Context-Responsive Leadership: Examining Superintendent Leadership in Context.


  • Paul V. Bredeson University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Hans W. Klar University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Olof Johansson University of Umea



superintendent, leadership, context, cross-national, interview study.


It is widely acknowledged that context matters, that it affects leadership practices. A large body of descriptive studies documents common elements in the work of school superintendents. What is less well known is how superintendents’ leadership may be expressed very differently given the varying contexts in which they work. The purpose of this cross-national study was to identify the specific variations in context which influence superintendents’ leadership, and to examine how superintendents respond to these variations in context. Structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with 12 superintendents- six from across Sweden and six from Wisconsin, in the United States. The findings illustrate that the work of superintendents is paradoxically similar but different. Superintendents described common primary work priorities, challenges and contextual variations which influenced their practice. Yet, differences in district size, organizational culture, community characteristics, and geographic location significantly influenced their leadership practices. Despite their challenges, all superintendents responded to and shaped the context of their work. The study provides illustrative examples of superintendent leadership in situ, and supports the argument that leadership is both embedded in and influenced by context. The study also furthers the authors’ emerging theory of context-responsive leadership.


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Author Biographies

Paul V. Bredeson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Paul V. Bredeson is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His research focuses on professional development and school improvement.  His most recent book is Designs for Learning: A New Architecture for Professional Development in Schools. 

Hans W. Klar, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Hans W. Klar is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current research interests include developing leadership capacity for school improvement. Previously, Hans held teaching and educational leadership positions at the University of Technology, Sydney, in Australia and at the Sydney Institute of Language and Commerce, in Shanghai, China.

Olof Johansson, University of Umea

Olof Johansson is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Umea University in Umea, Sweden.  His research focuses on principal development and organizational development.  Professor Johansson established The Centre for Principal Development in January 1993. His most recent book, The Ethical Dimensions of School Leadership, was co-edited with Paul Begley. 




How to Cite

Bredeson, P. V., Klar, H. W., & Johansson, O. (2011). Context-Responsive Leadership: Examining Superintendent Leadership in Context. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 19, 18.