Distributed leadership and the Malaysia Education Blueprint: From prescription to partial school-based enactment in a highly centralised context

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to present and discuss the findings from research on the relationship between leadership theory and policy reform in Malaysia. Distributed leadership is normatively preferred in the Malaysia Education Blueprint (MEB), the country’s major policy reform document. The research was conducted in two dissimilar Malaysian states (Selangor and Sarawak). Design/methodology/approach: The research was a multiple case-study design, with 14 schools (seven in each state). Sampling was purposive, with schools selected from the different bands used to categorise school performance in Malaysia. Within each school, interviews were conducted with principals (secondary schools), headteachers (primary schools) and a range of teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders, to achieve respondent triangulation. Findings: The findings confirm that the MEB prescribes distributed leadership as part of a strategy to move principals and head teachers away from their traditional administrative leadership styles. While there were some variations, most schools adopted a modified distributed leadership approach. Instead of the emergent model discussed and advocated in the literature, these schools embraced an allocative model, with principals sharing responsibilities with senior leaders in a manner that was often indistinguishable from delegation. Research limitations/implications: A significant implication of the research is that policy prescriptions in major reform initiatives can lead to unintended consequences when applied in different cultural contexts. While distributed leadership is presented as “emergent” in the international (mostly western) literature, it has been captured and adapted for use in this highly centralised context, where structures and culture assume a top-down model of leadership. As a result, distributed leadership has taken on a different meaning, to fit the dominant culture. Practical implications: The main practical implication is that principals and head teachers are more likely to enact leadership in ways which are congruent with their cultural backgrounds and assumptions than to embrace policy prescriptions, even when unproblematic adoption of policy might be expected, as in this centralised context. Social implications: The main social implications are that policy change is dependent on socio-cultural considerations and that reform will not be whole-hearted and secure if it is not congruent with the values of institutions such as schools, and the wider society which they serve. Originality/value: The paper is significant in exploring a popular leadership model in an unfamiliar context. Beyond its importance in Malaysia, it has wider resonance for other centralised systems which have also shown interest in distributed leadership but have been unable and/or unwilling to embrace it in the ways assumed in the literature. This leads to theoretical significance because it adds to the limited body of literature which shows that allocative distributed leadership has emerged as a device for accommodating this model within centralised contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)279-295
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Educational Administration
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Centralization
  • Distributed leadership
  • Educational reform
  • Malaysia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Public Administration


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