Leadership Dilemmas of Hong Kong Principals: Sources, Perceptions and Outcomes

By Walker, Allan; Dimmock, Clive | Australian Journal of Education, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Leadership Dilemmas of Hong Kong Principals: Sources, Perceptions and Outcomes


Walker, Allan, Dimmock, Clive, Australian Journal of Education


With restructuring characterising many school systems throughout the world, and major change leaving few schools untouched, school leaders are facing major challenges. This study focuses on a group of Hong Kong principals who conceptualise some of their challenges as dilemmas. The paper draws on previous literature to highlight the importance of articulating principals' perceptions of dilemmas in their daily lives, and identifies typologies and categories of dilemmas. It notes that dilemma research to date is grounded in Western examples and cultural settings, and that dilemmas faced by principals in non-Western settings have been ignored. Analysing dilemma situations recounted by Hong Kong principals, we identify the sources, coping mechanisms and outcomes of their dilemmas and examine the relationships between these phenomena. Among our findings are that dilemmas are multifaceted and irresolvable situations, and that principals tend to rely on a narrow range of deeply embedded Chinese cultural values as coping strategies.

Schools throughout the world operate in an increasingly complex and confusing environment. School leaders in particular are exposed to the problems, paradoxes and dilemmas associated with shifting educational landscapes. Recent research into the dilemmas faced by school principals presents a picture of leaders torn between opposite, often contradictory directions, as their roles become less circumscribed and more subject to debate in times of societal change (Dimmock, 1996; Walker & Quong, 1998). It is therefore unsurprising that calls are being made for more insightful approaches for understanding how school leaders make sense of, and manage, their work lives (Dimmock & O'Donoghue, 1997). One way of accomplishing this is to invite principals to conceptualise their working lives in terms of the dilemmas they face. Although a small but growing body of research on how principals perceive their lives in terms of dilemmas has recently begun to appear, such work has to date been restricted to the study of principals in Western countries. Little if any research has been conducted on whether and how school leaders in other cultural contexts perceive their work lives in terms of dilemmas. Accordingly this study attempts to redress this situation through mapping the perceptions of a small number of school leaders for whom dilemmas figure significantly in their work lives in the Asian setting of Hong Kong.

The concept of leadership dilemmas is introduced in the context of emerging research literature on cognitive dimensions of educational administration. Existing literature is referenced in conceptions of dilemmas exclusively from Western cultural paradigms, thereby ignoring dilemmas faced by principals in non Western settings. We then report on a study which identifies the dilemmas experienced by a group of Hong Kong principals. By using a framework generated in part by inductive analysis, dilemma situations recounted by these school leaders are analysed, their sources, coping mechanisms and outcomes are identified, and the relationships between these phenomena are examined.

Contemporary interest in studying dilemmas pertaining to the principalship stems from at least three interrelated sources. The first is an accepted recognition that schools are not rational organisations. Traditional conceptions of schools and school life tend to underestimate the reality of individual differences in values, goals, interests, motivations and understandings of the organisations in which they work and of their roles. The second stimulus for studying principalship dilemmas is the multitude of reforms influencing schools over the last decade. Dimmock (1996) and Cuban (1994) hold that unless we can gain a practical understanding of values conflicts `deeply rooted' in the work of principals, as well as the ways in which they have learned to manage these, schools are unlikely to engage in sustainable reform. …

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