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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Exploring the Leadership Profiles

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

This article is adapted from the forthcoming report ‘Leadership on the Edge: Big Ideas for Change and Innovation’: Exploring the Leadership Profiles. © Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, used with permission.

High-performing systems share a collective ambition for all schools to be great and to be led by excellent principals. For the past half-decade, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has endeavoured to understand, describe and support the vital and challenging role of the school principal in ways that encourage and enable personalised leadership growth towards excellence.

In 2010, the Australian Government asked AITSL to work with the profession to develop the Australian Professional Standard for Principals, which was completed and endorsed by Ministers in July 2011. In 2014, the Leadership Profiles were developed to provide more detailed support for principals and were published in a new document that combined the Standard and the Profiles. Both the Standard and the Profiles are accessible and written in plain language, aiming to make sense of what is a highly complex and important role.

This article summarises key elements of the Profiles, after first describing some of the research findings that informed them, and their relationship to the Standards. The article is adapted from the text of the report ‘Leadership on the Edge: Big Ideas for Change and Innovation’: Exploring the Leadership Profiles.

Key findings from the research

When Barber and Mourshed (2007) examined high-performing school systems, they found that these systems get the right people to become teachers; and ensure these teachers continuously develop their practice to deliver the best possible education to every child.

High-performing principals ‘do not work longer hours than other principals but do spend their time differently’ (Barber et al, 2010). They focus their time and efforts on the practices that have the biggest impact on the learning environment of their school and consequently, the outcomes of their students.

Stoll & Temperley (2009) identified three key drivers of exemplary school leadership. First, there is the need to redefine school leadership responsibilities to focus on actions that can improve student achievement. Second, distributing school leadership is of vital importance to school success. Third, the skills required for effective school leadership should be developed throughout a teacher’s career.

Principals are also responsible for developing the necessary capability and capacity within their schools. Attention to professional growth resources allows school leaders to develop and sustain quality learning environments for children that enable them to become creative, confident, active and informed learners and future citizens.

The most effective leaders not only strive to achieve this outcome, but also see professional learning as central to their own lives. Effective leaders adapt their practice to meet the needs of their community, and to reflect the changes taking place in the wider society. They recognise that the most powerful learning occurs on the job, and see feedback as critical to their own growth, which impacts directly on the school they lead. These leaders reflect on their actions and seek out others from whom they can learn.

Leithwood et al. (2006) claim school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning; and almost all successful leaders draw on the same repertoire of basic leadership practices.

The Australian Professional Standard for Principals

The Profiles rest upon the Australian Professional Standard for Principals. The Standard is a public statement that sets out what principals are expected to know, understand and do in their role. The Standard is an integrated model that recognises three Leadership Requirements which a principal draws upon within five areas of Professional Practice, leading to high-quality learning outcomes for students.

The Standard has been widely adopted throughout Australia and underpins the provision of a variety of leadership development opportunities. It is supported by accessible online resources including the AITSL School Leadership eCollection and the AITSL 360° Reflection Tool.

What has become clear is that leadership generally, including educational leadership, is a more contentious, complex, situated and dynamic phenomenon than thought previously (Dinham, 2013).

The Leadership Profiles – leadership through lenses

The Profiles offer a dynamic approach to understanding and framing leadership development, which is underpinned by a focus on the leadership of teaching and learning. They are based on and expand upon the Standard. The Profiles describe the role of the school leader on a continuum displaying aspects of the role from least to most complex. They promote a common language and a shared understanding of highly effective school leadership.

The Profiles are designed to help leaders understand their current practice and impact in relation to their context, and to plan their next stage of development. These progressive statements enable the principal to review, reflect, learn and improve.

As previously outlined, all successful principals draw on a repertoire of basic practices done consistently well, changing the way they apply these practices to match the situation. Interestingly, this demonstrates responsiveness to, rather than dictation by, the contexts in which they work; a point that principals consistently reinforced throughout the consultations around the Profiles.

The Profiles allow principals to examine their leadership through three leadership lenses:

  • The Professional Practices lens which is made up of five focuses, the Professional Practices of the Standard
  • The Leadership Requirements lens which is made up of the three focuses, the Leadership Requirements of the Standard
  • The Leadership Emphasis lens which is made up of four focuses that reflect the dynamic nature of the leadership context.

The Professional Practices and Leadership Requirements are familiar to school leaders as they make up the framework of the Standard.

The new lens of Leadership Emphasis acknowledges the influence of leadership context on school leadership actions, and enables principals to locate and understand their practice in relation to their career stage, capability and context.

This lens of the Profiles outlines four focuses that principals bring to their role: operational, relational, strategic and systemic.

The Operational focus centres on the communications, organisational and resourcing management that is required within the school to maintain the smooth and effective running of day-to-day operations.

The Relational focus tends to concentrate on consultation and feedback in order to establish, develop and enhance relationships with students, staff, community and other stakeholders, both internal and external to the school, to ensure a shared culture and vision.

Principals leading with a Strategic focus are deliberate about optimising relational, organisational and management thinking to effect and monitor change, in order to realise short and long-term school goals.

A Systemic focus works to build networks, collaboration with educational groups, and make connections beyond their own school and system to influence and lead educational impact.

A leader’s actions and leadership style are contingent on the context in which they operate. Multiple contextual factors can, and should, influence a principal’s leadership emphasis. These include a principal’s experience, their time at their current school, and the challenges facing their school.

Learning and changing as leaders

The major purposes of professional learning are to deepen understanding, transform beliefs and assumptions, and create a stream of continuous actions that change habits and affect practice. Such learning most often occurs through sustained attention, study and action (Sparkes, 2003).

Principals grow and change throughout their career. To assist school leaders to understand the complexity of personal change and its link to professional learning, the Profiles include a five-step model of change.

This model outlines the behaviour change process, beginning with the first step of gaining an awareness of the personal benefits associated with a particular change. It goes on to describe how developing strength of intention to make a desired change is a critical second step.

Building knowledge around how to understand, prepare for, and move towards achieving a desired change is the essential next stage. At this point individuals take the fourth step towards behaviour change, which is the action of performing and then maintaining the change. This stage requires significant effort, persistence and recognition of the importance of having the support of trusted networks. The fifth and final step of the change process is achieved when new behaviours are automatic, although practice is needed to maintain any change.

Such instances of change are not isolated events. The most effective principals learn continuously, seek feedback from others, and are prepared to adapt their behaviour and actions to changing circumstances. The Standard and Profiles support principals to do this throughout their career.

AITSL and the profession working together

Teachers and school leaders are progressively taking greater ownership of their professional growth, and schools and education systems are reviewing the development opportunities they offer to find the balance between flexibility and personalisation, and organisational and system goals (AITSL, 2014).

With principals taking greater ownership of their role, AITSL is committed to ensuring that future resources developed from the Standard and the Profiles will continue to explore and authentically describe the nature of the school leadership role.

By the end of June 2015, AITSL will offer the Profiles online in an interactive tool that allows full exploration and downloading of the Profiles through the three leadership lenses. Users will also be able to access and save recommended tools and resources that support their development related to the Profiles. In addition, an online Self-Assessment and Planning Tool, soon to be released on the AITSL website, will facilitate school leader reflection, goal-setting and targeted development planning around all three leadership lenses.

Furthermore, AITSL will continue to develop tools and resources to grow school leaders, to enable them to clearly understand the next level of their development, and see how this can be incorporated into their professional learning.

Professional learning can take many forms; from the formal to the informal, the local to the national, and from one-off programs to ongoing enquiry, coaching and mentoring. The Profiles provide the basis for auditing performance and subsequent learning needs, assisting in the design of professional learning opportunities focused on building expertise in specific areas, and structuring mentoring and coaching programs for school leaders. They will also help identify and showcase effective practice for use in the professional learning of both current and aspiring principals.

The strategies that deliberately build the capabilities required of highly effective leadership are more likely to motivate and inspire future leaders and create the environment in which they can thrive.

AITSL is confident the Profiles will play an important role in comprehensively articulating these strategies and capabilities, and will therefore contribute to improving the leadership of our present and future principals.


Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) 2014 Global Trends in Professional Learning and Performance & Development, AITSL, Melbourne  viewed on 04 May 2015. 

Barber, M & Mourshed, M 2007, How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top, McKinsey and Company, viewed 4 May 2015. 

Barber, M Whelan, F & Clark, M 2010, Capturing the Leadership Premium: How the World’s Top School Systems are Building Leadership Capacity for the Future, McKinsey and Company, viewed 4 May 2014. 

Dinham, S, Collarbone, P, Evans, E & Mackay, A 2013, 'The development, piloting, and introduction of Australia's first national standard for principals', American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, San Francisco, viewed on 04 May 2015, 

Leithwood, K, Day, C, Sammons, P, Harris & A, Hopkins, D 2006, Seven Strong Claims About Successful School Leadership, National College for School Leadership, Nottingham, viewed on 4 May 2015.

Senge, P 1992, The Fifth Discipline, Random House, London.

Sparkes, D 2005, Leading for Results - Transforming Teaching, Learning, and Relationships in Schools, Sage, London.

Stoll, L & Temperley, J 2009, Improving School Leadership: The toolkit, viewed on 4 May 2015, 


Subject Headings

Education policy
Educational planning
School leadership
School principals