent with innovative learning environments, emerging technologies, and the competencies needed for today’s learners, tomorrow.

The Innovation Unit for the Global Education Leaders’ Programme, in their book ‘Redesigning Education’, suggest we “open any number of publications by education thinkers and commentators, and you will encounter compelling arguments for radical change in the way countries, cities and states organize and provide learning”. The rationale of equipping learners with attributes reflective of the 21st Century is imperative, but what does this mean for those who must lead those who enact these changes?

One way in which teaching and learning is shaping up for 21st Century education is the move towards more collaborative practices. Traditionally, teachers have been fiercely autonomous, the classroom was their domain and they alone controlled what happened within those walls. Now, there is an increasing emphasis on learners, teachers, educational leaders, and even schools working together to build collaborative learning networks.

According to Michael Fullan, “new pedagogies spread when the teachers, students and leaders who are implementing them collaborate to share their experiences and energy, and to analyse the often amassing impact these learning practices have on everyone involved”. Included within this new view of collaboration, is a focus on shared leadership practices.

Leadership has the potential to significantly impact on student learning outcomes. Historically, such leadership has been provided by those in designated positions of power such as principals, deputy principals, heads of department and syndicate leaders. However, schools are now being encouraged to distribute leadership beyond these formal leaders, to others, who may have expertise in key areas but are not formal leaders.

The 2015 OECD report states, “distributed leadership is not only important to help alleviate some of the burden imposed on school leaders, but it can be beneficial to teachers as well”. Providing teachers with the opportunity to take on leadership roles is a way in which schools can develop both organisational and individual leadership capability.  While leadership can be incredibly rewarding, the role of leading others can also be complex and demanding.

In many cases, new school leaders are left to learn on the job through trial and error. This is erroneously referred to as ‘learning by experience’ and this unstructured form of development is ineffective and can lead to job dissatisfaction and burnout. ‘Leadership Learning and Development’ provides leaders with the specialised skills and knowledge they need to effectively carry out their role. Learning of this kind does not just happen. Developing leadership capacity needs to be deliberate and planned to allow leaders time to critically reflect on their own behaviour and role.  Leadership Learning and Development that builds a leader’s capability involves a curriculum that is too complex to ‘learn by experience’. Because leaders ‘don’t know what they don’t know’, they require support from an expert who can help them to challenge their assumptions.

New Zealand research examining effective professional learning and development practices within education (Timperley et al., 2007) highlights the role that external experts can play in helping teachers to “learn new content and skills and to think about their existing practice in new ways”. In the same way, external support is a vital ingredient for effective Leadership Learning and Development.

Currently, those who take up leadership positions are predominantly supported by more experienced colleagues, such as senior leaders. This can be problematic in that it assumes those providing such support have the broad knowledge required.

Educational Leadership and Management programmes offered at Unitec Institute of Technology, provide specialised support for school leaders of all levels. Practical courses focusing on: solving complex problems; understanding and developing the role of educational leaders; building effective teams; understanding organisations; strategic planning; and human resource management, build the capacity of leaders to learn about themselves and undertake their role effectively. Leaders are supported to critically reflect on their own practice, and therefore, Leadership Learning and Development is relevant to their context. Leaders in the 21st Century must learn to lead.


Martin Bassett is Programme Leader of postgraduate educational leadership and management programmes at Unitec Institute of Technology. His current research interests include the professional learning and development of middle leaders.