Building leadership capacity: helping leaders learn

by John West-Burnham


This National College for School Leadership (NCSL) think piece from John West-Burnham presents an argument supporting the notion of distributed leadership in schools. A key idea in the argument is that organisations that are focused on the learning of children should have structures that reflect learning relationships.

He discusses how traditionally schools have a tendency to be dominated by individuals who exercise significant levels of influence and power. In organisational cultures like this, a sense of dependency is created that minimises individual potential and supports a culture of ‘permission seeking’. He advocates for a cultural shift from dependence on leaders to one that values the “collective, shared potential” of leadership across the organisation.

In his model, leadership, management, and administration are components of every role in the school, “The principle is very simple – jobs are defined in terms of leadership responsibilities rather than tasks” (p.4). Developing leadership capacity in staff members means creating opportunities for leadership skills to be taught and learned in a “learning relationship” (p.6). The writer outlines two powerful strategies for this: reflection and coaching.

West-Burham acknowledges that a shift, from hierarchical control to one where power is vested in and fully distributed across the school, will still, ironically, need to be established by a person with strong leadership skills. It takes a special kind of leader, he suggests, to preside over the diminution of their own power. “The benefit of this is that it will almost certainly improve the quality of that leader's life and produce a more fundamental and lasting commitment to organisational change and effectiveness.”

Read the article online - LearnersFirst website

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this thinkpiece:

  • Which approach to leadership outlined in the thinkpiece best describes what is happening in your school? Control, delegation, empowerment, or subsidiarity?
  • Have you experienced leadership coaching? Do you deliberately use coaching strategies in your dialogues with teachers?
  • Are there any barriers that prevent shared leadership in your school? How can you overcome them?

Further reading

The Four Quadrant Leadership Programme (4QL): Read about the 4QL programme from the Wilfred Jarvis Institute.


West-Burnham, J. (2004). Building leadership capacity: Helping leaders learn. National College for School Leadership. England: NCSL.

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