Staff are increasingly opting for a life outside school and turning down promotions that could ultimately lead to headships, according to the Secondary Heads Association.
Anne Welsh, incoming SHA president, said: "The vision, dedication and integrity of our school leaders have ensured the success of much of the Government's educational agenda in recent years.
"However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to appoint good heads of department and others in middle-management positions.
"It seems that fewer of our younger colleagues are prepared to consider taking on management and leadership roles in schools at a time when the majority of those presently in senior leadership posts are within 10 years of retirement."
Mrs Welsh, headteacher of George Stephenson high, Killingworth, in North Tyneside, said she had advertised for a head of religious education but did not receive a single applicant.
Part of the problem was the excessive accountability that now went with school management posts. It stifled creativity and distracted school leaders from their core role.
Another factor was bureaucracy - she had to hire administrative staff to advise senior teachers on how to bid for the 35 different funding streams available to her school.
SHA also believes that the financial side of promotion is becoming irrelevant. With teachers now able to earn nearly as much as heads of department without taking on the extra responsibility, they were more concerned about quality of life.
"Younger staff say quite often, 'We want a life, we don't want to work the kind of hours you have always worked, we want to spend our time doing other things as well'," Mrs Welsh said.
John Dunford, SHA general secretary, said the shortage of applications for senior posts was particularly acute in London and the South-east where management pay would not cover the cost of mortgages.
"There has to be adequate differential between classroom salaries and school leaders or there won't be any school leaders in the future," he said.