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Is leadership learnable?

Monday 2nd November at 7:00pm
Bruce Armstrong
Director, Chapter Three & Former Deputy Secretary, Schools & Regional Services Group, DET

Are leaders born? Or is it something you can learn?

The concept of leadership is complex and multifaceted. During the instructional leadership program our experts have presented cutting-edge research around impactful educational leadership. In our final intensive, Bruce Armstrong explored characteristics common to effective leaders.

Read on as Bruce discusses whether leadership is learnable.

Google the word ‘leadership’ and the search result (today, at least) is 2,630,000,000 links! What an enormous field of inquiry, research and opinion. Here, I weigh in on the topic, with a view to encouraging you that both the science and art of leadership can be learned.

I’ve had the privilege of working at every level of the Victorian education system over 35 years, as a teacher, principal, assistant regional director and as a senior bureaucrat at the centre, serving the Education Minister and schooling at every level of the system. Leading continual improvement in teams and schools, rising to each level of challenge over the course of my career required gaining knowledge, emulating mentors, learning from mistakes, exercising courage, and putting in plenty of hard yards. Leading effectively, however, wasn’t my birthright, or achieved by virtue of my positions, titles, the merits of the system, my aspirations or even my work ethic. Any success achieved along the way was the sum of our learning and collective endeavour.

Many theorists have defined leadership. The one I like best is framed by James Kouses and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge as: "the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations." This speaks to what’s possible, and the effort it requires. But one thing’s for sure, you can only lead as far as you’ve come yourself. This understanding propelled me to keep reading, learning, investing in my leadership capacity and then that of others. In Outliers, Gladwell popularised the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to develop expertise. While I’ve never recorded the hours I’ve invested in honing leadership skills, I concur. Sure, environment, context, opportunity, support and resourcing played their part, but there’s no doubt that intentional, targeted practise was the primary key to my professional growth.

As a school principal I was daily motivated by the imperative to improve the outcomes for every child entrusted to our care – it was always the community’s shared aspiration. However, turning that moral purpose into a set of leadership practices that improved student learning was a challenging task.

Since it’s the teacher’s effect on students that’s immediate, our influence as school leaders isn’t necessarily mediated through others. It’s our role to create the conditions for ongoing teacher learning directed toward improving student outcomes. This is captured by Elmore’s definition of the purpose of educational leadership as, “the practice of instructional improvement and performance.” Professor Viviane Robinson’s research (2007) also affirms that, “the more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their likely influence on student outcomes.”

So, what are the key capabilities central to leading improvement? Robinson points to, “using relevant knowledge from research and experience to solve the complex educational problems that stand in the way of achieving improvement goals while building relationships of trust with those involved.”

This level of expertise takes commitment and determination. As Atul Gawande asserts in his book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.” He rightly notes that, “people underestimate the importance of diligence as a virtue” - the constant and earnest effort to accomplish a task.

The imperative to improve outcomes for all children regardless of background or circumstances provides the type of moral clarity that calls us as leaders to apply constant and earnest effort to the work of effectively influencing the instructional core.

Please, be encouraged in this effort. The reward is incalculable, if not always tangible because as leaders we don’t produce product – we help form humans, we help create civil society, we work for a better world. What we achieve or make a contribution toward is walking around in the personhood of every teacher and student with whom we engage. That’s the harvest leadership has the potential to reap. 

Being the lead learner is not about knowing it all but continuing to learn by being curious. Want to launch in afresh? What might be revealed, for example, if you take the time today to ask a:

  • colleague - “when was the last time you changed your mind about something? Why did you? What did it make possible?”
  • teacher - “what latest learning is impacting you?”
  • student - “what question you’ve asked today got the most interesting response?”


Bruce Armstrong

Director, Chapter Three

Former Deputy Secretary, Schools and Regional Services Group, DET



Elmore, R. (2000). Building a new structure for school leadership. Washington, DC: The Albert Shanker Institute.

Gawande, A. (2007). Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance

Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers The Story of Success. Allen Lane, Penguin Books, NY.

Greenleaf, R., (1979). Servant Leadership, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B., (1995).The Leadership Challenge: How To Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco. 

Maxwell, J. (1993) Developing the Leader Within You, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville.

Robinson, V. M. J. The impact of leadership on student outcomes: Making sense of the evidence. ACER Research Conference (2007).

Robinson, V. M. J. (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Spillane, James & Halverson, Richard & Diamond, John. (2001). Investigating School Leadership Practice: A Distributed Perspective. Educational Researcher. 30. 23-28 10.3102/0013189X030003023.