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Middle Leadership Blog Series Reflection Post 1

Are your challenges also opportunities?

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Who is this blog post for: Current or emerging middle leaders and for senior leaders or Headteachers who are developing middle leaders.

Authors:  Stephanie Bingham and Lisa Ramshaw 

Posted on: 24th March 2023

Keywords: process; transformative; vision; values; goals; influence; challenge; opportunity; modelling. 


This blog post digs into the realities and practicalities of being a middle leader and aims to highlight some of the challenges within the role and how these could also be opportunities. There are a series of reflective questions throughout the article for you to consider in relation to your own leadership. They can be used throughout the collection.

The following first two reflective questions will help set the scene for reflection throughout the rest of the blog post. Click the 'Reflection' button below to reveal the questions. 

The Practicalities of Middle Leadership 

In the context of a school, middle leadership is often one of the hardest positions to hold.  

Why do we say this? 

  • Middle leaders are positioned, or sandwiched, between teachers and senior leaders.  
  • Middle leaders tend to have to attend to the operational and the strategic requirements of the role 
  • Middle leaders move into their leadership role directly from teaching, often without acknowledgement of the different skills that are required for the role.  
  • Middle leaders usually have a full-time teaching role to balance and devote time to.  

The sub-sections in this article aim to acknowledge the challenges the above statements present, whilst also identifying the inherent opportunities. 


‘Sandwich’ leadership 

Senior leaders are often the drivers of the vision, values and goals in a school or institution. Middle leaders tend to then have responsibility for implementing actions to meet the goals and subsequent vision, reflect the relevant values in the process, as well as acting as the conduit for whole school messages. In addition, they support their team in the day-to-day work of teaching, curriculum delivery, and/or pastoral work, as well as modelling effective practice in their own teaching. Ultimately, middle leaders are continuously acting as role models in a variety of contexts.  

The two layers of the hierarchical structure can pull a middle leader in many directions on a daily basis and this complexity can make it difficult to balance what are sometimes conflicting needs - those of the senior leaders and those of the more immediate team and pupils.  

The setting of a more phase or subject-specific vision and goals can therefore be very challenging; however, it can also provide a uniquely holistic perspective from vision to implementation. Middle leaders are therefore opportunistically positioned, or ‘sandwiched’, to be able to listen up and down the hierarchy in order to effectively implement. This position could also allow middle leaders to influence and contribute to the wider goals and vision. How a middle leader capitalises on this opportunity could prove beneficial to the setting of more phase and subject-specific goals so that they positively impact change.   

Operational versus Strategic  

The difference between implementing and influencing as highlighted above, illustrates the operational and strategic parts of the role respectively. The operational aspects of the job are easier to implement if the strategic vision is clear, and the closer the leader is to the strategic thinkers the clearer the vision should be (Bush, 2020).  

This is another reason that middle leadership can be challenging, in that much of what middle leaders do is likely to be operational, or managerial, which can create a disconnect with the vision, values and goals that are generally seen as strategic, and central to effective leadership. Middle leaders also need to ensure that the qualities which enabled them to become leaders – such as excellent classroom practice and deep understanding of pedagogy – don't get lost in the operational aspects of their role. 

Part of the answer to the above dilemma lies in understanding the link between leadership and management. The comparison between leadership and management is an important area for middle leaders to explore. Effective leaders balance the two. Knowing which aspect of the work falls into which category, and how they interlink, will help with prioritisation and with ensuring that the goals are achieved in line with the vision and values which we believe is the role of the middle leader to model. 

This is an opportunity as well as a skill, as good middle leaders are constantly conscious of how they are behaving at any one time, as a leader or as a manager. 

The following table illustrates how the two aspects of leadership can be defined: 

Leading (pull): 

Managing (push): 

  • Setting direction

Purpose, vision and strategies for effecting change 

  • Planning and budgeting

Targets, goals, action and resources 

  • Aligning people

Communicating vision, creating coalitions, harnessing commitment 

  • Organising and Staffing

Setting structures, defining jobs, managing people 

  • Sustaining motivation

Keeping people moving in right direction, because they want to 

  • Controlling

Actual vs. expected performance, corrective action 

Figure 1: Difference between Leadership and Management (Bennis and Nanus, 1985; Kotter, 1990; Covey, 1996)

Transition from teaching to leadership 

Managing the complexity of middle leadership, and recognising the opportunities as well as the challenges it presents, is more difficult if you have entered the role with limited preparation and or training. Leading and supporting adults has similarities to, but is also significantly different from, leading and teaching young people: this is pedagogy versus andragogy. Switching between the two sets of stakeholders, sometimes multiple times per day, is highly skilled and doing this well can require significant training and modelling. Often, leaders will lead in the ways in which they have been led: this can be a positive transfer, or not so positive, depending on context. Being clear about the goals and vision for your leadership from the start is essential if these complexities are to be managed. 

Acknowledging that leadership requires new skills opens up the excitement of professional learning and growth. This in turn presents the opportunity for modelling positive change and continuous improvement to the teams above and below – your own transformation can influence that of others; you can reflect the values and vision of the school or institution through the learning you do and through the leadership of others’ learning. Self-awareness is crucial here: in the busyness of a middle leadership role it is important to engage in self-reflection so that targeted training and support can be sought. Seeking out short think pieces like this blog is one way to achieve this in a manageable way. 

Utilising full-time teaching for leadership 

Whilst leadership can feel like an extra role on top of the teaching role, there are many ways in which they can happen simultaneously rather than separately, thus complementing each other. The practices which middle leaders want to see being implemented by their team should be integral to the leader’s own practice: if change is required then modelling is likely to be a more effective and time efficient vehicle for transformative change than a meeting with lots of follow-up actions. This is an example of working smarter not harder, whilst also contributing to the establishment of the leader’s credibility. 

Using the language of the vision, values and goals of the school or institution in meetings and regular discourse with the team is another ‘smart’ way to ensure that transformation is central to the ethos of the team. Joint or shared planning and resources, and facilitating opportunities to see each other teach are also smart ways to merge the strategic and operational aspects of the role. 

Teaching requires excellent communication skills, and consciously reflecting on the way in which you communicate with your team, as opposed to the learners, is an important transference of skill from teaching to leadership. Likewise, effective teaching involves careful and strategic short, medium and long term planning: this is another skill which should be consciously transferred to the leadership role. Economy of language is an important classroom discipline which should be transferred to the leading of meetings and professional development. Understanding and taking the opportunities for transference of skills will help with the move into middle leadership. 

As discussed in this blog post, middle leadership is about the balance of conflicting needs and demands, whilst also establishing and developing yourself as a new leader, which is not always an easy position to be in. 

The next theory post in this collection may help you to consider some of the theoretical components and models that you operate in, and how to adapt your leadership to suit the leadership structure and culture in a more practical sense.  


  • Bush, T. (2020). Theories of Educational Leadership and Management, London: Sage. 
  • Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.   
  • Bennis, W.G., Nanus, B., and Bennis, S. (1985). Leaders: Strategies for taking charge (Vol. 200). New York: Harper & Row. 
  • Kotter, J. P. (1990a). What leaders really do. Harvard Business Review, 68, pp.103-111. 
  • Covey, S.R. (1996). Three roles of the leader in the new paradigm, in Hesselbein, F., Goldsmith, M. and Beckhard, R. (Eds), The Leader of the Future: New Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the Next Era, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, pp.149-59.