Developing Middle Leaders through Authentic Leadership

By Mr. Michael J. Norton.

Bio: Michael Norton is currently a Deputy Headteacher at Dubai International Academy (Emirates Hills) in the UAE. He has worked at IB-Continuum schools for over six years, previously working as a Teaching & Learning Coordinator. Originally from Canada, he has experience as a Head of English and Assistant Headteacher in both England and the UAE. Michael has a passion for learning and leadership, holding a Masters in Educational Leadership and also currently facilitates NPQSL qualifications within the Innoventures group of schools in Dubai.


INTERIOR. The office of Michael, a senior leader. On his desk sits a large desktop computer screen displaying an email inbox. A half-empty mug of coffee sits next to an open notebook. Michael sits at his desk, mumbling about the changes he must make to an exam invigilation schedule.

ENTER a middle leader named Fatima. She is well-dressed yet frazzled. Fatima stands in the doorway waiting for Michael’s acknowledgement before entering fully.

MICHAEL: (distracted) Oh, hi. Sorry Fatima. How can I help?

FATIMA: (in a hurried tone) Remember when you told us that we had to analyse the report data for each class in our department?

MICHAEL: Well, we discussed in our last MLT meeting that it would be interesting to explore the overall headlines against the attainment and progress for each class.

FATIMA: Yes, well, Jared simply won’t help. I have tried to analyze his class data with him but it doesn’t seem like he cares.

MICHAEL: Hmmm, OK. What can I do to help?

FATIMA: (determined) Can you speak to him? I know he will listen to you and then I can set our department targets by the deadline you set.

MICHAEL: Let’s try this. Speak to Jared again, but first explain why you want to explore the data and how it links to our plan for all students to meet their target grade. You could then explain how his contribution would help you to better understand your department interventions. If you still feel like he is not getting on-board, speak to me again and I’ll have a word with him.

FATIMA: (unsure) OK. Thanks – I’ll try that, but I may be back soon!

Fatima EXITS. As she leaves, Michael looks wonderingly out the window. After a moment’s pause, he picks up a pen and begins to write in his notepad. As the scene ends, there is a glimmer in his eye as he walks towards a colleague’s office.


Each year, senior leaders seek to develop the leadership capabilities of middle leaders so that they will feel more autonomy and have stronger task ownership within their teams. Many K-12 schools operate in demanding international contexts and it is essential that middle leaders feel empowered to act in the best interests of their team without feeling the need to ‘check-in’ through traditional line management hierarchies. If a school is to grow in a functional way, senior leaders must ensure that there are clear policies, handbooks and systems in place to support their staff. In researching approaches to developing middle leaders, one model that becomes particularly fitting is the notion of authentic leadership. This model focuses upon being honest and genuine in approaches to leadership, and also involves building relationships through trust and distributed responsibilities. Much of the research surrounding this model asserts that a truly authentic leader builds followers by empowering them to take part in a shared goal (Gardner).

When seeking additional support for this leadership approach, I came across a viral video of a “lone nut” who creates a movement at a music festival. If you have not seen this video, take some time to watch it now: Leadership from a Dancing Guy – YouTube.

Readers will agree that there are many important takeaways and the narration in this particular YouTube link provides many apt points for leaders in any setting; however, the notion that a leader is nothing without followers is a message that resonates with me as I prepare for the launch of a middle leadership development programme. The dancing guy made me realize that the best way to develop an engaged and enthusiastic followership is to be authentic in your own behaviours. Our dance as educators is important, even if we feel like we are moving alone at times. If we ensure that the best interests of our team are at the forefront of our actions, it will not matter if we look silly or make mistakes – true educators will join us on the dance floor eventually!

In a 2005 entry in Science Direct’s ‘The Leadership Quarterly’, William Gardner writes that “authentic leadership extends beyond the authenticity of the leader as a person to encompass authentic relations with followers and associates” (Gardner, 345). When team members see a leader who is driven by a core set of values and a shared goal, they are more likely to follow and internalize shared goals as their own – much like the first few dancers in the viral clip. The competing demands faced by K-12 international school leaders mean that it is often difficult to be a truly authentic dancer: school principals must consider the expectations of governors and advisory boards; heads of section must balance the needs of the larger school with those of their own middle leaders; all staff must contend with parents and other stakeholders who have an expectation for the best possible outcomes for their students. It is likely that many readers can reflect on a time when they felt distanced from their middle or senior leadership team due to a decision made when faced with one or more of these competing priorities. The key to managing opposing demands is to ensure that relationships within teams are strong and that core values, motives and goals are communicated openly and clearly in the early stages of a team’s development. The mark of a true leader will be to ensure that these motives and goals are consistently reflected in day-to-day actions.

Now there is the question of practicality: how can we ensure that team members are aware of our core educational values? How can we share our motivations without garnering the rolling of eyes in yet another ‘start of the year ice-breaker meeting’? Abbey Lewis outlines that this can be done when you “share information openly and candidly” (Lewis). This can of course begin during an induction week, but when done routinely, your motivations and goals will naturally come to the forefront and the team will build a clear understanding of your focus areas. Similarly, your team’s perception of you as a leader will increase when you “show vulnerability” by admitting your mistakes or areas for development – and allow them to do the same (Lewis). Research suggests that your team will grow together and will undoubtedly build trust in each other without needing to instigate the often-dreaded team-building activities. Gardner adds to an understanding of this type of authentic leadership by outlining that these team relationships “are characterized by: a) transparency, openness, and trust, b) guidance toward worthy objectives, and c) an emphasis on follower development” (Gardner, 345).

Double and Cook write that “leadership development is about leading staff towards a collaborative environment where every member of staff is an invested partner in both the educational outcomes and the wellbeing of your students and school community” (Double and Cook, 111). Follower development is perhaps the most interesting part about authentic leadership as a concept. As they begin to dance alongside each other, team members take ownership following developmental experiences that “escalate to group norms” (Gardner, 347). When senior leaders work together with middle leaders and share both victories and defeats, both the leader and follower “come to know who they are, and how each impacts the other” (Gardner, 348). This collective development “can motivate, upskill, and help create a culture of interdependence in which your staff grow together” (Double and Cook, 112).

Now, I’m not suggesting that you stand up and dance the next time a middle leader enters your office for advice, but I would suggest three things: pause, reflect on your priorities, and then take time to ensure transparency in your thinking process. Remind that middle leader of your school’s goals and your own personal motivations; detail how these drivers ‘trickle down’ to the actions of middle leaders and their teams. Ensure that you are all listening to the same music – only then can you begin to dance together.

Works Cited

Double, Andre, and Warren S Cook. Leading Your International School. 16Leaves, 2023.

Gardner, William L., et al. “‘Can You See the Real Me?’ A Self-Based Model of Authentic Leader and Follower Development.” The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3, 2005, pp. 343–372,

Hughes, Michael. Leadership from a Dancing Guy on YouTube, YouTube, 12 June 2010, Accessed 18 July 2023.

Lewis, Abbey. “How Leaders Build Trust.” Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, 26 Oct. 2022,

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5 thoughts on “<strong>Developing Middle Leaders through Authentic Leadership</strong>”

  1. Manmohan Singh

    Dear Michael, thank you for sharing your insightful and transparent thoughts. It’s refreshing to see how you began with a compelling example, creating a scene that establishes a strong connection throughout your communication. Empowering the team is a vital aspect of authentic leadership, and I appreciate how you emphasize its importance along with transparency. Additionally, I commend you for considering the feasibility and obligations to management and followers, as it is often a challenging area to address.

    The key takeaways from your post that I found particularly valuable are:
    1. The significance of starting with a relatable example to establish a connection with the audience.
    2. The emphasis on authentic leadership and the role of transparency in achieving it.
    3. The recognition of the challenges involved in fostering connections within the team and the willingness to take risks to address them.
    4. The notion that success is achieved when everyone is empowered and aligned, dancing to the same tune.

    Your insights offer practical and actionable advice for aspiring leaders. Thank you once again for sharing your valuable perspective. Well done!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! I am particularly glad about items 3 and 4 you listed. It’s important to take risks and be willing to fail! Often we don’t want to be ‘in the wrong’ as leaders, but it is important to develop authentic followers!

  2. Thank you Michael for sharing such a fabulously practical article! As an international school educator and middle leader, I will always appreciate the openness and transparency of my leaders , and at the same time I will try to be open to my team too. We should always treat others the way we want to be treated.

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