The messiness of “doing” Middle Leadership:  the position(ality) of our unsung heroes

Look at Google Scholar or any learned academic journal, and you’ll see umpteen definitions of leadership and management. It depends on who you ask and under what context, locality and the person asking. For us, leadership is about influence and support. Simply put, leaders have the helicopter vision and management puts it into action. Of course, it’s an artificial divide of terminology: all must lead to school improvement and student attainment. Leadership in education is about personal qualities and passion, with lot of common sense and ample strategic intent to take people with you. Currently, there’s more talk about holistic and systemic leadership, and emergence of distributed leadership (Harris, 2014), involving all stakeholders, and here we see the involvement of the “middle leader”/”middle leadership”. The “lone leader” of earlier days seems to have been confined to historical bin.

The term “middle leader” acts as both a leader and manager. Their responsibility falls under several categories including: pastoral, curriculum, additional student support, leadership of a team or phase or even of a specific school improvement priority. Educational middle leadership ultimately binds together the responsibility of a strategic leadership remit, whilst keeping one foot firmly within the classroom door; inevitably, seeing, yet not always making sense of, both sides of the coin.

Being both a teacher and leader is therefore not without conflict or challenge, and from our experiences it inevitably attracts pressure from both the top and bottom of an organisation. Their role therefore experiences the virtual and real pressures of both resistance and compliance. It risks unlocking a catharsis of personal conflict, yet is a role that continues to be viewed as professionally progressive, or even a rite of passage, as teachers exit the realms of their early career. This is a stark contrast to senior leadership roles which tend to be actively sought after by those who crave it. Consequently, often, other than the occasional NPQ, very little training comes with the role and sometimes middle leaders have run the risk of fading into the grain of a school’s staffing structure: it can become an incentive-less endeavour.

However, it is not all doom and gloom and increasingly our opinions on the importance of middle leaders are shifting. Such emerging opinions are founded on the growing belief that leaders who are closer to the teaching and learning retain the potential to make the greatest impact. Of course we can’t forget  the Ofsted inspection framework, revised in 2019, which certainly shone a spotlight on this often undervalued position.

However, this is not a new notion. Long before now, Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris and Hopkins (2006) placed school leadership second to classroom teaching, when considering the influence on children’s learning and development; a catalyst for a growing interest in raising the profile of middle leadership. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote in his annual report in 2011 that people, not structures, are the most significant drivers of improvement and change in our schools. Unfortunately for these unsung heroes, a middle leader’s impact is often discreet, lying heavily on their innate ability to engage with colleagues in both supportive and innovative ways. This takes us back to the foundations of where middle leaders are situated, remaining firmly inside their classrooms, in the heart of the organisation, surrounded by our most important stakeholders, the children.

Dare we suggest that middle leader’s positioning places them as more of an advisory role, restricting both their authority and effectiveness? This reality of middle leaders’ capacity to lead and develop their contexts as effectively as senior leaders has been excused, timelessly, due both often a lack of time, or strategic overview. Although lack of time is not an argument easily solved, gaining a strategic overview might be.

Middle leaders’ relationship with colleagues is invaluable here. As previously recognised, they too live and breathe reality of the consequences of actions which offers them deep insight, and a holistic overview at a very personal level. It prevents what Morrison (2013) describes as the reality of implementing change unfolding as: “top-down and with very little input from most stakeholders” (p.421). It is important to note that although an individual can instigate change, it is a community that sustains it. It is vital to make certain that the followers are viewed as important as the leader in all situations.

Reflecting on our collective fading memoires of two middle leaders, our reflections are simple. Although middle leadership can be a messy endeavour it is one that we believe depicts Fullan’s (2018) more recent notion of ‘nuance’ leadership. This lies in their ability to look below the surface, fuelled by a determination for their community to succeed, remaining loyal to improving the future. It is a role, that in our humble opinion, poses huge potential and one that deserves greater recognition within our educational communities. They are our unsung heroes, let’s celebrate their wisdom as we do that of our leaders.

Krishan Sood & Rebekah Gear



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