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The Distinct Challenge of Executive Leadership

Matt Lloyd-Rose

NIoT Programme Developer, writer, and former primary teacher

“Being an Executive Leader is really difficult at first. You’ve got Emperor’s New Clothes. What is this job? You’re not actually running anything… You move from Operational Leadership to Systems Leadership – and it’s a different sport! You want to get busy and do stuff. But you’re being paid for your wisdom – to facilitate change and give leaders a safe space to think – not to be as busy as everyone else.”

An experienced Executive Leader, reflecting on their first weeks in the role


At the National Institute of Teaching, we’ve been working with Executive Leaders to develop our new NPQEL programme, which launches in October.

Their key message, which came up time and again, is that there is a huge step from Headteacher to Executive Leader, and our NPQEL programme must not just be a more advanced version of an NPQH. Executive Leadership, they said, is not simply a different level of leadership, it is a different leadership challenge altogether – and our new programme must reflect that.

Over a series of workshops, we asked Executive Leaders to define in detail the distinctive challenges and opportunities of their role, and to help us to develop a programme that is powerful and fit for purpose.

Here are three of the programme features they proposed:

  1. Blending framework and leadership content

While covering the NPQEL framework, we will simultaneously address the distinctive challenges of Executive Leadership, drawing out how the framework statements manifest at this level.

So when we look at teaching, for example, we’ll be asking: What does it mean to lead evidence-informed teaching across 2, 4, 8, 16, or 32 schools?

  1. Acknowledging the diversity of EL roles and responsibilities

Different Executive Leaders work at different scales and across distinct contexts. We will dedicate time to exploring the different modes of Executive Leadership, acknowledge the different experience-levels and operating scales of programme participants, and differentiate accordingly. 

  1. Creating space for rich, authentic conversations with peers and experienced EL facilitators

We will give NPQEL participants access to highly established Executive Leaders and create space for powerful learning, sharing, and relationship building with peers.

A theme that emerged strongly during our time preparing the programme with Executive Leaders was the human side of this role. Yes, Executive Leaders need to have deep domain knowledge, but this needs to be married with great interpersonal skills. It’s not just about what Executive Leaders have to say, but how they say it, and how effectively they empower others. “Interpersonal skills are crucial”, one EL said. “If you can’t communicate with leaders in a way that makes them feel empowered in their role, you won’t get out of the starting blocks. It’s all about winning hearts and minds – you have to empathise with the priorities and challenges Headteachers face.”

Through a combination of In-person Conferences, Online Masterclasses, Virtual School Visits, Asynchronous Self-Study, and coaching sessions, we will ensure that Executive Leaders finish the programme with both deep, up-to-the-minute knowledge of evidence-based best practice, and the strategic and interpersonal skills to apply that knowledge at scale and across contexts.

Our new NPQEL programme has been developed by Executive Leaders for Executive Leaders. It has the wisdom, know-how and hard-won experience of superb practitioners at its core. We’re excited to welcome the first cohort onto the programme.

We are currently recruiting for our NPQEL October cohort – read more here

You can also express interest in all our NPQ programmes here or read more about our approach to NPQs here

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