Implicit leadership theory: principals' sense-making and cognitive complexity

Rima'a Da'as (School of Education, Division of Policy, Administration and Leadership in Education, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel)
Sherry Ganon-Shilon (Ono Academic College, Kiryat Ono, Israel)
Chen Schechter (Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel) (Mofet Institute, Tel Aviv, Israel)
Mowafaq Qadach (Ono Academic College, Kiryat Ono, Israel)

International Journal of Educational Management

ISSN: 0951-354X

Article publication date: 5 February 2021

Issue publication date: 20 April 2021




This conceptual paper explores a novel model explaining teachers' perceptions of their effective leader through the lens of implicit leadership theory (ILT), using the concepts of school principals' sense-making and cognitive complexity (CC).


The sense-making framework and CC theory were used to explain ILT, which focuses on individuals' perceptions of leaders' prototypical and anti-prototypical attributes.


The theoretical model suggests that school principals as sense-makers with high levels of CC will be perceived by teachers as effective in terms of leadership prototypes, whereas teachers' perceptions of principals with low levels of CC will be related to leadership anti-prototypes.

Research limitations/implications

This paper suggests a model for a multidimensional understanding of the relationship between principals' sense-making and CC and their influence on teachers' perceptions of an effective leader.


Opening avenues for future research into employee perceptions of different leadership characteristics, this model emphasizes the cognitive aspects of school principals within implicit leadership theories. This theoretical model should be further examined empirically, and other types of CC, such as social and behavioral aspects, or affective complexity and self-complexity, should be considered.



Da'as, R., Ganon-Shilon, S., Schechter, C. and Qadach, M. (2021), "Implicit leadership theory: principals' sense-making and cognitive complexity", International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 35 No. 3, pp. 726-740.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


Implicit leadership theory (ILT) makes up a significant part of current leadership research and is important for understanding perceptions of leaders' attributes (Lord et al., 1984). ILT describes the structure and content of the cognitive categories used to distinguish leaders from nonleaders (Offerman et al., 1994). Thus, a follower's ILT is based on beliefs concerning how leaders behave in general – and the behavior that they expect from their leaders in particular (van Quaquebeke and Brodbeck, 2008) and on mental confirmation of leaders' effectiveness (Giessner and van Knippenberg, 2008). Followers' reverence and perception of leaders' effectiveness initiate the welcoming of leaders' influence, which is the core of leadership effectiveness (Hollander, 2006; Yukl, 2010). In return, leaders' influence manifests itself in followers' behavior or performance (van Quaquebeke et al., 2011). For example, a match between an individual in a person's environment and that person's ILT influences that person's expectations and behaviors; congruence between a person's ILTs and the characteristics of his or her actual leader is positively related to the quality of leader–member exchange (LMX), which is then associated with more positive job attitudes and better performance (e.g., Epitropaki and Martin, 2005; Topakas, 2011).

Antecedents of ILTs have been less documented in the literature (e.g., Shen, 2019). These include situational antecedents, such as environmental characteristics (Epitropaki et al., 2013), national culture (House et al., 2004) or organizational culture (e.g., Sy, 2010) and personal antecedents such as identity, which shape workers' cognitive schemas (Shen, 2019). However, other factors that might explain teachers' perceptions, in particular, need to be considered, i.e., what leader characteristics or processes shape teachers' perceptions of effective leadership in terms of ILTs? The current paper's claim – our thesis statement – answers this question by adopting school principals' sense-making and cognitive complexity (CC) approaches to explain teachers' perceptions of their effective leader through the lens of ILT. Using the concepts of sense-making and CC, we support our claim with evidence originating from recent research, thereby suggesting a novel theoretical model that discusses the influence of leaders' cognitive schemas on teachers' perceptions of leadership effectiveness in terms of ILTs. Specifically, we claim that school principals as sense-makers with high levels of CC will be perceived by teachers as effective in terms of leadership prototypes, whereas teachers' perceptions of principals with low levels of CC will be related to leadership anti-prototypes.

Sense-making, an ongoing process that describes how people respond to ambiguous and unexpected demands using different cognitive frames to understand their complex environment (Weick, 1995), is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness (Ancona, 2012). In the context of school leadership, effective principals are sense-makers who respond flexibly in a dynamic environment (Ganon-Shilon and Schechter, 2019; Gautreau, 2018). CC – the ability to see the environment from multiple dimensions – is related to leader effectiveness (Green, 2004) and school outcomes (Da'as et al., 2019). Specifically, high and low levels of CC can be distinguished in educational leaders (Da'as et al., 2020), and it has been argued that high levels of CC are related to leaders' personal characteristics (Bowler et al., 2009) and effectiveness (Da'as et al., 2020).

This review and the suggested model will contribute to ILT, first by focusing on prototypes and anti-prototypes in the context of schools, and second, by attempting to tie perceptions of ILT to cognitive processes of CC and sense-making, thereby opening avenues for new research in the domain of cognitive aspects and ILTs.

In the following, we present our claim, reasoning (i.e., ILT, principals' sense-making and principals' CC) and evidence. The suggested theoretical model is then discussed, along with its conceptual and practical implications, limitations and future research avenues.


We argue that effective sense-making processes (Figure 1) promote a multidimensional understanding of principals' CC. Sense-making is regarded as a critical capability for leaders that allows them to act more effectively in complex environments while driving their organizations forward (Ancona et al., 2020). Implementing change in the face of uncertainty and complexity, school principals make sense of the situation and convey its meaning to their teachers. As effective sense-makers, principals draw upon personal history and experience, prior knowledge and beliefs embedded in the social context within which they work. Working collaboratively with their teachers, school leaders share their perceptions and integrate multiple cognitive schemas to create a better understanding of the complexity around them, thus maintaining flexibility (Combe and Carrington, 2015). Through these mental models, principals' sense-making affects their CC, which in turn is expected to affect teachers' perceptions of leadership within their local context. Furthermore, the proposed model (Figure 2) suggests that the level of a principal's CC will have an influence on the perception of effective leader prototypes and anti-prototypes. Accordingly, our claims (i.e., propositions) are, first: principals' sense-making with a high level of CC will affect teachers' perceptions of their effective school leader's prototype, and second, principals' sense-making with a low level of CC will affect teachers' perceptions toward a stronger focus on school leader's anti-prototype.

Reasons and evidence

Supporting our claims through reasoning and evidence, the thesis statement is explained by the following concepts: ILTs, principals' sense-making and principals' CC.


A significant part of current leadership research emphasizes the role of employees' perceptions, expectations and cognitive prototypes in the leadership process (e.g. Epitropaki and Martin, 2004; Sy, 2010). It has been suggested that work group members, through socialization and past experiences with leaders, develop ILTs, that is, personal assumptions about the traits and abilities characterizing the ideal effective leader (Epitropaki and Martin, 2004). ILTs represent cognitive structures or schemas specifying traits and behaviors that followers expect from leaders. They are stored in the memory and are activated when followers interact with someone in a leadership position. These leadership schemas provide organizational members with a cognitive basis for understanding and responding to managerial behavior, and they are essential elements of organizational “sense-making” (Weick, 1995). According to Jelinek et al. (1983), such schemas provide people with an underlying structure of meaning that persists over time, shaping their perception, interpretation and behavior. Thus, the central components of ILTs are prototypes, i.e., an “abstract conception of the most representative member or most widely shared features of a given cognitive category” (Phillips, 1984, p. 126).

To date, several models have been proposed for assessing effective leadership. The GLOBE project highlighted six leadership dimensions that seem to characterize effective leadership across cultures; these dimensions evaluate whether a leader is charismatic, team-oriented, participative, human-oriented, autonomous or self-protective (House et al., 2004). In a different model, Offermann et al. (1994) proposed eight leadership characteristics, six of which have been replicated and validated in several studies (e.g., Bray et al., 2014; Epitropaki and Martin, 2004). They included six leadership prototypes (sensitivity, dedication, charisma, attractiveness, intelligence and strength) and two anti-prototypes (tyranny and masculinity) (Offermann et al., 1994).

Epitropaki and Martin (2004) work identified the content and structure of ILTs and provided a shorter version of Offermann et al.'s (1994) model. In the current paper, arguments and propositions are explained using the six-dimension model of Epitropaki and Martin (2004) for effective leaders. The six dimensions are: sensitivity, intelligence, dedication, dynamism, tyranny and masculinity. The first four dimensions represent prototype characteristics (i.e., leading to effective leadership); the latter two represent anti-prototype characteristics (i.e., leading to ineffective or negative leadership).

Research on ILT has focused, for example, on personal traits as antecedents of the ILTs. Keller (1999) found that dimensions of personality (agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, neuroticism and self-monitoring) are related to ILTs, emphasizing that individuals project their own traits onto their idealized leader (Keller, 1999). Keller's (1999) study shed light on the way in which personal characteristics affect the perceptions of effective leaders in organizations. Other research has shown that perceptions of an effective leader are influenced by numerous variables, such as gender (Epitropaki and Martin, 2004) and culture (Da'as and Zibenberg, 2019; House et al., 2004). For example, Epitropaki and Martin (2004) reported that women, as compared to men, expect a leader to be more understanding, sincere and honest and less domineering, pushy and manipulative. In this sense, a number of studies have suggested that leadership schemas persist over time and resist change (Epitropaki and Martin, 2004), thus providing support for ILT stability over an extended period.

Finally, in line with ILTs, effective leaders are also characterized in terms of traits (i.e., trait theories of leadership). Leader traits can be defined as relatively coherent and integrated patterns of personal characteristics, reflecting a range of individual differences that foster consistent leadership effectiveness across a variety of group and organizational situations (Zaccaro, 2007, p. 7). Here, the defining element of leader traits refers to the range of qualities that can consistently and reliably differentiate leaders from nonleaders; consequently, and as indicated by the research, no single leader trait is defined in referring to leader effectiveness (Zaccaro, 2007). ILTs also define leaders as effective and ineffective, but this is done in terms of first, prototype and anti- prototype and adding traits for ineffective leaders and second, in terms of the effect of followers who rely on their cognitive schema to judge whether someone deserves to be considered a leader. When leaders are perceived as conforming to this ILT, they are seen as leaders, and followers accept their influence (Lim et al., 2012).

Furthermore, the trait approach is concerned with the traits that leaders exhibit and who has them. For example, Mumford et al. (2000) specified a number of individual differences that promoted effective leadership, e.g., problem-solving. Yukl (2006) defined traits connected to leader effectiveness and included personality, motives, needs and values in his definition. Moreover, this trait approach views leadership solely from the perspective of the individual leader. Implicit in this approach is the assumption that traits produce patterns of behavior that are consistent across situations and followers' perceptions of their leaders (Fleenor, 2006). Lord and Maher (1991) argued that the attributes that contribute to effectiveness are presumably encoded as part of follower–leader prototypes that form the basis for leader role nominations.

Principals' sense-making

Sense-making is a key attribute of effective school leaders (Ancona et al., 2020). School environments undergo rapid changes, constantly demanding responses that are beyond the principals' existing repertoire (Saltrick, 2010). Principals need to adapt school behavior through interpretative mental models to the changing environment. Making sense of local and external demands, principals creatively interpret, mediate, negotiate and recontextualize ambiguous experiences into a familiar set of actions that suit their particular situation (Ball et al., 2012; Spillane and Kenney, 2012; Weick, 2009).

Sense-making is an ongoing process through which individuals and groups work to understand issues or events that create ambiguities in their routine and are inconsistent with their prior beliefs (Maitlis and Christianson, 2014). Four interrelated processes help to form a holistic picture of an ambiguous event, that is, in sense-making: creation, interpretation, enactment (Weick, 2009) and exploration (Ganon-Shilon and Schechter, 2019). First, individuals gather data from various sources (e.g., their own histories, experiences, prior knowledge, beliefs and the context in which they work) to explore the broader system and map the unfamiliar situation. Sense-making is a useful tool for people faced with a bewildering lack of information as it provides the necessary mapping technique. Maps clarify the ambiguous situation by illustrating, elucidating and inviting people to discuss the situation and contribute ideas, so that they can reach a clearer understanding and render their actions more effective (Ancona, 2012). The creation process involves bracketing, noticing and extracting cues from the actual experience of the ambiguous event. To develop the created initial sense into a more organized perception, individuals go through the second, interpretation process, providing multiple interpretations of the ambiguous event. In the enactment process, individuals translate their knowledge into action. This process consists of incorporating new information and eventually taking action, based on the previously formed interpretation. The fourth process emphasizes the exploration of different narratives shaping the ambiguous situation. Through dialog and negotiation, individuals interact to co-create a shared understanding, channeling new routines into daily practices. Research findings, however, contradict the notion of these processes as separate events, suggesting that they are interrelated despite their frequent portrayal as occurring linearly, one after the other (Kaplan and Owings, 2017).

Borrowing Weick's (2009) view for the educational leadership context, school principals do not merely process new information passively or adapt it to imposed external pressures; rather, they actively construct meaning from it while relating new demands to preexisting cognitive frameworks (e.g., working knowledge, cognitive frames, enactments, or cognitive maps). School principals' sense-making is a nonlinear, circular, continuous process in which they navigate uncertainty, ambiguity and confusion while meeting the new demands (Maitlis and Christianson, 2014). In this regard, in understanding and processing new information, principals rely on prior knowledge, experience and beliefs (McDonnell and Weatherford, 2013) embedded within their school context and culture. While creating a cognitive map of the unfamiliar situation, school principals construct and enact the meaning of external demands. Accordingly, the continuous motion of principals' sense-making is depicted as an interrelated and interconnected process, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Accordingly, through a sense-making process, school principals formulate a proactive response when encountering uncertain and dynamic situations (Bingham and Kahl, 2013). A qualitative study focusing on school principals' sense-making of their leadership role during reform implementation (Ganon-Shilon and Schechter, 2019) provided unique insight into the way in which they exercise their flexibility. Deviating from the technical details of policy demands while caring for and being flexible with their teachers' needs, principals facilitated adjustments to the national reform plan in formal and informal ways. For example, principals implemented the reform gradually while retaining a positive atmosphere in their schools. In a similar fashion, principals devised flexible solutions while adjusting reform demands to their environment (e.g., school size and community).

Principals' CC

The characteristic of CC indicates how an individual structures his or her social world and environment (Carraher et al., 2004). It represents the ability to use a variety of perspectives when thinking about situations, problems, decisions or individuals (Cheng and Chang, 2010). CC is based on Kelly's (1955) theory of personality. The central premise of this theory is that each individual has available to him or her a certain number of personal constructs for cognizing and perceiving events and for evaluating the environment (Kelly, 1955). Kelly's (1995) theory is based on the study of human cognition through the framework of an information-processing model. This model has two major assumptions: first, it assumes that people are information processors, who are constantly engaged in processing perceived stimuli; second, it assumes that people's ability to process information is limited by the amount of mental resources needed to process it. Thus, although people can think of several things simultaneously, eventually all of their mental resources will be in use, and in order to think about one more issue, a previous thought must be let go (Lang, 2000). A cognitively complex individual can perceive constructs, people or situations in a more differentiated fashion, from several different viewpoints, whereas cognitively simple individuals use fewer viewpoints when describing people or events (Cheng and Chang, 2010).

Most of the literature on CC focuses predominantly on the two dimensions of differentiation and integration (Green, 2004). Differentiation is the number of dimensions and the number of categories (or the number of characteristics) within those dimensions, which are used by individuals in perceiving the physical and social environment of the problem under consideration (Goldstein and Blackman, 1978). Differentiation is a necessary condition for integration (Green, 2004). Integration is “the extent to which individuals can relate two or more orthogonal dimensions to produce an outcome that is determined by the joint demands of each dimension, system, or subsystem involved” (Streufert and Swezey, 1986, pp. 16–17). Integration refers to an individual's ability to see connections between and among these divergent perspectives or among differentiated characteristics (Lee and Peterson, 1997).

CC has been shown to be related to performance (e.g., Vogelgesang et al., 2014) and attitudinal variables such as organizational justice (Graso, 2011), pay satisfaction (Carraher et al., 2004) and organizational commitment (Khatri et al., 2001). Research has found that leaders' CC is related to their effectiveness (e.g., Yan-hong and Jing, 2010).

In the literature, CC is divided into two levels: high and low (e.g. Da'as et al., 2020; Bieri et al., 1966; Green, 2004). Different levels of CC are linked to different styles of thinking, reasoning and mentally organizing the world, and they lead to different perspectives and approaches regarding a particular issue. That is, the same issue can be perceived as more complex or less complex by people at different ends of the CC continuum (Bagdasarov, 2009). People with higher CC tend to use many dimensions to judge events, make finer discriminations along those dimensions and integrate the dimensions into a meaningful conceptual whole (Bagdasarov, 2009).

Research suggests that higher levels of CC may provide the complex strategic processing capability demanded by complex environments (Cheng and Chang, 2010; Houghton et al., 2009). Yan-hong and Jing (2010) found that managers with high CC have a higher level of leadership effectiveness than those with low CC. Green (2004) studied the impact of CC on project leaders' ability to successfully define and integrate components of development projects. The results suggested that one's ability to differentiate information is significant in determining project effectiveness in terms of the ability to sequence project tasks, match tasks to individuals and plan for project risk. Results further suggested that one's ability to integrate information may be less significant in determining project performance; however, the higher a project leader's ability to integrate information, the more likely he or she will be successful in identifying tasks appropriate for specific project problems.

In the school setting, Da'as et al. (2020) examined the effect of CC of school middle leaders (e.g., grade-level or subject coordinators) in relation to their Big 5 personality traits (neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness) on their organizational citizenship behavior. A high level of differentiating CC was linked to a high level of openness to experience, extraversion, conscientiousness and organizational citizenship behavior. Furthermore, a high level of integrative CC was linked to conscientiousness, openness to experience and organizational citizenship behavior. Low integrative CC was linked to a high level of neuroticism. Another study by Da'as et al. (2019) found that school leaders' CC affects teachers' perceptions of the school's absorptive capacity (i.e., an organization's ability to identify, assimilate and exploit knowledge from the environment) and a teacher's affective commitment, which in turn was negatively related to the teacher's intent to leave the school.

Specifically, in the context of school leaders' CC, Thompson (2000) emphasized the importance of studying educational leaders' CC, especially when studying leadership styles and effectiveness. He found that the perceived effectiveness of leaders seems to be largely a function of CC or the use of multiframe leadership styles in their leadership behavior. Da'as et al. (2019) argued that effective school leaders require cognitively complex perspectives to think and plan strategically, make decisions effectively and communicate effectively with teachers, thereby promoting the latter's emotional well-being and potentially decreasing their intent to leave.


Our novel theoretical model (presented in Figure 2) explains how school principals' sense-making and CC influence teachers' perceptions through the lens of ILTs. Further, it is argued that principals' CC levels will differentially affect teachers' ILTs. As effective leaders, the principals' key task is to ensure that everyone in the school can make sense of what they are doing, i.e., why, to what end and how. Respecting how those within the school culture make sense of their work through interaction and the context in which they operate, principals construct a shared meaning of new experiences with their staff members. Leading change processes effectively requires school principals to process and adjust information with the individuals surrounding them, while shifting from management by command and control to management by collaboration and teamwork (Park and Jeong, 2013). Integrating this perspective with Weick's (1995) organizational approach involves interplay between school principals' personal set of traits and values and their colleagues' values, beliefs, goals and norms (Spillane and Kenney, 2012). In bringing others toward school change, principals influence their teachers' sense-making process (Grice, 2019; Shaari and Hung, 2018). Gaining support for the change while integrating internal school needs with external demands, principals' sense-making focuses on the relationships between individuals, actions, contexts, environments and cultures and the activities that have become routine, ritual and systematic (Shaari and Hung, 2018).

Developing cognitive flexibility while embracing environmental complexities with their teachers, school principals' sense-making integrates different cognitive schemas (e.g., personal history and experience, prior knowledge and beliefs, as well as school context and culture). Principals juggle a variety of perspectives when thinking about situations, problems and decisions; this provides them with the ability to examine their own beliefs, suspend judgment and adjust opinions when new information becomes available (Granello, 2010). Integrating various points of view to direct their schools forward (Yan-hong and Jing, 2010), school leaders influence teachers' mental models as they adopt the beliefs of others (Huber and Lewis, 2010).

Constructing new meanings that strengthen new ways of organizing and understanding, principals as sense-makers with a high level of CC are able to lead their schools effectively in a rapidly changing and highly diverse environment (Huang, 2009). Accordingly, moving from the known (e.g., existing school practices) to the unknown (e.g., new experiences) guided by multiple cognitive dimensions, principals' sense-making with a high level of CC will affect teachers' perceptions of their effective school leader's prototype.

High CC levels enable school leaders to effectively make decisions and direct their organization's strategy by involving the use of their construct system to differentiate and make sense of situations. They use a variety of perspectives when thinking about problems, decisions or individuals (Yan-hong and Jing, 2010) and successfully integrate their points of view to direct their school strategy, act within complex environments and overcome limitations. Furthermore, high CC levels enable school leaders to see the implications of scanning the environment while trying to differentiate between the weaknesses and strengths in the school and then integrate these viewpoints to plan and design an effective vision. Thus, it is argued that teachers under school leaders with high CC will perceive them as more intelligent, knowledgeable, dedicated, hard-working and dynamic (i.e., prototype).

Teachers with principals who demonstrate high CC will perceive those principals as more effective in terms of prototype. Recent evidence shows that principals with perspective-taking ability, which can be thought of as the mental act of perceiving a situation from another person's point of view (Longmire and Harrison, 2018) and is also related to CC, affect teachers' perceptions of their effectiveness in term of leadership style; therefore, principal perspective-taking was related to teachers' perception of them as transformational, rather than transactional leaders (Da'as, 2020a).

In addition, school leaders who are cognitively complex tend to use relatively more person-centered communication and demonstrate elements of emotional sensitivity (Mohd, 2007). More cognitively complex leaders are more likely to ask questions about a distressed person's point of view, and as a result, can tailor more sophisticated comforting messages (Dobosh, 2005). On the one hand, it is argued that teachers under leaders with high CC will perceive them as more sensitive leaders, who can understand and help them. Thus, the suggested model proposes that when school leaders demonstrate high levels of CC, teachers will perceive them as more effective in terms of ILT. Thus, we propose that,


Principals' sense-making with a high level of CC will be related to teachers' perceptions of their school leaders' prototypes.

On the other hand, it is argued that low levels of CC will affect teachers' perceptions of the ILT anti-prototype. Low levels of integrative complexity are characterized by a rigid and simplistic view of events, where one point of view is considered correct and all other perspectives are considered illegitimate, flawed or ridiculous (Suedfeld, 2010). These individuals make decisions quickly because they trust their instincts. Moreover, they recognize the disadvantages associated with spending too much time evaluating alternative solutions to problems (Wong et al., 2011). Furthermore, Da'as et al. (2018) argued that school leaders with low CC exhibit limited task performance and information processing because of the limited use of categories and dimensions when discriminating stimuli and when integrating these dimensions or categories. These leaders show a lack of, or poor strategic planning, and tend to be stereotypic and dogmatic when they communicate with others. They are less sensitive to others' unique qualities, goals and concerns. They lack tolerance for different viewpoints and can only see the simple cause of complex organizational problems, which can lead to organizational malfunction. Thus, it is argued that teachers will perceive school leaders with low levels of CC as tyrannical and masculine (i.e., anti-prototype), exercising an autocratic leadership style while promoting goals through domination and control of others. Thus, we propose that,


Principals' sense-making with a low level of CC will be related to teachers' perceptions of their school leaders' anti-prototypes.


The aim of the suggested theoretical model is to explain teachers' perceptions of their leaders' prototypical and anti-prototypical attributes (ILT) through principals' cognitive schemas. It is argued that principals' sense-making and CC influence teachers' perceptions of them as effective. School principals as sense-makers with high levels of CC will be perceived by teachers as effective in terms of leadership prototypes, whereas teachers' perceptions of principals with low levels of CC will be related to leadership anti-prototypes. This contributes to ILTs first, by focusing on prototypes and anti-prototypes in the context of schools, which has been less documented (Da'as and Zibenberg, 2019), and second, by attempting to connect perceptions of leadership (ILTs) to leaders' personal attributes, thus contributing to a better understanding of the extent to which principals influence the nature of organizational settings and teachers' perceptions of their leader. Third, this review expands on cognition attributes and school administration by discussing the effect of principals' sense-making on CC, and in turn on their ILTs. Specifically, principals' cognitive attributes have been found to affect teachers' work, organizational processes and outcomes (e.g., Da'as, 2020b). In this regard, ILTs can also be understood through the cognitive approach.

Our claim suggests that when school principals are aware of their environment and make sense of it, they promote their flexible thinking in terms of CC. Principals vary in the extent to which they perceive and process information in a multidimensional way (Da'as et al., 2018, 2019, 2020): individuals with high CC tend to perceive and process information in a more complex, multidimensional manner than individuals with lower CC. Thus, teachers perceive their principals with high levels of CC as more effective than those with low levels of CC.

Nevertheless, looking at teachers' ILTs through principals' sense-making and CC requires a multidimensional approach focusing on the cognitive flexibility of school principals. Meeting challenges and demands within their ever-changing environment while being sensitive to the settings in which they work and the people with whom they are working, principals' cognitive schemas are “in sync” with their internal school world (Grice, 2019; Ratcliffe and Ratcliffe, 2015). In making sense of new experiences with their staff members, principals integrate various points of view (e.g., multiple cognitive schemas) to direct their schools forward.

In addition, explaining teachers' perception of their leader's prototype/anti-prototype can be considered an attempt to understand teachers' interpretations of their environment and the extent to which leaders affect teacher perception and behaviors (e.g., Beijaard et al., 2000), where teachers' perceptions have been found to affect organizational outcomes (e.g., Da'as, 2019).

As powerful interpretive structures, ILTs play a crucial role in followers' dynamic cognitive and perceptual processes of leadership construction. Thus, understanding teachers' perceptions of their leaders' effectiveness will increase principals' awareness of their teachers' ILTs and provide them with an abstract model of how their teachers expect them to behave in order to be perceived as effective leaders. Brown and Lord (2001) stressed that to fully comprehend the dynamics of managerial leadership it is vital to explore the cognitive categorization mechanisms of the perceivers. Further, previous research has demonstrated the importance of ILTs for the quality of leader–member exchanges and employees' organizational commitment, job satisfaction and well-being (e.g. Bono and Judge, 2003; Code and Langan-Fox, 2001; Epitropaki and Martin, 2005).

Finally, the research on school principals' CC is not well developed. This review attempts to develop a novel theoretical model for school principals' sense-making and CC and their influence on teachers' perceptions through the lens of ILTs. This opens further avenues for conceptualization and exploration that may enable school principals to lead effectively within their complex environments.

Practical implications

Teachers' perceptions of their effective leaders' prototype is a complex matter which requires a multidimensional understanding of principals' cognitive flexibility (e.g., through the lens of sense-making and CC) embedded within their school contexts. Accordingly, ways to strengthen cognitive abilities, sense-making and CC during principals' professional development are elaborated. School principals should be trained to view and address problems, as well as ambiguous experiences, from different perspectives, or in other words, to be cognitively flexible. The use of fact-based project scenarios or cases in project-management training courses is recommended for this purpose. Further, the use of scenarios or cases in management training should be continuously encouraged, rather than offered as a one-time event. This may also provide an excellent educational opportunity for principals to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of completed projects and to look for new and innovative ways to address situations (Green, 2004).

There is a need to create professional development programs for school principals that concentrate on promoting cognitively complex thinking (e.g., integrating multiple cognitive schemas), by holding courses that will also include cases from the field faced by school principals in their day-to-day work environment, thus considering more perspectives and learning how to interrelate them (Da'as et al., 2018). Viewed from another angle, participating in professional development and learning side-by-side with their teachers, principals can demonstrate the importance of everyone's role in the change initiative, thus increasing the school's cognitive flexibility and collective efficacy (Calik et al., 2012).

Limitations and future explorations

Future research calls for empirically testing this model, by examining other cognitive attributes of leaders that may affect ILT, such as the ability to plan strategically or other leadership characteristics, such as instructional leadership. The current paper does not consider other types of CC, such as social and behavioral aspects or affective CC and self-complexity (Hannah et al., 2013).

Empirical research is also needed to examine this theoretical model in different cultural contexts. A recent review by Da'as and Zibenberg (2019) supported Epitropaki and Martin's (2004) model in which national culture and country contexts (sociopolitical context) affect the educational context, and more specifically, teachers' perceptions of the effective school leader and the ideal student. For example, it was argued that teachers' ILTs focus more on masculinity and that the ideal student is more conformist in collectivist cultures, as compared to teachers' perceptions in individualistic cultures.

Understanding principals' cognitive schemas is crucial because they affect teachers' perceptions of their effective leadership. In this sense, principals' sense-making is situated in multiple sociocultural contexts; therefore future research should explore how principals' personal history and experience might shape their CC while navigating their schools through change processes (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007). Viewed from the lens of organizational outcomes, it has been found that principals' cognitive flexibility strengthens the collective efficacy beliefs of their teachers, thereby increasing the latter's willingness to cope with educational changes (Benoliel et al., 2019).

Finally, this paper may contribute to both theory and practice of principals' sense-making and CC by pointing to conceptual and practical implications, along with future research avenues. Adding to previous research regarding teachers' perceptions (Da'as and Zibenberg, 2019; Zibenberg, 2018) of their effective leader, this theoretical contribution explains how principals will benefit from cognitive flexibility while effectively leading school processes.


Principals' sense-making

Figure 1

Principals' sense-making

Implicit leadership theory: the role of principals' sense-making and cognitive complexity

Figure 2

Implicit leadership theory: the role of principals' sense-making and cognitive complexity


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