What skills and attributes make a great leader?

Written by: Simon Quinnell & Gill Gunnill | Published:
Image: MA Education

What are the qualities, styles and abilities that make a good leader, especially when it comes to STEM? Simon Quinnell and Gill Gunnill take a look

Some people aim to become leaders, and others have leadership thrust upon them – but what makes a good leader? And what kind of difference does it make to a department?

We have been working with school and college leaders for more than 10 years, and we asked some of the teachers and technicians who engage with us about what it takes to be an effective leader in science.

Knowing what type of leader you are

The first step in the leadership journey is to critically reflect on how well you know yourself, your strengths as a leader and what you perceive to be the areas you need to develop.

This process could be developed by keeping a reflective journal or trying out a personality or leadership test, which may identify your strengths and development priorities.

It is important to remember that this is your own perception of yourself and not as others see you. However, to validate your view, you could try carrying out a 360-degree test where you receive feedback from your colleagues on your leadership qualities. This then gives you your own perceptions and the perceptions of others for a more balanced view on your strengths and areas of development as a leader.

So what are the qualities that make an effective leader? Although there isn’t always a clear recipe for a perfect leader and the situations you find yourself in might need different qualities, there are certain characteristics which are found in all good leaders in varying amounts.

From our discussions and experience, these include: vision, communication, integrity, passion, toughness and resilience, fairness, warmth, humility, and confidence.

Depending on the circumstances you find yourself in as a leader, you will have to adapt your leadership style. A leadership style is an approach to leading a team to get the most from them, depending on situation and the abilities of the team members.

There are many styles, but the following are some of most frequently discussed: transformational, servant, charismatic, bureaucratic, autocratic, laissez-faire. The Mindtools website offers a useful leadership quiz to help you explore you leadership style (see further information).

You need the right style for the right team and situation. For example, for a well-established highly performing team, a transformational approach will motivate the team, while an autocratic style will demotivate and alienate the team members.

After you have reflected on your own qualities and styles, sought feedback from others and explored the research on good leadership, you can start to build a more complete picture of your own leadership abilities and how to develop them further.

This is only the first step in developing yourself as an effective leader. To further develop, it is worth thinking about working with others, developing a capacity for change and a team vision.

Emotional intelligence

You may have heard of this concept, first championed by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence.
We spoke to Rachel, a lead practitioner who sits on the professional learning group at her school, about what makes a great leader in her school. The key thing she spoke about was having emotional intelligence – being calm and approachable and being able to empower and direct people. She spoke of the need to trust your team and create a “cascade of confidence”. But how do you go about doing this?

  • Knowing your emotions.
  • Managing your own emotions.
  • Motivating yourself.
  • Managing relationships and the emotions of others.
  • Recognising and understanding other people’s emotions.

Embracing change

Whether you are new to being a leader, new to leading a particular department, or have been with your department for a significant period – change is the only constant in education.

To keep our departments thriving and students engaged we need to embrace and successfully bring about change.

We often refer to the work of Dr John Kotter when we look at leading change. Dr Kotter is a business leader from Harvard University, and has created an eight-step method for successfully implementing change:

  1. Create a sense of urgency.
  2. Build a guiding coalition.
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives.
  4. Enlist a volunteer army.
  5. Enable action by removing barriers.
  6. Generate short-term wins.
  7. Sustain acceleration.
  8. Institute change.

Tanya, a head of curriculum with a focus on science, told us that getting her colleagues “on board” with changes that need to be implemented for the benefit of students was one of the biggest challenges and is often the most important part of being a great leader.

She believes that to excel at this you need effective communication and to remember the pressures on teaching staff to remain focused on their main role – which is to support students.

Having a vision

One of the most important steps in leading a team based on our work here and all the interviews we have undertaken with science leaders, has been the importance of a strong vision.

From head technicians, heads of STEM and heads of science – vision kept coming up as one of the key components of a great leader. We teach new and aspiring leaders that developing this vision, and getting colleagues to buy into it, is integral to leading an effective team.

  • Simon Quinnell is national technician lead and Gill Gunnill science CPD lead at STEM Learning.

Further information


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