As the old adage goes, ‘if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is‘. Now, you can often turn this sceptical spotlight onto many headlines that you read in the news, on the internet, or see on television. Under more intense scrutiny, most assertions that find five minutes of fame fall away into obscurity, and are often disproved, a mere few weeks later.

One such example is the Harvard Business Review article/evidence on ‘Architect‘ Headteachers and other such catchy ‘leadership styles‘ by Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard. The article blasted into our consciousness with the grand headline: ‘The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School’ (read it HERE). Not only that, it made it all the way to Newsnight and the BBC no less. Clearly, if these assertions were true, they would have far reaching consequences for how we recruit school leaders. The research also offered the controversial assertion that the specific subject domain of school leaders correlated with their impact and effectiveness as a leader. I didn’t fare too well, being an English teacher. Other assertions posited that the best Headteachers were paid the least.

The notion that immediately pricked up the ears of the audience and drew most interest was their work on leadership styles. They offered a taxonomy of leadership styles, including the Surgeon, the Soldier, the Accountant, the Philosopher – and the ‘winner’ – the Architect. Senior leadership team meetings around the country were no doubt wracked with anxiety and self-doubt, with would-be Accountants staring nervously at Surgeons!

Now, the world of research is used to ‘peer review’, when the methods and assertions of a singular study are analysed by peers. The HBR article and evidence didn’t quite follow such a traditional research route, but the brilliant Dr Rebecca Allen, at Edudatalab, has turned a critical eye on the evidence – see HERE. Allen’s headline is witheringly to the point: ‘No need to recruit headteachers with particular subject backgrounds‘.

There, nothing to see here. Back to work everybody.


Challenges the evidence on leadership styles

Allen unpicks each assertion and analyses the available evidence. It is a brilliant example of evidence based practice – the antidote to simplistic notion of ‘leadership styles’. Challenging such flawed leadership styles reminded me of one of my favourite reads from last year – Leadership BS by Dr Jeffrey Pfeffer, from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. If you get the chance do pick up a copy. He skewers the sacred cows of leadership training, shorn of any semblance of evidence.

Though no ‘Architects‘ are present. Instead, Pfeffer takes a canon to the US leadership industry that peddles leadership styles with loose labels and beguiling insights. The reality? The stuff makes organisations millions in selling such training with a little hype and marketing. We can ask, how far away were we from the ‘Architect School Leadership’ training course and obligatory questionnaires?

The antidote to falling for leadership styles products and promotion is undertaking evidence-based practice when appraising claims that often sound so alluring. Strip down the claims, source the evidence, analyze the data, and seek out confirming or disconfirming evidence, as shown in Allen’s super Edudatalab blog. At the very least, we should scrutinise the evidence.

And we should remember, nice, simple leadership style models, like many a silver-bullet solution to simplify our life and work, requires us to recount that mantra, if it sounds to good to be true, then it probably is.