Scholars of educational leadership have reached a consensus that principal’s leadership has an indirect effect on student achievement and school improvement. Various factors have been studied but research findings are inconsistent which resulted in a limited understanding of the role of leadership in school outcomes. One factor that deserves special attention is the school context as the mediator effect. Leadership is context-sensitive and how leaders act is influenced and affected by the environmental context (Hallinger, 2014). On the one hand, leadership acts are restricted by the limitations posed by the school environment and on the other hand, influenced by the opportunities provided by the school environment. This means that some leadership practices work in one context, not in others.
When the context is factored into leadership, leadership practices become complicated: not always rational and constantly changing. This is because the principal needs to consider various aspects such as the school culture and values, its stakeholders’ social and professional relationships and interactions, how the teachers are motivated or limited by local and national policies. Some of such influences are conscious (can be felt) while others can be sublimed (cannot be felt).
The question is how do school leaders change school culture, especially from a toxic culture to a positive and constructive one? To answer this question, there is a need to understand that leaders do have the power and opportunity to shape how the school works and the values they espoused. This is due to the fact that context is not static but constantly changing and in flux. Context is the function of relationships (social and professional), values (personal and organizational) and culture (organizational and societal) and they are interrelated. Therefore, context is not the product of a single person but an outcome of the interactions of various people through formal and informal interactions. As people join and leave the school, the context changes accordingly. Those who join bring their values and beliefs with them and when they leave they take these with them and replaced by new values and beliefs brought by the ones who replace those who had left the school. While people (both past and present) create the context, context can also influence others.
Bearing this in mind, context therefore can be changed.
However, changing the context of an organization, especially schools is never an easy task as it requires the changing of mindsets and paradigms: meaning there must be a change of the values and beliefs of those who are in the school. For instance, a change in members of the staff will change the context of the school but it is especially obvious when there is a change in the principal. A change in the feeder schools or the catchment area of the school will also lead to change in context as a different community culture is brought into the school. If these contextual characteristics are identified and recognized, principals can better understand what they need to do to be more effective and successful. School leadership is, therefore ‘context dependent’ suggesting a strong relationship between a principal’s personal agency, the quality of the principal’s leadership and the context in which the principal works. McKinsey (2016) reported that an ‘ailing company’ would need leadership that micromanage providing very detailed instructions and monitoring, while an ‘able company’ would require a leadership style that is sensitive to the needs of the people, which means providing high support and for an ‘elite company’, the leadership style is one that stretches goals to inspire people to work to their full potential, meaning providing challenges and setting high expectations on the people who work there. Such a scenario could very well describe schools too.
When a school needs a turnaround experience, a new principal is needed. However, looking for a principal who has a track record of success does not mean that the success will be repeated in a different school. The principal might not be able to recreate the success in the new school as his/her success in the old school depending on the school’s specific factors such as resources available, values and beliefs of the people who work there and their interactions with each other. All these will be different in the new school and almost impossible to recreate. Thus, it is crucial to understand that context matters as well as principals’ leadership behaviour. Although research believes that the principal’s leadership has an indirect effect on student outcome, it is the principal who has the mandate and ability to set strategy for the school based on the changing educational landscape, to restructure the organization of the school and reshape its culture. It is the principal who is able to translate the context into operational relevant capabilities, defining the experience and style required, and assess individuals against those requirements.