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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Introducing the ACEL leadership capability framework

Jenny Lewis

Jenny Lewis, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL), outlines the ACEL Leadership Capability Framework for professional learning, and explains how it is soon to be applied in the Northern Territory. The Framework will also underpin the planned ACEL Leadership Academy, which is to provide online resources, professional readings and activities that support the learning needs of educational leaders at system, group, school or individual levels. The original version of this article appears in Leading and Managing Vol 15 No 1, 2009.


The Australian Council for Educational Leaders has developed a framework designed to inform the development of future programs for the professional development of current and aspiring school leaders. Known as the ACEL Leadership Capability Framework, it will provide the footprint for emerging leaders and principal preparation leadership programs that will be delivered by ACEL in the Northern Territory Department of Education from July 2009. Territory schools will also have access to the Framework and its developmental curriculum to profile personal leadership potential. These profiles will enable Territory teacher leaders and executive leaders to plan learning experiences, download readings, podcasts and vodcasts, and participate in professional learning experiences that ACEL and colleagues will provide.  

i.            Educational philosophy

It is proposed within ACEL’s Leadership Capability Framework that influential leaders require more than leadership knowledge and competencies to engage in developmental, empowering and inspirational ways with colleagues in the workplace. There is considerable critique of competency-based models of leadership development in the literature. Critics, such as Kaplan & Norton (1996) and Onsman (2003), question the idea of fragmenting leadership into key result areas, competencies and performance indicators. They object to generic checklists that separate the performance from the context within which it occurs. They point to difficulties associated with making performance judgements and leadership development decisions based on checklists of performance indicators that encourage black and white judgements of performance, and that do not allow for estimating skill level on a continuum of development or progression.

In an Interprofessional Capability Framework developed by the ‘Combined Universities Learning Unit’ of Sheffield Hallam and Sheffield (2004, in partnership with the Department of Health in Yorkshire, UK) the authors argued similarly when they concluded that the ‘. . . perceived limitations of competency acquisition centre on the view that “competence” is frequently interpreted as a fixed-point, context free, outcome-based measure’. They go on to suggest that ‘this interpretation becomes problematic where there is a requirement for changeability and responsiveness’ (p. 7).

In a research project on leadership capabilities (Spry & Duignan, 2003, p. 7) a large number of educational leaders supported these concerns. They regarded competency-based models of leadership development as being too narrow and simplistic. Some of their comments provide insights into their concerns: ‘there is no one formula for leadership’ and ‘leadership is just too dynamic, situational and unpredictable to be highly specified in this way’. They also suggested that the fragmentation of their role into key result areas, competencies and performance indicators would, necessarily, have to be ‘artificial’.

As far back as 1992, Stephenson had clearly pointed to a distinction between leadership capabilities and leadership competencies. In 2000, he focused on the distinction between ‘competency’ and ‘capability’ in leadership training and development when he argued that:

Competency is about delivering the present based on past performance; capability is about imaging the future and bringing it about. Competency is about control; capability is about learning and development. Competency is about fitness for (usually other people’s) purpose; capability is about judging fitness of the purpose itself (p. 4).

Stephenson (1992, p.1) also argued that, ‘capability depends much more on our confidence that we can effectively use and develop our skills in complex and changing circumstances than on our mere possession of those skills’. He claimed that capable leaders have confidence in their ability to ‘take effective and appropriate action within unfamiliar and changing circumstances’. Stephenson (2000, p. 2) defined the concept of capability as:

an all round human quality, an integration of knowledge, skills, personal qualities and understanding used appropriately and effectively – not just in familiar and highly focused specialist contexts but in response to new and changing circumstances (italics in original).

In a similar vein, the Australian Government’s Department of Defence (2005), in its ‘People Capability Framework,’ defined capability as ‘an underlying characteristic of a person which results in effective or superior performance on the job’ and pointed out that ‘capabilities can encompass physical, mental and emotional abilities, knowledge, aptitudes and behaviours’ (p. 9).

Capability, it would seem therefore, is not a prepackaged set of knowledge and competencies to be used by a leader to solve familiar problems in familiar contexts. Rather it denotes a dynamic capacity to respond to changing circumstances and to try to improve those circumstances. Capability involves making a difference, making people and conditions better; it involves transforming people’s lives.

An important implication of the perspective presented here is that leaders need to develop their own capabilities and those of others in order to enhance the capability of their organisation to flourish in an uncertain environment. An underlying assumption of this argument is that the development of personal and organisational capabilities, in an uncertain and complex organisational context, requires a leadership artistry that is unlikely to emerge from the acquisition of a generic set of competencies gained through training or apprenticeship models. Leaders, who have to deal with unfamiliar problems in unfamiliar situations, will need to develop flexible mindsets and frameworks and reach beyond the unquestioning application of predetermined procedures, practices and competencies (Stephenson, 2000).  

ii.            ACEL Leadership Capability Framework design

The ACEL Leadership Capability Framework is based on the belief that leadership is an influence relationship and that leaders in educational systems and schools (including teachers and students) have their ‘spheres of influence,’ many of which will overlap. This is well-supported in leadership research. Each individual’s (and group’s) sphere of influence is as important as any other, insofar as that person has the best opportunity to influence and make a difference in her/his special influence area. For example, a teacher has a special, even privileged, opportunity to influence students and make a difference in their classroom. A head of department has the opportunity to make a difference in a number of classrooms within their department. A principal has a larger, whole-school sphere of influence and this gives her/him the opportunity to have influence that is broader in scope than most others in a school. An expert principal or system leader has the capacity to influence a number of schools and her/his communities. All these people will also have extended spheres or other spheres of influence beyond the boundaries of their identified areas.

The Framework is designed to support these spheres of influence from those who are beginning to apply leadership in a smaller setting through to those whose circle of influence is system-wide through its curriculum support document. It has been nationally and internationally critiqued with over 400 hours of research and review at both the national and international level contributing to its unique formation. It is organised under the following headings:

  • Leading Self for Learning
  • Leading Others for Learning
  • Leading the Organisation for Learning

The Framework is inclusive of contemporary leadership theory around Strategic Leadership, Transformational Leadership, Educative Leadership and Organisation Wide Leadership and is derived from the belief that Australian education systems and schools need talented, well-qualified, influential educational leaders. 

Key principles underpinning the Leadership Capability Framework

After consultation with key educationalists, academics and educational leadership practitioners in Australia, complemented by an analysis of relevant literature, ACEL has developed a number of principles to underpin the ACEL Leadership Capability Framework. Given the dynamic, changing nature of the current and emerging context for education and educational leadership in Australia (and in many overseas countries), there is an urgent need to:

  • put the moral purpose of education and educational leadership at the forefront of educational endeavour. Both education and educational leadership must, in the first instance, focus on the needs of students and help create the environment and conditions in schools to maximise opportunities and outcomes for all children
  • promote a new evidence-based paradigm of educational leadership and leadership learning
  • place increasing value on school-based and school-inspired leadership
  • generate needs-based professional learning suited to the different system and school leaders’ needs and career development stages. In time it will also include self-assessment and diagnostic tools for self-improvement
  • ground leadership development and formation in leadership capabilities developed in collaboration with the profession, educational employing authorities and other appropriate stakeholders
  • provide the rationale and support for enhanced qualifications and/or accreditation for educational leaders. It is timely to ensure that the profession is more skilled and more qualified than ever before so that it is ready, willing and able to take on contemporary and emerging challenges. A case can be argued for better remuneration, conditions and professional status for educational leaders
  • disseminate key benchmarked research and development findings through user-friendly publications, both print and online, in order to impact positively on school, pedagogical and curriculum practices
  • champion professional advocacy for high quality education, educational leadership, and professional learning.


Australian Government, Department of Defence (2005) People Capability Framework, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia (ILS@apsc.gov.au)

Combined Universities Interprofessional Learning Unit (2004) Interprofessional Capability Framework, www.sheffield.ac.uk/cuilu

Kaplan, R. & Norton, D., (1996) Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action, Boston: Harvard Business School Press

Onsman, H. (2003) The Uncertain Art of Management, AIM Management series, Sydney: McGraw Hill

Spry, G. and Duignan, P. (2003) Framing Leadership in Queensland Catholic Schools, Paper presented at the NZ-AARE Conference, Auckland

Stephenson, J. (1992) ‘Capability and quality in higher education’, in Stephenson, J. and Weil, S. (eds) Quality in Learning: A Capability Approach in Higher Education, London: Kogan Page

Stephenson, J. (2000) Corporate Capability: Implications for the Style and Direction of Work-based Learning, Working Paper 99–14, University Technology Sydney, Research Centre for Vocational Education and Training


Subject Headings

Thought and thinking
School leadership
Professional development
Northern Territory