Mindsets Matter: Effective School Leadership Post Pandemic

Rosie Connor and Alyssa Gallagher
August, 2023

Originally published in Education Reimagined by WISE All-In, this article highlights the need to focus on the mindsets and skills of school leaders.


The job of a school leader is relentless. It is fastpaced, ever-changing and increasingly subject to accountability measures. A typical school leader needs to be skilled in instructional leadership, human resources, conflict resolution, child development and psychology, while also able to play the role of inspirational cheerleader and to be the face of the school for staff, students and community. All of this was true before March 2020 when COVID-19 shut down or pushed most schools online. Hopefully, COVID will soon be in our rear-view mirror, but global uncertainty is likely to remain. Given our new VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, school leadership is more important than ever.

In new research from Hannon and Mackay (2021), leadership is identified as a key societal lever in creating the future that humanity needs. Education is desperately in need of the kind of transformation that will require impact at two levels – internal and external. The internal dimension relates to the transformation of self. This transformation of self is about nurturing and developing new mindsets through targeted professional development.

Education is desperately in need of the kind of transformation that will require impact at two levels
– internal and external.

‘Internal’ Transformation of Self

‘Mindsets’, ‘dispositions’ or ‘personal leadership resources’ – regardless of the exact terminology, many school systems and education thought leaders are increasingly realising that effective school leadership calls on school leaders to embrace and embody critical mindsets. There is increasing acknowledgement that capability frameworks can help to steer school leaders’ reflective practice and professional development, but that upskilling school leaders through capability-building professional development is not enough. Great school leaders don’t simply have great capabilities, they also model key mindsets and are open to developing their mindsets in order to enhance their capacity to lead and impact organisational outcomes.

School leaders need to be both great instructional leaders and great people leaders. As empathy and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown says, ‘Who you are is how you lead.’ School leaders need opportunities to develop who they are as a leader. They may need to learn to empower others, to develop more empathy or to learn to be more inclusive in how they lead – all essential mindsets and skills that are rarely developed in traditional professional development programs for school leaders.

Mindset work must sit at the heart of leadership professional development because mindsets are crucial to shifting behaviour, and behaviour drives impact and results. Too often in transformation efforts well-intentioned leaders jump straight into changing behaviour. At best, these efforts yield shortterm limited change; at worst, they yield top-down directive changes that are unlikely to be sustainable. Why? The people implementing the behaviour change have not had the opportunity to shift their thinking, so the behaviour change won’t stick. They have not engaged in developing new mindsets, and they also need to work at adjusting their existing mindsets.

Critical Mindsets for Effective School Leadership

So, if mindsets underpin changes in leadership practice, what are the critical mindsets for school leaders? BTS Spark, a global not-for-profit initiative dedicated to coaching and developing school leaders, has developed a curriculum of school leader mindsets – arguably, the first ever developed from research evidence and focused specifically on educational leaders. The curriculum, originally researched by Connor and Hirani (2019), comprises thirty-three mindsets, grouped into four broader areas.

  1. Be: These are mindsets about an individual’s resourcefulness, confidence and ability to stay calm, open and empathetic in any situation.

  2. Relate: These are mindsets about relationships with other people. They include influencing, building trust, having difficult conversations, collaborating, and empowering others to lead.

  3. Inspire: These are mindsets about direction, change and purpose. They include creating a vision, leading change, creating shared purpose and leading in uncertainty

  4. Think: These are mindsets about solving problems in a new way and looking beyond the obvious. They include diversity of thinking, challenging the way things are done and futures thinking.

As a school leader, you will undoubtedly encounter situations which challenge you in each of the four domains – when you are asked to be the face of a new change (Be), required to collaborate with people you find difficult (Relate), need to lead teams through uncertainty (Inspire), or implement new methods of teaching and learning (Think). In fact, these struggles are not unique to leaders, they are ongoing human struggles.

Also, how do you support school leaders to embrace new leadership mindsets? Our short answer to this may appear too glib, as this is complex work! Suffice it to say here that one-size-fits-all leadership programs will not scratch the surface. Individuals instead need personalised support, from professional coaches experienced in transformational leadership coaching.

‘External’ Transformation of Organisations and Systems

A leader’s impact should never be underestimated. Once leaders model a new behaviour as the result of a mindset shift, the impact can be huge. Others will take notice and this has the power to begin a bigger cultural shift. While individual mindsets are a natural starting point, organisations have mindsets too and these mindsets run across culture. The same coaching tools and strategies that work for individuals work for organisations as well.

Acknowledging the importance of mindsets as a critical component of professional development for education leaders is crucial to the ability to transform our school communities in the way they need. If we are going to transform systems, we must transform ourselves, and that work begins with mindset.