Despite its longevity and prevalence as a topic of study and practice, the term “leadership” has no single, universally accepted definition (Bolman & Deal, 1984). The educational leadership literature is replete with various types, styles, and approaches to leading educational organizations. Each type, style, or approach has its own conceptualization and accompanying definition and set of dimensions and practices. Stogdill’s seminal 1948 study of leadership suggests that leadership can be defined as a “relationship between people in a social situation” (p. 15). This definition helps frame leadership as a series of interactions between leaders and followers within a given context.

Using Stogdill’s (1948) working definition, leadership can be viewed from three major perspectives: (a) leader-centered, (b) behavior-centered, and (c) follower-centered. From a leader-centered perspective, the focus is on leaders as people. Within this perspective, the trait approach to leadership argues that innate personality traits can be attributed to explaining why some people and not others become leaders (Gardner, 1989). The skills approach, on the other hand, suggests that leadership is a set of competencies that people can develop to enhance their leadership abilities (Wright & Taylor, 1985). Turning to a behavior-centered perspective, the focus centers on the actions of leaders. Within this perspective, the style approach asserts there is no one “best” style of leadership since people often behave differently depending on the situation (Blake & McCanse, 1991). Finally, from a follower-centered perspective, the focus is on followers—not leaders. Within this perspective, the servant approach posits that a leader’s purpose is to satisfy follower needs so they, in turn, can be equipped to become leaders (Greenleaf, 1977). The aesthetic approach, though, advances that a decision, action, or behavior is not considered leadership unless an observer perceives it as such (Calder, 1977; Duke, 1986).

These three perspectives and their five accompanying approaches to leadership manifest in many ways throughout the educational leadership literature, particularly leadership theories. Reviewing extant studies, four major theories emerge: (a) transactional leadership, (b) transformational leadership, (c) instructional leadership, and (d) social justice leadership. Transactional leadership theory submits that interactions between leaders and followers are purely transactional in nature. Leaders set goals and followers work to accomplish those goals (Howell & Avolio, 1993). Transformational leadership theory argues that leaders and followers need to cultivate relationships with one another so they can work hand-in-hand to devise and realize a vision (Bass, 1985). Instructional leadership theory asserts that a leader’s primary purpose is not to administrate, but work alongside teachers to improve the quality of curriculum, assessment, and instruction in schools (Hallinger & Murphy, 1985). Social justice leadership suggests that a leader’s major purpose is to advance inclusion, equity, and excellence within educational organizations, such as schools and districts (Theoharis, 2007). Leaders take charge in critically examining and acting to correct inequitable systems, structures, and practices.

The aforementioned theories evolved alongside the job of educational leader. Initially focused on management, the effective schools movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of the modern era of school accountability in the 1980s and 1990s expanded and complicated the work of educational leaders (Leithwood & Montgomery, 1982; Manna, 2006). This heightened complexity only increased the importance of and need for leadership in educational organizations, especially as the conception of leadership and management in schools and districts continues to expand past a single person with positional authority (Leithwood & Louis, 2012).

Given the numerous perspectives on leadership, which one might be the most influential or the most effective? While the complex nature of schools makes it difficult to isolate leaders’ unique influence (e.g., Fuller & Hollingworth, 2014), recent research offers an emerging consensus around three ideas. First, principals’ influence on student learning can be mediated via an array of external and internal factors, such as teacher quality and organizational routines (Branch, Hanushek, & Rivkin, 2009; Hallinger & Heck, 2010; Spillane, Parise, & Sherer, 2011). Second, among internal factors, principals are often second only to teachers in terms of influencing student learning, either directly or indirectly (Leithwood et al., 2004). Third, educational leaders’ influence varies based on context and situation. Different schools have different students, staff members, and communities, which requires leaders to tailor approaches to individual contexts or situations (Chambers, 2009; Khalifa, Gooden, & Davis, 2016).