Free article: Effective leadership builds effective teams

Published: Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Steve Burnage offers advice on motivating staff, getting the best from them and building effective teams.


  • Create an ethos through clear and inclusive leadership where all staff feel safe and empowered.
  • Use the strategies of a successful classroom for successful leadership.
  • Lead colleagues using the appropriate strategies for the right person in the right context, based on their competency and commitment, to empower and motivate them to succeed.
  • Value all staff for the positive contribution they make to school improvement and development, for the mistakes they make, and for the contribution that each makes to the school’s success.

Truly successful schools have a well-motivated and engaged staff who form effective and successful teams. How can this be accomplished?

Motivation – a key driver for success

In order for staff to feel motivated, valued and supported, they must feel safe and secure in the school leadership and in the systems and structures through which they are lead and empowered.

The psychologist Maslow (1943) might argue that, for this to happen, staff need to have their basic physiological and psychological needs met.

  • They need to feel safe and secure.
  • They need clear and consistent systems and procedures.
  • They need to feel ownership of their actions, i.e. the locus of control is internal and not external.

Staff need to be fully engaged with, and have ownership of, the areas in which they work. If headteachers want to motivate staff and get the best from them, they need to lead and manage them as they have successfully led and managed children in the classroom.

p39 diagram

Staff should be supported in the same way as pupils

Successful teachers have clear and well-established strategies for supporting the learning and progress of learners. These are based around three things:

  1. Strategies that are praise focused
  2. Support that is individualised and based around knowing where the child is in their learning and where they have the potential to be
  3. Clear, positively worded SMART targets.

In leading staff, headteachers should aim to accomplish the same three things through clear, strategic and distributed leadership that:

  • empowers staff
  • engages them with change
  • operates in a no-blame culture
  • is appropriate to each individual colleague.

The way that headteachers strategically appraise the effectiveness of their staff is based on their judgements of two key things:

  1. The competency level of staff – how good they are at what they do, and how the headteacher knows this.
  2. The commitment of staff – if they want to improve, know they can improve and are willing to improve.

Just as headteachers need to adopt different leadership styles in different situations, they also need to lead their staff in different ways based on their levels of competency and commitment.

The chart below shows how headteachers can best lead colleagues based on their judgement of individual levels of competency and commitment:

Staff development level Appropriate leadership style
Low competence
Low commitment
Structure, control and supervise.
Some competence
Low commitment
Direct and support through focused questioning.
High competence
Variable commitment
Praise, listen and facilitate.
High competence
High commitment
Turn over responsibility for day-to-day decision-making.







If the most appropriate leadership style is used for each colleague, they will be supported in their actions. They will be given the appropriate freedom and support to flourish and, gradually, strategic distributed leadership will flourish across the school.

Returning to the analogy that leading staff is like leading a class of children, the second of the three points on the checklist of strategies for supporting pupils can also be applied to staff. Headteachers should provide ‘support that is individualised and based around knowing where the colleague is in their learning and where they have the potential to be’.

Lead staff towards a team ethos

Generally, the idea that whatever works with learners will work with staff is a good one. It will help headteachers to lead colleagues towards effective team building. If those needs that make learners effective in the classrooms are compared with those needs that make staff effective team players, clear similarities can be seen.

Learners need …

  • Clear and focused teaching that meets their learning needs.
  • A safe environment in which mistakes are encouraged and ‘wrong answers’ valued.
  • A consistent approach from the teacher.
  • Involvement in their learning, with growing independence as they grow in confidence and skill.
  • Independence – the chance to make their own decisions and be held accountable for the outcomes.
  • Clear targets with SMART success criteria.
  • Rewards when things go well.
  • Help and support when things don’t go so well or need improvement.

Our staff need …

  • Clear and focused leadership that supports their professional development.
  • A safe environment in which mistakes are supported and learned from in a ‘no blame’ culture.
  • A consistent approach from school leadership.
  • Leadership decisions distributed to staff so that they are involved in the change process and decisions that are made.
  • Independence – the chance to make their own decisions and be held accountable for the outcomes.
  • Positive performance management processes that are a central part of the personal development of staff, positive in their focus and driven by SMART targets.
  • Rewards when things go well.
  • Help and support when things don’t go so well or need improvement.

Good teachers will create a learning ethos that is learner driven. They see learning positively and value mistakes as part of that positive learning process. Learners are valued for the contribution they make to their learning teams. They are encouraged to shift the locus of control from a teacher-led learning model to one of growing independence in which effective learners have full ownership of their own learning.

In motivating and empowering staff, headteachers need to do much the same thing. Staff should be valued for the positive contribution they make to school improvement and development, and for mistakes they make as part of the learning process. The contribution each colleague makes to the school’s success should be acknowledged and valued. In this way, the locus of control shifts from a leadership-centred model to one where staff:

  • have fuller control over key leadership decisions
  • work together effectively in productive teams
  • are highly motivated to achieve the shared goals of the school.

Further information

  • Maslow, A. H. (1943), ‘A theory of human motivation’, Psychological Review, Vol 50(4), July 1943, 370–96.


Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Steve has a breadth of experience of leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Steve may be contacted by email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via his website

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