Leaders today experience a disconnect between classic leadership skills and the speed and pace of a volatile, connected world. What does it mean to be authentic today? To be as close as you can be to who you really are, while at the same time delivering what followers need in a global, networked world? My intent is to provoke debate on this critical topic.

From Good to Great? Leadership in Schools

For the past seven years, we have been trying to divine the secrets of high performing institutions, from schools to boxing.  Focusing on our research into schools, we looked at how to turn around a failing school quickly, using as few resources as possible.  We looked at 160 UK academies - an academy is a publicly funded school or group of schools. One school can acquire others to form a group, which shares resources, making investment easier and cuts less painful.  Academies have devolved decision-making powers, by-passing local government and are highly monitored.

This is research gold.  We could analyze the effects of 58 types of investment, on 18 performance measures over time, in 160 academies operating in 18 different regions. We were given full access to the academies’ management information systems, leaders, staff and students so we could see how they worked, the decisions they’d made and the impact they’d had.

Next we turned our attention to the leaders in these schools.  Just like Jim Collins, in his research into out-performing companies in From Good to Great, that’s not where we started.  But when we started interrogating the data on leaders, such a clear picture emerged that we started taking it very seriously indeed.  And because it’s a longitudinal study, we could look at the results different leaders gained both during their tenure and then one, two and three years after they left.  And guess what?  Some of the leaders who were most effective during their tenure were the least effective three years down the line.  Their short-term impact was not sustainable.  In fact, it cost a lot of consultancy money to put right some of the decisions they took in order to get some quick wins.

We identified five types of leader.  Two prioritized improving teaching; the Surgeons did this through cutting resources and re-allocating them and the Philosophers did this through looking at and talking about best-practice teaching methods.  Two focused on improving income; the Soldiers through straightening stuff up and getting fitter and more efficient, the Accountants through raising investment funds from alternative sources.  The most effective leader?  The fifth type, the Architects, who focused on understanding how the school could best service the needs of the community it serves, as well as the educational needs of its students.  Results were a slow burn, but continued, step by step, over the three years of the study.  And, just like Jim Collins’ Level 5 leader, these leaders are humble, self-effacing and totally committed.  Unsung heroes?  Definitely, as they also turn out to be paid the least and less publicly acknowledged than their head teacher peers.

Read the full story in HBR at