How Can Senior Leaders Support Middle Leaders Effectively?

Middle Leadership is highly complex and requires strategic thinking. Yet many Middle Leaders have not been trained to develop this area of their practice. In this article, Kara Kiernan explains how Senior Leaders might be able to provide more effective support for Middle Leaders.

Middle Leaders are regularly the cogs that keep schools turning. They are usually the people that are juggling a number of tasks and wearing a number of hats. Some will have leadership experience and are continuously evolving and honing their craft. Others will be developing their skills in new roles, and are quite often new to leadership. Understanding how Senior Leaders can best support Middle Leaders to flourish in their roles is central to an effective distributed leadership model.

What skills do Middle Leaders need to be effective?

When done well, the middle leader role effortlessly balances complex tasks such as driving educational reform, people management, being innovative and problem-solving. The skills involved in this are countless and usually developed over time.

How can Senior Leaders build positive working relationships with Middle Leaders?

Buck (2018) suggests that great leaders empower others. Yet, Middle Leadership is one of the most challenging roles within a school because, as the job title states, those in these roles are in the middle which is why they often feel in limbo between their teaching and leadership roles, between whats happening on the ground and senior leadership. Tierney (2016) highlights the importance of Senior Leaders being explicit in their expectations, both of the Middle Leader and themselves. This can also link to ensuring that the strategic oversight of the organisation is clearly communicated, including developments, through a transparent lens where possible.

Promoting a positive relationship with Middle Leadership cannot be achieved through micromanagement but instead by providing supportive autonomy; the concept that autonomy is given over leadership, but the relationship is psychologically safe enough that the Middle Leader feels empowered to ask for help. Built on foundations of trust and accountability, Atwal (2019) highlights the need for authentic responsibility, suggesting that Senior Leaders must give leaders the capacity to be innovative and make decisions linked to their area of responsibility, without constant monitoring. This approach will support Middle Leaders to reach their full potential and also have a positive impact on a distributed leadership model.

Utilising some of these strategies will demonstrate that Senior Leaders are showing Middle Leaders professional respect. By having open lines of communication and ensuring they are updated, a trusting relationship will develop over time.

Additionally, it is important for Senior Leaders to show that they value the role of the Middle Leader and their viewpoint. Clearly defining their role for the wider school community and what they are responsible for adds authenticity. This could also include redirecting other staff when they leapfrog relevant people to whom they should go to. Atwal (2019) proposes the concept of collaborative responsibility. This means that no single leader in an organisation is solely responsible. Having a collaborative approach to decision-making through authentic professional dialogue could also be mutually beneficial.

How can Senior Leaders facilitate effective CPD for Middle Leaders?

CPD within schools often involves training, target setting, sharing effective practice and both internal and external training. Whilst it could be argued that all these elements are integral to developing middle leaders, the focus of this professional learning needs to be carefully planned. In many settings, the focus of CPD for leaders is on the what, rather than how. For example, a Head of Maths may attend training on effective ways to deliver problem-solving in the curriculum. This may improve their knowledge in a certain area, linked to content. What may be missing though, is training on howto deliver the rollout of new initiatives. In this instance, training would be needed on how to manage change to maximise impact and get by in from colleagues.

A similar pattern has been observed when sharing effective practice. Middle Leaders may be encouraged to visit other settings and bring back ideas, yet what may be more beneficial is to meet with others leading similar strategies to proactively plan for potential change resistance.

Appraisals are also a key opportunity to develop middle leaders. By setting SMART targets, which focus on developing leadership skills, middle leaders are more likely to be able to drive improvement more effectively. Examples could include input on strategic planning or managing stakeholders, all integral skills needed for effective leadership.

Regularly, Middle Leaders are asked to submit action plans without actually being guided through the process. Planning for regular catch-ups, including mentoring and coaching is also key. Mentoring may be a more appropriate approach for developing leaders and this can also include modelling, work shadowing and working collaboratively on projects.

How can Senior Leaders support Middle Leaders in avoiding burnout?

When questioning Middle Leaders about their role and the barriers they face, the common answers are limited time and juggling responsibilities. Firstly, giving them a chance to offload and share their concerns is a positive step in avoiding burnout. Many Middle Leaders will express feelings of guilt about prioritising their leadership role over students if they are required to wear a number of different hats. Reassurance here is key, highlighting that all elements of their role and their hard work and effort, whether front-facing or not, is instrumental in driving improvement and supporting young people.

Another strategy is to evaluate that persons workload with them. Atwal (2019) highlights the concern that most Middle Leadership roles are focusing more on managing tasks and admin, rather than leading. By working with the Middle Leader to reflect on what they are spending their time on, usually, time-saving measures can be identified. A practical example of how this can be done is through the leader tracking all their tasks across a week and then highlighting those that directly impact children, those that can be delegated to others and those that can be delayed.

Equally, it is vitally important that Middle Leaders are given time to conduct their roles effectively in a way that works not only for them but for the school context. This process of resetting priorities usually has a positive impact.

In conclusion, developing the role of the Middle Leader is fundamental in driving strategic improvement in schools and should be planned carefully by Senior Leaders. This may or may not include supporting the developing Middle Leader via a collaborative learning walk; modelling effective practice; coaching an evolving leader and encouraging them to self-evaluate. But planning how to develop leadership skills needs to be central to every intended action. Leadership is a complex beast, which Senior Leaders know too well. Middle Leaders generally train to be teachers, not leaders, which is sometimes overlooked and therefore this needs to be the focus in every school.


Atwal, K. (2019) The Thinking School. John Catt Educational Limited.

Buck, A. (2018) Leadership Matters 3.0. John Catt Educational Limited.

Tierney, S. (2016) Liminal Leadership. Woodbridge.


You can read other posts by Kara Kiernan here.


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