As a field of knowledge production ‘Educational leadership, management and administration’ is frequently conceived of as an applied field. For many, the very purpose of the field is the advancement of practice. Therefore, despite drawing from a diverse range of disciplines, research in educational leadership is to a large extent evaluated on its observable impact on policy and practice. Theory is conceived of as something distinct from practice and this is legitimised in the rather unhelpful, though widely held, theory and practice divide. Helen Gunter (2010) argues that theory only seems to matter if it can directly translate into decisions to be enacted at 9:00am on Monday morning. Yet Maggie MacLure (2010) reminds us that ‘theory stops us from thinking that things speak for themselves – ‘the data’, ‘practice’, the pure voice of the previously silenced’ (p. 278). The professionalization of knowledge is however a well-rehearsed argument and a major contributor to the low esteem and profile of educational leadership research within the academy. In this paper, I argue that theory forces us to ask serious questions of the underlying generative features of contemporarily popular terms such as ‘leadership, ‘autonomy’, ‘success’, ‘effectiveness’ and ‘improvement’ among others. Working within the relational approach to scholarship that I am advancing here and elsewhere (Eacott, 2015), I contend that it is only through the rigorous and robust mobilisation of theory that we are able to move beyond the status quo and proposing alternate ways of being in the world.