Cobus Steyn, International School Leader and Board Chair/Advisor/Member for various Youth and Education Organisations/Schools

Cobus Steyn has been leading international schools in various contexts and positions since 2011, specialising in strategic direction, school improvement and accreditation, and governance structures. He is currently attending the Doctoral College of the University of Bath, specialising in International Education Leadership and Administration. Mr Steyn also serves the international school community as an Accreditation Team Member and a Cambridge Assessment Specialist. As a citizen of a Global South country, Mr Steyn is enthusiastic about transformation in international education which would lead to a more inclusive learning experience for international school students, and developing young leaders. He is also very passionate about education in Africa. Over the course of his career, Mr Steyn has lived and worked in six countries on three continents.


One of the aspects of educational leadership I particularly enjoy is the mentorship of new leaders, be it students or staff. Empowering young or new leaders to enable them to realise their potential to affect change is an enriching experience. There are many opportunities for teachers to engage with educational leadership. These can be at a curriculum level, pastoral level or whole-school level.

There is ample literature to support that many writers who engage with educational leadership have blurred the lines between leadership and management. For this reflection, I will make a clear distinction between the two in as simple a manner as possible. Managers manage a process and follow a set of policy documents to ensure that whichever process they are managing is successful. They are not accountable for a failed process due to misconceived procedural policies and do not affect change or growth. On the other hand, leaders affect change, accept responsibility, and have a clear goal that they work towards. They work, serve, empower, change and grow institutions.

Newly appointed leaders often research different leadership styles and wonder which they should adopt. Which is better? Should I be a transactional leader? Should I follow a distributed leadership structure with my team? The short answer is all of them!

Educational institutions are incredibly dynamic environments. This is one reason why they are exciting institutions to work for. No day is the same as another. With the dynamic environment comes a constant flux of leadership requirements. Add to this the strategic direction the school is undertaking, where on its accreditation cycle it is, or what threats or opportunities it is facing. To a great degree, these will determine what style of leadership and type of leadership distribution is required. A lot also depends on the organisational culture of the school, its unique context, or the composition and experience of its teachers. For a new leader to only focus on one type of leadership style is a folly. The more opportunities they have to engage in different styles and techniques, the more they are able to hone these skills to better serve their stakeholders – students, parents, teachers and boards.

To help illustrate my point: if a school is developing its next strategic plan, then there has to be stakeholder voice reflected in the process. This is an ideal opportunity to follow a distributed leadership process by empowering middle leaders to accept responsibility for a specific area suited to their strengths, be it facilities, infrastructure, teaching and learning etc. These leaders can then engage in a process with their team to propose direction and change, thus enabling all stakeholders to have a shared, strategic vision.

For example, there could also be a threat. During the recent pandemic, many stakeholders looked at executive leadership to assume an autocratic role and guide the school community through challenging times. Usually, when the stakes are high and there is a healthy level of trust in leadership, a community may feel more comfortable with leadership dictating the next steps and process to ensure that all members and stakeholder groups are guided. This is often one of the more challenging roles to accomplish as a leader.

Another scenario could be that a school is in mid-cycle of both strategic plan and accreditation, allowing for transactional leadership to be put into practice. There are always tasks and goals which require completion but there may not be a lot of enthusiasm from the community to engage in this. Middle leaders can put in place a series of goals and targets and assign responsibilities.

While there may be some debate exactly as to how many leadership styles are available for new leaders to engage with, this is, to my mind, a moot point. New leaders should be exposed to as many styles as possible and find opportunities to develop the skills associated with each. As schools are so complex and in constant change, there will be situations requiring a leader to dive into their bag of skills and use the correct framework for the institution to develop, grow, and improve.

For me, the most important thing for a new leader to remember is that all leadership styles in a school have to be grounded on the notion of service to your community. This does not mean service leadership, but rather selfless leadership at the core of your motivation and approaches. As you are shaping the lives and futures of students, their interest and development must be at the heart of your choices, along with the development of your teachers.

To be a new leader can be a very daunting and intimidating experience. However, there are great support platforms for international school leaders to be a part of. Many experienced leaders are happy to mentor and help new leaders. The Academy for International School Heads is a great place to start if your leadership journey has just begun.

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