Author Archives: A M F Pelser and E H Swanepoel

Shepherd leadership: A managerial leadership theory for the merging of three campuses of the North-West University

Title: Shepherd leadership: A managerial leadership theory for the merging of three campuses of the North-West University

First author: Professor Anna-Marie (AMF) Pelser


Research Professor, North-West University, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences- Entity Director – GIFT, Mafikeng campus

HED (Home Economics, PU for CHE), B Com (UNISA), B Com Hons (PU for CHE), M Com (Industrial Psychology, NWU), PhD (Education Management, NWU)

Second author: Dr Eben Haeser Swanepoel

Orcid Id: 0000-0003-3205-5244

Postdoctoral Researcher, North-West University, Economic and Management Sciences, GIFT.

PhD: Psychology of Education (UFS), M.Ed Psychology of Education (UFS), Hons Psychology (UNISA), B.Ed FET (UFS)

Ensovoort, volume 42 (2021), number 7: 1


Ongoing changes brought on by globalisation and the fourth industrial era sees universities pressured to adapt to social-justice benchmarks. Furthermore, due to governmental expectations to minimize the number of tertiary institutions, many universities have been required to merge and adopt either a new organisational culture or to adapt accordingly. In 2004, the merging process of three campuses saw the newly constituted North-West University take form, albeit beset by many rumours and concerns about transformation during the process of the merger. This paper provides an overview of the Shepherd leadership theory as depicted by the Shepherd metaphor as a central theme to leadership during the amalgamation of the three campuses of the North-West University (NWU) into one campus. In comparison with the Shepherd leadership theory, the core functions required by management from each of the three campuses are those of guidance, responsibility, accountability, fairness, and transparency. Through the conceptual framework of cultural intelligence, this desktop review explores the core functions of the leader during merger processes, with specific reference to the roles and responsibilities of a shepherd as depicted through biblical scripture. Through the components of knowledge, mindfulness, behaviour, and judgment suspension the theory of shepherd leadership is discussed as valuable within contexts necessitating change and cultural adaptation. The importance of cross-cultural communication is emphasised as a core function of shepherd leadership theory.

Keywords: Shepherd leadership theory, guidance, responsibility, fairness, transparency

1. Introduction

The advent of the fourth industrial revolution sees organisational landscapes adapting to the pressures of automation and disruptive technologies such as robotics and machine intelligence (Kelly, 2018). The influence of the fourth industrial revolution, or industry 4.0, on Higher Education (HE) platforms, is most visible through new Information and communication technology (ICT) systems which have fundamentally changed how we not only teach but ultimately form relationships and interact with one another (Chung & Kim, 2016; Xu, David & Kim, 2018). These changes necessitate a keen awareness of human value within an everchanging and evolving technological society, placing the importance of person-centred leadership styles at the fore to navigate uncertain ground towards organisational goals. Industry 4.0 however calls for new ways of leadership to navigate the changing landscape of the connected world.

According to Kelly (2018) traditional models of leadership training often reinforce positional power, placing the leader at the fore of decision making which, in present-day organisational democracy, becomes challenging when leaders are expected to be both the corporate heroes as well as servant leaders. With ongoing changes and pressures associated with the 21st century, leaders must be cognizant of their own ongoing learning processes as opposed to reinforcing leader-oriented power structures (Atiku & Anane-simon, 2020). One of the challenges that leaders face is the process of merging and consolidating higher intuitions of learning (Seliga, Sulkowski & Wozniak, 2018). Since the year 2000, South African universities have come under scrutiny on the part of the government to become more accountable. The equity and the ability for universities to deliver programmes and services efficiently across many institutions led to the suggestion that universities start merging (Van der Westhuizen, 2011).

Accordingly, mergers have become an increasingly important process within South Africa’s tertiary institution ecosystem, with various reasons motivating universities to participate, either due to internationalisation, aiming for higher accreditation rankings, implementing public policy, or strengthening economic scale (Seliga, & Sułkowski, 2018). The post-apartheid landscape sees the restoration of past inequalities through the adoption of merger models which leverage financial strength and improved efficiency of historically disadvantaged tertiary institutions (Mokhuba & Govender, 2016).  Changes brought on through mergers, when goals are met efficiently, have been shown to have a significant impact on employees and can potentially lead to positive outcomes such as enhanced job security amongst employee perceptions (Van der Westhuizen, 2011). Leaders should be increasingly aware of the employee corpus wellbeing throughout the process of university mergers while showing enhanced cultural awareness of the university ethos, as well as contextual differences amongst the campuses within the wider socio-political landscape of the South African context.

2. Rationale

With the leadership process of a single university already requiring multifaceted leadership, merging induces heightened strain on managers and administrators who must blend resources, processes, and personnel (Evans et al., 2016). Leaders should be extra cognizant of employee’s fears and uncertainty to lead as a body corpus through mergers. Furthermore, modern communication patterns break away from traditional top-down leadership approaches (Appelbaum et al., 2017).  The utilisation of the correct leadership application in an appropriate situation leads to solutions to often deep-rooted problems. In the case of the North-West University campuses, proper merging was needed under the auspice of proficient leadership with the application of an appropriate leadership theory. In the absence of change managing agents, the existing management structure of the campus had to perform the merging action. This paper argues the characteristics needed by the existing management structure for the performing of the merging process in comparison to the characteristics needed by ‘n shepherd to managing its flock.

3. Frameworks: Contingency theory and Cultural intelligence

3.1 Contingency theory

Contingency theory was developed from literature in the mid-1960s and emphasises the importance of organisational structures to optimally navigate organisational change (Mendy, 2020).  The premise of contingency theories posits that different organisations have different means of optimising performance management and that the organisation performance management is influenced by situational factors such as organisational initiatives, innovations, size, governmental influences, and technology (Murimi, Wadongo & Olielo, 2021). It is accordingly that leadership effectiveness is mediated through how a specific leadership theory fits a certain situation (Joubert, 2014). Approaches based on contingency theory postulate that the success of an organisational outcome rests on the management’s ability to align organisational structures to mitigate situational factors that occur (Mendy, 2020).  Contingency theory provides a lens through which to view internal and external fit (Kengatharan, 2020). Structural contingency theories propose that the structure of an organisation or team, in other words, whether power is centralized or decentralised, bears no valid relationship with its performance (Xie, Feng & Hu, 2020). Rather, this type of contingency theory indicates that the suitability of an organisation’s structure is dependent on environmental demands brought on by specific situations. Research on contingency does however indicate a link between organisational culture, internal business processes and performance management effectiveness, with the performance management systems of countries differing widely due to multi-stakeholder and political influences (Abane & Brenya, 2020).

Contingency theory is also found in decision-making theory. Decision-making theory implies that there is a best solution to a problem, and to accordingly identify the most applicable solution, select and implement it. The decision-making approach however assumes clear goals and complete information. This is problematic as goals are often ambiguous or difficult to elucidate clearly. This is especially true given the complex nature of conflicting organisational goals (Tarter & Hoy, 1998).

Another type of contingency theory, termed the path-goal theory, identifies a leader’s leadership style as motivation to initiate employee behaviour to achieve goals (Polston-Murdoch, 2013).  Path-goal theory calls on leaders to adapt their leadership style to accommodate the needs of their followers while ensuring that tasks and goals are clearly set (Olowoselu et al., 2019). According to the path-goal theory, a leader needs to be able to exhibit four types of leadership: directive, participative, supportive and achievement-oriented (Malik et al., 2014). Through utilising one of these four styles, the leader influences the knowledge and experiences of employees to effective task completion (Olowoselu et al., 2019). The directive approach is descriptive with a strong controlled reliance on rules and sees the leader providing guidance to accomplishing specific goals. The supportive style sees the creation of a friendly, equal climate for employees with recognition given for achieving certain outcomes. The participatory style sees leaders employ employee input during the decision making. Employees take part in the decision-making process and are motivated toward self-directive behaviour and stronger ownership amongst employees. The achievement-oriented style is significant in situations where tasks are unclear, and employees need a morale boost. Leaders set difficult goals with the belief and expectation that employees will engage with high-performance levels and take responsibility to achieve challenging goals (Olowoselu et al., 2019; Polston-Murdoch, 2013).

Path-goal theory is especially relevant to this study. Shepherd leadership as theory posits the role of the leader in guiding employees towards common goals. As will be discussed, the shepherd leader embodies characteristics of human nature which is underpinned by compassion, fairness, and kindness to motivate employees and inspire self-directed behaviour. During mergers, environmental factors highly influence internal organisational dynamics. The use of a conceptual framework such as cultural intelligence proves valuable to explore cross-cultural behaviour dynamics and motivation amongst employees to engage within a cross-cultural environment, as well as future training on focal areas for practical applications. Cultural intelligence is accordingly used to elucidate the importance of knowledge and behaviour of the leader and employees as directed to common goals during the merger process.

3.2 Cultural intelligence

Cultural intelligence, according to Ang and Van Dyne (2015) is the ability of individuals to adapt to and function within a culturally diverse environment. Through drawing on a certain set of competencies, cultural intelligence facilitates an individual’s effectiveness during cross-cultural interaction (Ang et al., 2015). Specifically important for modern-day leadership where cultural fissures are prevalent due to globalisation, cultural intelligence has become a critical competency for leaders to successfully navigate a culturally diverse workforce (Rockstuhl et al., 2011).  Jonck and Swanepoel (2015) identified 3 components to cultural intelligence. The knowledge component refers to the leader’s knowledge about different cultures and the ability for leaders to adapt personal views during a new encounter. Mindfulness reflects observation during a situation and to first withhold behaviour. Mindfulness can be defined as the state of paying attention in a specific manner that is present-oriented, purposeful, and non-judgmental (Rupprecht et al., 2019). Behaviour follows mindful reflection, exhibiting precise behaviour which is executed according to the cultural requirements for effective communication to take place.  Mindfulness has been further shown to relate positively to interpersonal relationships and employee well-being (Stedham & Skaar, 2019). The ability to suspend judgment, according to Triandis (2006), is one of the most important aspects of cultural intelligence, necessitating that leaders withhold behaviour until enough information is available before acting.

Cultural intelligence is especially relevant to effectively lead employees through mergers. The merging process sees different organisational cultures combine and integrate in a manner that necessitates cross-cultural communication skillsets. Cultural diversity can have synergetic effects on productivity, as diversity increases competitiveness with an advantage to innovation through a variety of enriching perspectives (Gumbo, 2017). However, this requires a heightened knowledge of different cultures, with negative emotions needing to be mindfully approached, especially when social-justice-oriented goals require sensitive leadership.  Mindfulness leads to better due diligence and a clear, open mind to approaching cross-cultural challenges which occur during a merger (Rebner & Yeganeh, 2019).  Mindfulness training has further been shown to be a valuable tool for leaders’ ongoing self-development. Rupprecht et al. (2019) draw on mindfulness training as holding significant value to decision making and information processing amongst leaders, while further being valuable in aiding leaders to better manage both their own emotions and that of their employees.

4. The Shepherd metaphor

The Shepherd leadership metaphor is strongly informed through Christian leadership principles with a strong emphasis on the ethics and the emotional wellbeing of employees (Wessels, 2014). The shepherd theory of leadership responds to the machine-oriented task-based models of leadership brought on by the industrial area. Instead, the focus of shepherd leadership takes on an employee-oriented approach to leadership as informed through the biblical metaphors exemplifying leadership qualities which is human-centred (McCormick & Davenport, 2020). Shepherd leadership is most often drawn upon in relation to church leadership (Averin, 2020), while the value thereof is underscored within the wider organisational context as well as in leading a multicultural workforce as a shepherd would lead their flock. This leadership method places human value at the centre of successful leadership, more specifically the value and human nature of the followers.

Shepherd leadership theory approaches the holistic nature of the people involved in a workforce to promote the conditions needed for growth and development through guiding and protecting those under the leader’s care (Ijorjaah, 2014). The leader, who is akin to a Shepherd, is tasked with navigating the flock, protecting the flock, and as will be discussed, becomes accountable to the flock. The metaphor of the shepherd is widespread within biblical scripture and one of the biblical models of spiritual leadership, appearing more than 500 times across the Old and New Testament (Swalm, 2010). Shepherd leadership provides a biblical lens from which to approach leading and taking care of people through exercising justice and righteousness (Wessels, 2014). Retsane (2020) reflects on Shepherd leadership as prioritising the needs of others, with leaders’ qualities and action which affirm the development of their followers.

5. The merging process of the North-West University

The merging process of the North-West University has been documented as having been one of the more successful mergers of higher education institutions in the country (Curaj et al., 2015). The merging process came from governmental pressure to restore past imbalances and to better utilize resources in a fair and equitable manner (Monchonyane, 2010; Prinsloo, 2016). Accordingly, on 1 January 2004, the North-West University came to fruition constituting the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education and its Vanderbijl campus, as well as the former University of Bophuthatswana. Furthermore, students and staff from the Vista campus were incorporated with the NWU campus (Kamsteeg, 2008). Interesting is that while the merging process has been noted to have constituted a ‘resilient, adaptable and successful university’, this in itself was often brought about by the underlying conversations about transformation (Prinsloo, 2016:14).

Shepherd leadership behaviour appears to be valuable within a multicultural organisational structure (Averine, 2020).  Due to organisational changes which occur as part of the transformation process, there will be a change in the cultural identity and context of the entities involved as well (Sulkowski et al., 2020). One of the main reasons mergers fail, according to Sulkowski et al., (2020), is the underestimation of soft-management areas, specifically culture and organisational identity. It is therefore imperative for leaders to reflect high levels of cultural intelligence to uphold and promote internal organisational dynamics and smooth cross-cultural communication, but also to successfully navigate the changing landscape of the overall cultural changes which occur when staff and students integrate into a new context.

This holds especially true for the Mafikeng-based campus of the North West Universities, termed Mahikeng. The Mahikeng campus is a predominantly black identity space, with the influences of social justice and transformation being clearly visible through actions to resource and add additional staff through the merger. To successfully navigate the amalgamation process, leaders needed to exhibit a strong motivation to learn and broaden knowledge of new cultural nuances which influence communication during the merging process. Furthermore, another challenge arises for entities to retain cultural integrity, whilst facilitating change within the larger entity. Of the three campuses of NWU, the Mafikeng campus is the most noticeably influenced campus due to post-apartheid ramifications. While the merging process holds value to re-address past inequalities and distributing resources, the distinct cultural organisation of the campus itself needed to adjust in many ways to the larger campus’s cultural organisation and identity. The shepherd leader reflects the skillsets to mindfully navigate these cross-cultural fissures, to suspend judgment and facilitate smooth cross-cultural communication, and to exercise caution to protect the flock from pressures that occur, or which may give rise to, uncertainty and subsequently resistance to change.

6. Core functions of Shepherd leadership during the merging of campuses

According to Ijorjaah (2014) Shepherd leadership is a model which approaches the holistic nature of the people involved in a workforce to promote the conditions needed for growth and development through guiding and protecting those under the leader’s care. Behaviours amongst leaders that evoke positive fellowship include support, recognition, leading by example and envisioning change (Joubert, 2014). The ongoing changes brought on to the traditional workforce structure calls on leaders to not only be highly skilled in adaptability skillsets but necessitates that leaders go against the grain to inspire employees to initiate similar positive behaviour within a multicultural context. Leaders are increasingly called upon to exhibit behaviours that are trustworthy, selfless, and caring. These are, according to Burmansah (2020), the exceptional qualities that leaders are called upon to exhibit through consistent behaviour. The following core functions informing shepherd leadership behaviour, as found in biblical scripture, can be applied to the management functions necessitated by mergers: guidance and communication, responsibility and accountability, as well as fairness and transparency.

Guidance and Communication

Influencing employee behaviour is central to leadership, with a leader’s ideas and vision dependent on the actions of others (Yvonne & Skaar, 2019). While management entails the organisation of various systems and structures, the process of successful management is built on leadership qualities whereby groups and individuals are inspired and motivated toward a common goal (Bornman & Puth, 2017). It is accordingly that leaders who inspire and motivate through their conduct have been shown to be more effective in goal attainment, with a higher connectedness of positive relationships on the part of followers (Pillay, Viviers & Mayer, 2013). Shepherd leaders protect followers from inaccurate dogma and direct the flock in their own conduct and actions (Resane, 2020). This is especially the case with the NWU as the successes of the merger were often replaced by news about transformation. Due to the socio-political nature of mergers, leaders need to mindfully share knowledge and information which is appropriate and understood across employees’ cultural fissures, while protecting employees from unwarranted news and untrustworthy information.

Leaders are academic stewards of institutions, possess skillsets, knowledge and abilities that are central to optimizing communication across emotional fissures which followers encounter (Murugan, 2019). Communication is of central importance throughout the merging process, especially when considering employees’ resistance to change. The shepherd in this instance knows that the flock may be resistant to change. Especially in adding new sheep to the flock itself should the shepherd model strong guidance skillsets towards a common goal which is clearly elucidated, while showing a heightened level of cultural awareness due to the merger adding new followers. Effective leadership establishes pre-merger communication patterns to reduce uncertainty among employees. Pre-merger communication which is left unaltered can potentially lead to rumour mills, calling on leaders to ensure a smooth flow of communication throughout the merger process to reflect transparency amongst themselves and followers (Appelbaum et al., 2017; Resane, 2020).

Resane (2020) draw on the shepherd metaphor through Psalm 23:1 (Bible, 1995) as the shepherd leading the flock to pastures and water. The leader as Shepherd is tasked with a flock needing to be led through times of uncertainty. The flock, in turn, places faith in the Shepherd to be led toward the goal safely and securely. Specifically drawing on the amalgamation of the three North-West University campuses, managers are faced with merging three different contexts which encapsulates a different cultural structure and dynamic within the broader context and umbrella identity of the NWU itself. The shepherd in this context is called upon to guide the flock through the valley of the shadow, as God speaks in Psalm 23 (Bible, 1995), of leading the lost through the valley of shadow based on the shepherd’s trust and faith in God’s guidance. Recent research points to leaders needing to be understanding and to relate to others. Subsequently, individuals only choose to follow when they trust the person influencing them (Stedham & Skaar, 2019). Managing the flock, during the NWU merger, called on the shepherd leader to have a goal that was commonly shared amongst employees in navigating the merging of three different cultural contexts. In this instance, the overall ethos and foundation of the NWU’s mission and public branding provided a policy-based map towards navigating the merging process, while allowing for a valuable descriptive boundary that informed the culminating organisational culture to strive toward.

Van der Westhuizen, in his study on the influence of a merger of a South African university on employees, found that negative responses to management on the part of respondents included management exhibiting a top-down management approach and employees not having clear duties distributed. Positive responses were provided when clear communication channels were followed with employees being participants within the strategizing process (Van der Westhuizen, 2011). The Shepherd leader promotes the autonomy of decision making and participation amongst followers, nurturing their talent and allowing them to take the lead in areas where their abilities or talents are strongest. However, the Shepherd leader in turn should take the lead in mapping the way forward and protect the flock against challenges and uncertainty which arise akin to the Shepherd protecting the sheep from wild animals in 1 Samuel 17:34-45 (Resane, 2020; Bible, 1995). This emphasises the important role of guidance on the part of the Shepherd leading the flock, with a direct emphasis on the qualities of guiding the flock during uncertain times and pressures to adapt to a new dynamic, while promoting the strengths and autonomy of followers through drawing on their own leadership qualities.

Responsibility and accountability

The shepherd does not only tend to and protect the lock but when failing to do so stands the chance to lose sheep. The shepherd leader is accountable to the flock and has a responsibility to keep and count the flock. The shepherd leader has a responsibility to keep the flock close, reflecting the leadership quality to ensure that employees are up to date and in close contact with the leader during the merging process. Nielsen et al., (2016) refer to the importance of being cognizant of others, especially within a leadership role. To engage positively with diversity, members of an organisation also need to be aware of the differences of others. Awareness of others, according to the authors, is an important part of humility. The component of knowledge, especially knowledge of differences and employee needs, plays a fundamental role in approaching the employee corpus in a humble manner. Furthermore, the shepherd leader, reflecting cultural intelligence, has a duty to inform the employees, as well as train employees accordingly, within the changing landscape of an organisational culture which necessitates employee knowledge and skillsets to successfully navigate change. This role of the shepherd is indicated through Jeremiah 3:15: (Bible, 1995) “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding”.

Luke 15:3-7 and Matthew 18:12–14 (Bible, 1995) speak to the importance that each individual employee brings to the organisational dynamic. In these verses, the parable of a shepherd who loses a sheep is told, showing the shepherd leaving the flock to find the one which was lost. Upon finding the sheep, the shepherd exults in happiness. It is accordingly that the shepherd leader ensures that each employee embodies both knowledge and understanding of the merging process and their respective duties. The body corpus must be able to perform autonomously when the leader is not present. The shepherd leader does not leave any employee behind, understanding that each employee has value and a place, and is, in turn, accountable for each of the employees. Much like a shepherd, the shepherd leader is conscious of employees who resist change, or who struggle to adjust and adapt to cultural changes, whether at an organisational level or on a communicative individual level.

Fairness and transparency

The equal distribution of workload and trust amongst managers and employees have been shown to prompt positive employee feedback after a merger is complete (Van der Westhuizen, 2011). The fairness of a leader is important to establish trust and loyalty amongst followers. Being well grounded in values that drive behaviour, the shepherd leader instructs through a voice that motivates the followers toward a common goal. The value of trust to lead is reflected through John 10:27 (Bible, 1995) – “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” The sheep, as deduced, listen to the shepherd’s voice because they are accustomed to and carries the knowledge of the shepherd. Trust is fundamental in bridging the known and the unknown (Stedham & Skaar, 2019). The followers, through habit and trust, learn that they will be led to water, security and safety. However, the shepherd is knowledgeable of the sheep in turn and carries their collective concerns of food and safety as central to their motives. This will often call on a sacrifice from the shepherd. Nielsen et al., (2016) underscore self-sacrifice as an antecedent to leading with humility, calling on leaders to place the objective of the group ahead of personal gain.

The shepherd leader reflects high moral fibre, impeccable integrity and is willing to undergo self-sacrifice. Gunter (2018), drawing on John 10 (Bible, 1995), reflects that “Jesus frequently references to his self-sacrifice … makes this the focal point of characterization of the ‘good shepherd”. Suffering, according to the author, is a needed companion to righteousness. The shepherd in this context is not seen as good due to suffering and death, but that his goodness is seen through a willingness to endure and suffer for the safety of the sheep. According to Baugher (2016), it is through being able to cultivate and bear witness to suffering during uncertain times that leaders can better shape social spaces to become supportive, especially through the unavoidable changing cultural landscape.

1 Peter 5:2- 4 (Bible, 1995) provides the moral behaviour expected of the shepherd:

“…shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock”.

Suspending judgment is evident from the use of ‘not under compulsion’, especially during mergers which bring to the fore challenges related to social justice and transformation. The shepherd leader participates and is present, with no intention of self-gain. Of importance is that the shepherd leader behaves according to the conduct expected on the part of the employees, specifically during the process of mergers where cross-cultural communication skillsets are necessitated. Shepherd leaders should be knowledgeable of the cultural fissures that obscure cross-cultural interaction and be mindful of employees’ cultural differences and emotions elicited during the process of cross-cultural adaptation.  The shepherd, eager to be amongst employees as an equal, motivates employee behaviour through example and a human-centred style emphasising compassion and fairness as opposed to authoritarian styles of leadership.

Psalm 23: 2 – 3 (Bible, 1995) provides us with the behaviour expected on the part of shepherd leaders. God, as the good shepherd, is described as providing rest and peace for His sheep whilst being guided toward a common goal: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness.” Shepherd leaders in turn exhibit behaviour and conduct themselves in ways that are fair and models moral behaviour toward the wellbeing of the employees to reach goals. To evade gossip and negative feedback, the actions, as well as the guidelines of behaviour, of shepherd leaders are clear, transparent, and understood amongst employees. Perceptions of trust towards a leader have been shown to be dependent on the perception of the leader’s competence, integrity, and being benevolent (Stedham & Skaar, 2019). The competency of judgment suspension is a cornerstone to behaviour and conduct which is fair. Shepherd leaders are accordingly mindful of their own bias and promote behaviour that is non-discriminatory.

7. Implications for practice

With the importance of cross-cultural communication being a fundamental skill set necessitated through mergers, the cultural-intelligence framework provides a strategy for leadership training in the realms of mindfulness and knowledge. The overall knowledge and awareness of cultural influences during merger processes will prove invaluable in exhibiting a people-oriented and supportive approach to shepherding followers through changes that occur within the organisational culture. Pre-merger training about different cultures to increase cultural knowledge can underscore stronger awareness and more culturally aware behaviour. Furthermore, leaders who exhibit a heightened knowledge and understanding of their employee corpus and cultural composition can potentially aid in better navigating changes that occur and steering employees in a unified manner toward a common goal.

8. Conclusion

Tertiary institution mergers are on the rise due to pressures on the part of government to adapt to shared ideals of social justice and equal access and participation. The South African history of apartheid is still visible on campuses that are under-resourced or ill-equipped to achieve global standards, with a further divide when placed within the digital machine-oriented fourth industrial revolution’s landscape. In turn, mergers call on leaders to exhibit a heightened awareness of cultural fissures which prohibit the merging process. At an internal level, the holistic approach to employee development within new environments is best aligned with the core functions of a shepherd leader. The amalgamation of the North-West University required that leaders be equipped with skillsets associated with knowledge of cultural behaviour, awareness of the needs of the followers, and the emotions elicited through the process itself amongst employees. This desktop review spoke to the merging process through exploring shepherd leadership theory as a contingent style of leadership during contextual change, specifically in adapting to cultural factors. By drawing on the knowledge and understanding of shepherd leaders about their flock, the leader will be better equipped to manage changes that occur due to cultural influences at both internal and external levels.


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Exploring managerial challenges in managing secondary schoolteachers’ stress: A qualitative analysis

Title: Exploring managerial challenges in managing secondary schoolteachers’ stress: A qualitative analysis

First author: Professor Anna-Marie (A.M.F.) Pelser
Research Professor, North-West University, Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences- Entity Director – GIFT, Mafikeng Campus.

Corresponding author: Professor A.M.F. Pelser: HED (Home Economics, PU for CHE), B Com (UNISA), B Com Hons (PU for CHE), M Com (Industrial Psychology, NWU), PhD (Education Management, NWU)
e-mail: or

Co-author: Dr Eben Haeser Swanepoel
Orcid Id: 0000-0003-3205-5244
Postdoctoral Researcher, North-West University, Economic and Management Sciences, GIFT.
PhD: Psychology of Education (UFS), M.Ed Psychology of Education (UFS), Hons Psychology (UNISA), B.Ed FET (UFS)

Ensovoort, volume 41 (2020), number 7: 3


Teacher burnout is a challenge faced globally, impeding optimal teaching-learning from taking place. In this article, teachers’ stress was viewed in terms of its relationship with workplace stressors and through the lenses of organisational and individual management theories, as well as managerial and distributed leadership. Data were collected by means of in-depth semi-structured interviews with managers and teachers; these were audio taped, transcribed and data analysed by coding. Stress was omnipresent in the educational settings and manifested itself as a multi-dimensional phenomenon explained in terms of various leadership theories. Managerial leadership was a problem, where leaders or principals are seen as being commanding, controlling and authoritarian whilst showing an unwillingness to share power. It is evident from this study that teachers don’t take charge of their own stress but depart from this responsibility by keenly empowering the management team to manage their own and the teachers’ stress in both a preventative and corrective manner. Teachers prefer not to be involved with various organisational undertakings due to the presence of unwieldly hindrances in the guise of stressors which inextricably forms part of their professional working life. Distributed leadership is a multifaceted concept of leadership where the principal views it as his obligation to developing leadership aptitude by empowering others to manage their own stress successfully. Results indicated that in building a strong organisational climate, collaboration between employees will be key, shared goals achieved and leadership devolved enabling employees to become one another’s keeper, to foster participation in decision-making. A strong correlation exists between the two leadership theories and the practice of stress management in schools.


teacher stress, stress management; workplace stress; managerial leadership; distributed leadership


The issue of workplace stress has gained prominence in South Africa in the educational sector in recent years (Mapfumo, Chitsiko & Chireshe, 2012). Partially, the rate of stress experiences has been driven by the high rate of systemic changes, job security, performance appraisal and career expectations (Naidoo, et al., 2013; Mushoriwa & Dlamini, 2015). Although school-related stressors should be handled by school staff with managerial responsibilities, teachers themselves should also be involved in the management of their own stress. Coordinated management measures have the potential to minimise stress levels considerably at school level (Robbins et al., 2013). Different leadership theories can be employed to gain insight into the phenomenon of teachers’ stress management.

Problem statement

Even though stress is a universal phenomenon, Werner (2011) accentuated that most stress is experienced in work situations. Demands on educators and schools increase, which in turn leads to the prevalence of stress in the teaching profession. A certain level of stress is necessary for teachers to render an effective and professional service. Counter to this, excessive stress levels may lead to distress, poor teaching, poor decision-making, lowered self-esteem, low job satisfaction and a lack of commitment in terms of remaining in the profession (Grobler, Wärnich, Carrell, Elbert & Hatfield, 2002; Schroeder, Akotia & Apekey, 2001).

Research on stressors globally took place and a number of stressors were found. Bytyqi, Reshani, and Hasani (2010) conducted a general workplace survey in public organizations in Kosovo which examined employees’ levels of work stress, job satisfaction and organizational commitment, and the impact these factors had on each other. However, the findings indicate that a satisfied and committed workforce is not a guarantee for having low levels of work stress and vice versa. Examples of stressors include the lack of opportunities for career progress, lack of status or respect at work, work overload, instability, and lack of discipline among students in Macedonia and Turkey (Akhlaq, Amjad, & Mehmood, 2010). In another study, Van Dick and Wagner (2001) tested the theoretical model of teacher stress on a large sample of 356 German teachers using complex structural equation modelling. The results of the study revealed that workload led to stress reactions from the teachers, whereas principal support, beliefs of self-efficacy among participants, and use of appropriate coping strategies reduced their experiences of work-related stress. Other studies have reported stressors such as time constrains (Kyriacou, 1987), poor quality of relationships with colleagues (Troman, 2000), and large numbers of students (Nagel & Brown, 2003). In terms of stressor rankings, student behaviour is reported as the most stressful factor followed by staff support, relationship with parents, personal and professional competences (Paulse, 2005).

In South Africa, several studies have been done and it is evident from all that stress is an obstacle that causes teachers not to perform as effectively as needed (Van Wyk & Pelser, 2016; Jackson & Rothmann, 2006). Venter (2003) performed a study in George and found that low salaries are an indicator of teacher stress. Stressors which surfaced during studies have attributed educator stress to a lack of discipline, unmotivated learners, redeployment and retrenchment of educators, large learner-educator ratios and new curriculum approaches (Saptoe, 2000). Motseke (1998), in the Free State, conducted an investigation of stress among educators in township secondary schools to identify organisational, personal, interpersonal, and environmental stressors; other examples of stressors include role conflict, role ambiguity, discipline problems, time pressure, bad working conditions, self-respect, inadequate support from friends, family and colleagues, and low student motivation. Although much research has been done on stress in South Africa and even in the North West Province, scant research on stress has been done in schools / among teachers in the Mahikeng Area. Research done in the North West Province was done via quantitative research methods, and didn’t give teachers the opportunity to voice the actual stress they are experiencing and the solution to manage the stress they are experiencing.

In view of this conclusion, the question under investigation for this study was: How do teachers in the Mahikeng Area manage stress in their workplace?

In the forthcoming section the theoretical and conceptual framework will be dealt with and the various stress concepts be thoroughly elaborated on. The objectives will be stated and the research design, sampling, data generation and data analysis will be expounded. Trustworthiness and ethical considerations will be addressed. The findings and discussion thereof will be the evidence of rigorous research done on the ailment of stress. Recommendations will be proposed to remedy the current complacent riposte to the immense effect of educator stress.

The conceptual framework aims to define stress, identify various stressors, elaborate on research done on stress by various researchers in several countries and finally address the different perspectives on individual and organisational approaches to stress management.

Conceptualising stress and background context

Stress defined

Stress can be viewed from different angles. It can be a dynamic and complex process that forms part of the interaction between individuals and the activities in their lives (Phindela, Mothibedi & Smith, 2008). Werner (2011), in turn, views it as “the body’s response to anxieties and deviations that require it (the body) to adapt physically, intellectually and expressively”. Stress is prompted when a situation is seen as either a challenge or a risk. Although stress is a universal phenomenon, Werner (2011) emphasises that most stress is experienced in work situations.

Factors initiating stress

Often, stress within teaching is connected with organizational factors related to the way teachers are expected to work. A plethora of organizational factors contribute to stress among teachers: unreasonably set time frames, excessive bureaucracy, unrealistic deadlines and frightening inspection regimes (Montgomery & Rupp, 2005). One may also distinguish between stressors of an educator’s living and working environment, and individual stressors. The working environment entails the most stressors, amongst which are unfavourable working conditions, excessive workloads, organizational problems, and insufficient resources, lack of support and/or autonomy, and decision making. The working environment may also include physical stressors such as high frequency noise associated with teaching assignments, congested classrooms, classroom or school size, erupting violence among learners as well as administrative pressures such as lack of support from managers and the ambiguity of the teaching role. Individual characteristics include the unique traits of teachers such as personality, gender, age, demographics, ability to establish and maintain supportive networks, cognitive evaluation of stressors, coping ability, type of teaching position and work dissatisfaction (Hastings & Bham, 2003; Guglielmi, & Tatrow, 1998). Individual stress can also be linked to the compatibility between personal and educational values, ambition to succeed, the threshold of sensitivity, competitiveness, multiple roles for women teachers (parent, caretaker, housewife and teacher), and perfection (Bachkirova, 2005). One of the few analyses in the field of work-related stress in Macedonia is the comparative study of Eres and Atanasovska that explores the levels of stress among teachers in Turkey and their colleagues in Macedonia. Their findings suggest that working conditions as well as personal and social characteristics have an effect on teacher stress (Eres & Atanasovska, 2011).

Individual and organisational approaches to stress management

The phenomenon of stress is not only visible when viewed in terms of its causes and consequences, but also about the way in which it is managed (Ngidi & Sibaya 2002). Stress compels individuals and organisations to avoid or manage tension in organisations. This should be done by ensuring that organising, planning and decision-making are conducted in such a way that teachers are not subjected to unnecessary stress (Van Wyk & Pelser, 2016). According to Van Deventer and Kruger (2008) the management of stress is an important factor contributing to positive changes at behavioural, psychological, and physiological levels for educators. Bennett (1997) noted that stress is an everyday phenomenon. Nevertheless, certain measures can be taken by organisations to minimise the degrees of stress experienced by their employees. Stress management has both an individual and organisational character and is particularly discernible at school level in the working relations between different stakeholders such as teachers and learners, teachers and management staff, parents and teachers, as well as between departmental officials and school staff. The distinction made by Steyn and Van Niekerk (2012) of two stress management approaches, namely individual stress management and organisational stress management, is followed in this study.

Occupational stress is concerned with the individual and environmental pressures that workers experience with regard to their day-to-day activities in their workplaces (Werner, 2011). Individuals and organisations are compelled to take action, to avoid and to manage these pressures or stressors (Nahavandi, et al., 2015). In a school it is key that a teacher who experiences stress should enter into a relationship with someone like a principal who can assist in confronting his or her perception of the stressful situation.

Individual stress management

Steyn and Van Niekerk (2012) are of the view that stressor elimination in a work environment is in the first place the responsibility of the individuals themselves. Nahavandi (2015) contend that individual approaches to stress management serve to eliminate and/or modify stressors in the environment by changing perceptions about stressors, time management and planning, aspects of lifestyle and regular practice of relaxation techniques. According to Werner (2011) individual stress management has to do with the fact that we can adapt our perception to certain situations. Through cognitive restructuring, people can prevent irrational and negative thoughts and substitute them with a more positive and a healthy mental approach. This implies that teachers experience stressful situations in different ways and will always attempt to find mechanisms to cope in a stressful situation.

Lifestyle design forms an integral part of individual stress management (Steyn & Van Niekerk, 2012). Teachers have to examine their own lifestyles and be vigilant that their own behaviour and actions do not constitute stress. Aquinas (2009) says contends that time management is critical to subsuming successful stress management techniques. According to Robbins and Judge (2013) teachers should manage their stress levels actively by practising relaxation techniques and doing physical exercises on a regular basis There should always be a balance between work and non-work activities so that employees have either minimal-stress or stress-free lifestyles.

Stress management is also important for individuals because own concerns can be shared in a supportive environment. Steyn and Van Niekerk (2017) note that, “turning to others for support and assistance is one of the critical human responses to stress management”. Robbins and Judge (2013) support the latter view and note that “friends, family or work colleagues can provide an outlet when stress levels become excessive. Expanding your social support network provides someone to hear your problems and offer a more objective perspective on a stressful situation than your own”.

Organisational approaches to stress management

In organisational approaches to stress management emphasis is placed on the fact that stress can and should be managed in institutions by people in the system with managerial responsibilities (Bennett, 1997). Although individuals have to accept responsibility for managing their own stress certain measures should be taken in organisations to minimise the stress experienced by their employees (Robbins et. al., 2013). From an organisational point of view recognising and evaluating how stress is influencing the performance of teachers, is the first step in managing stress (Botha, 2013). Closely linked to recognising and evaluating the influence of stress is the clarification of roles and goal setting (Werner, 2011). Role clarification and goal setting are important in the sense that employees usually have an understanding of what is expected from them; knowing the expectations enables them to commit to the goals as well as to minimize their stress. Robbins and Judge (2013) suggest that organisational communication, redesigning jobs, sabbaticals, organisational culture, goal setting and employee wellness programmes can all be seen as forms of organisational stress management. Robbins and Judge (2013) mention in this regard that individual teachers perform better when they have specific and challenging goals and receive feedback on their progress towards these goals. Role clarification is also important in the sense that it promotes teachers’ understanding of what is expected from them and what management’s expectations are (Aquinas, 2009).

In addition to structural and systemic changes, organisational stress management also deals with the availability of training programmes that can assist employees to cope with “stress by emphasising the importance of happiness and a positive outlook” (Nahavandi et. al., 2015). Robbins and Judge (2013) suggest that stress-reducing or wellness programmes should be offered on a continuous basis to improve teachers’ physical and mental health. Training can also be extended to the whole staff so that they are able to deal with stress positively (Botha, 2013; Steyn & van Niekerk, 2013).

Educational Management and Leadership differentiated

Many researchers in the field of Educational Management and Leadership stress the importance of distinguishing between the concepts of management and leadership (Naidu, et al., 2011; Bush, 2007; Christie, 2010). In this paper the two concepts are however seen in an integrative way and used interchangeably. This is in line with Bush (2007) who observes that the concepts of management and leadership overlap each other and with Fink (2011) who reckons that the term management was given a linguistic makeover and became leadership. We thus applied these terms in a synonymous way, recognising that although the investigation falls in the study field of Educational Management and Leadership the term stress management is generally used in the literature and not stress leadership (Schulze & Steyn, 2007).

Considerable theorising has been conducted in the field of educational leadership in the last decade (Bush, 2007; Crawford, 2012; Christie, 2010; Leithwood & Sun, 2012). Authors seem to embrace diverse views and continually adapt their understanding of how to investigate and explain leadership behaviour in educational institutions (Pelser & Van Wyk, 2015). Leithwood and Sun (2012) say that there has been a change from traditional theories of leadership and management to those that are transformational in nature. Hartley (2010) sees this change as a major paradigm shift from the traditional view of leadership as centred on the role of individual leaders to alternative theories which place the focus on multiple participants.

Leadership theories

We examined the potential of a number of theories as basis for interpreting the empirical findings of this study and decided that managerial leadership and distributed leadership are the best-suited theories to deal with stress management in schools.

Managerial leadership

Managerial leadership is associated with a situation where leaders are seen as being commanding, controlling and authoritarian whilst showing an unwillingness to share power (Dambe & Moorad, 2008). When the above-mentioned aspects are applied to a school, a closed communication system results with a rigid leadership style where the lines of authority from principal to deputy head and then to heads of department are clearly defined with the principal being regarded as occupying the most central position in the school (Naidu, et al., 2011). “Authority and influence are allocated to formal positions, in proportion to the status of those positions in the organisational hierarchy” (Leithwood & Sun, 2012). When this theoretical point of view is applied to the management of stress in schools, prominence is given to the responsibility of the principal and the education department as being responsible for the management of stress. These stakeholders must decide how and by whom stress issues in schools will be handled. In most instances teacher stress would be managed according to existing protocol whereas the social and human relations aspects of stress management are neglected. Naidoo (2011) remarked in this regard that “South Africa’s underperforming schools require a greater emphasis on basic management that involves ensuring regular and timely attendance by learners and educators, maintaining order and discipline in classrooms, and providing adequate resources to enable learning to take place”. Botha (2013) reckons that “even in a decentralised school system principals are required to play strong leadership roles as it prioritises efficient and effective smooth running of schools”.

In terms of the managerial-leadership theory leaders like principals have the main responsibility to manage conflict and tension. Staff such as Departmental heads clearly are responsible for stress that emanates from their particular responsibilities. As middle-managers they also have to manage the consequences of stress that stems from personal relationships. These HoDs are also tasked to apply a whole range of stress-management techniques in schools.

Distributed leadership

The central premise of distributed leadership is that all management activities and processes are spread throughout the organisation. According to Williams (2011) distributed leadership implies that there has been a movement away from an over-reliance on the leader’s influence, to determining relevant variants of leader influence, to arguing for distributive leadership. Building on the ideas of distributed cognition, distributed leadership describes the ways that leadership activities are stretched across different people and positions within organisations and where the result is greater than the sum of the parts. Harris (2004:15) is of the view that the main advantage of this way of doing is that expertise is engaged “wherever it exists within the organisation rather than seeking this only through the formal role”.

The significance of distributed leadership for teachers’ stress is that teachers themselves are involved in the managing thereof (Botha, 2006). This means that the main advantage of distributed leadership in schools is the direct involvement of teachers, and not just their representation, in school matters. Teachers are thus not just there to provide advice but they have the right to make or heavily influence decisions (Somech, 2010). As Wadasengo (2011) explains, teachers are the direct custodians of the curriculum implementation process and that is therefore the correct place where their expertise can be applied. Teachers understand instruction-related issues and work processes better than management staff and their participation ensures that decisions for improved students’ learning will be made (Van Wyk & Pelser, 2015). Potential stressors that are related to teaching such as learner discipline, work allocation and working conditions and curriculum matter will be addressed in a satisfactory way.

Empirical research

Objectives of the study

In view of the above exposition the purpose of the study is to understand how teachers’ stress is managed in the Mahikeng area of the North-West Province. More specifically, the objectives were,

(a) to understand the phenomenon of teachers’ stress through a management lens, (b) to explore the value of different leadership theories for teachers’ stress management, and (c) to examine the manifestation of teachers’ stress in their professional working environment.

Research Design

A case study design was used for exploring and understanding qualitatively and interpretively (against the backdrop of a theoretical exposition on stress management in education and an application of the principles of two leadership theories to stress management) the perceptions of managers and staff about ways to ensure the improvement of teachers’ stress management in the Mafikeng area of the North-West Province in South Africa


The study was conducted in the Mafikeng area of the North-West Province of South Africa. This area is unique in many ways. In the previous political dispensation it formed part of the Bophuthatswana homeland. During that time a strong infrastructure for government was established in the towns consisting of Mafikeng and Mmabatho. After 1994, Mafikeng was entrenched as the capital city of the North-West province including a wide range of geographical areas from adjacent regions. The city itself is unique in the sense that apart from government, a large number of related industries and businesses were established, mainly by entrepreneurs who reside in Mafikeng.

The schools in and around Mafikeng that are the object of this investigation represent a variety that ranges from primary to secondary schools and from schools with a strong rural background to typical urban schools. The schools can currently be seen as serving a well-established and growing middle and upper class of mainly black people. This investigation deals with teachers who are working or have been employed in secondary schools in the area which constitutes a unique environment with its own sets of demands and challenges. A total of 955 educators are employed in the area. A snowballing sampling was used to select only educators that shared the information that they encounter high levels of stress. Educators were selected to represent all role players in education.

In purposeful sampling, researchers intentionally select individuals and sites to learn or understand the central phenomenon”. Purposeful sampling thus means that participants are selected because of some defining characteristics that make the holders of the data needed for the study. Six participants were accordingly purposively sampled to act as participants in this study. In this study the participants are referred to as managers and teachers. The three who are referred to as managers occupy or were employed as a Departmental Education Specialist, a Principal and a Departmental Head (HoD). Of the three teachers, two are still employed and the third one resigned in 2016. The three managers are anonymously identified as participants A, B and C and the teachers D, E and F.

Data Generation

Six individual teachers took part in semi-structured interviews. The interview schedules for both the managers and staff members consisted of the following five questions which were based on the individual participants’ involvement with stress management;

  1. Which organisational/administrative arrangements and procedures make a school a stressful workplace?
  2. Has the school got a responsibility to assist in managing teachers’ personal stress?
  3. How can stress management in the school, or the lack of it, affect teachers’ stress?
  4. What kind of leadership style is suitable for the management of teachers’ stress?
  5. To what degree is teachers’ stress officially identified and handled as such by management staff?

Data Analysis

The following six data analysis procedures as described by Creswell (2012) were applied. Firstly the data were read, followed by coding and the searching for themes, reviewing of themes, defining and naming of themes and creating of categories and then the final phase which involves the joining of an analytic narrative and data excerpts, in addition to the contextualisation of the analysis in correlation with existing literature.


To ensure the trustworthiness of the study thorough preparation was done beforehand on the different processes of data collection, analysis and resulting reporting to obtain the suitable, most valid and significant data for the study. During the data collection and analysis stage all participants were probed with the same questions on their involvement with stress management in ‘their’ schools. The data were recorded and transcripts of each interview were done in typed format. Both authors coded certain sections of the data independently and developed categories from the text which were then compared.

Since all the participants were either involved in sensitive negotiations with the Education Department or felt that they could be seriously disadvantaged if their names were attached to the findings, they were assured of their anonymity and each one was given an opportunity to read his/her completed transcript submitted to verify whether the information shared with the researcher was correctly reported. The researcher also took all necessary steps to treat all the information received from the participants confidentially and ensured that it was safely stored.

Ethical Considerations

Permission to perform this study was granted to the researcher from the Central District of the Department of Basic Education in Mafikeng. The study was also ethically cleared by the university under whose auspices it was done.

All ethical considerations such as permission to perform interviews, briefing of respondents regarding the purpose of the interview and the study and assurance that their inputs would remain confidential, were adhered to.


The following findings are based on the interview questions that were asked during the interviews.

Which organisational/administrative arrangements and procedures make a school a stressful workplace?

All participants indicated that they understood that there were certain systemic or organisational arrangements, policies and procedures present in all schools that caused stress. They realised that a professional organisation had to be governed by policies as well as rules and regulations and that the Department of Basic Education and the North West Provincial Education Department had an important role to play in this regard. Inconsistency in application was however pinpointed as the main reason why teachers experienced stress about these official procedures. Participant A mentioned that the Department did not act in terms of the so-called Post Provisioning Model (PPM). This lead to overcrowded classrooms, unfair job distribution and sluggishness of the Department (HR) to fill vacant positions. In addition it was stated that learners were promoted without deserving it; harassment of teachers by the Department of Basic Education; muddled communication from the Department’s side; inferior salaries; teachers pulled in all directions by role players in education; subject advisors not knowledgeable due to nepotism; corruption with textbooks and material; frequent change of assessment weighting; beginner teachers not willing to be taught anything and no housing allowance (Participant B). B also referred to the block-creeping phenomenon where beginner teachers’ salaries were the same as those of life-long teachers in education and the small difference between posts.

Generally, the responses showed that teachers appreciated the fact that the education profession had a comprehensive organisational structure. In so far as this study is concerned, their concerns had to do with the degree to which the implementation of a wide range of policies might increase the stress levels of teachers.

Has the school got a responsibility to assist in managing teachers’ personal stress?

The responses to this question indicate that teachers thought that it was not correct to make a strict distinction between “personal stress” and “school stresses”. Teachers believe that they suffer from “work stress” which includes aspects of personal stress and the stress that are the result of school challenges. Participant C even said they were all suffering from a number of symptoms and effects of stress. Teachers feel that like most other people they are affected by stress in their personal lives. In their case however their personal stress increases in their school lives. In the strict sense of the word the school should thus accept responsibility for managing all teachers’ stress. According to participant F this position makes sense since the school would otherwise have irritable teachers who can’t cope with stress, become irritable, assault learners, do not teach, become negligent, use anti-depressants, do not submit marks, are absent on a regular basis and sometimes even resign.

An interesting remark made by Participant C about accepting responsibility for stress management in a school is that everybody experienced stress and charity began at home. There is strength in unity and teachers act like they are another’s keepers. Another participant referred in this regard to a support system according to which teachers’ use of a “Buddy System” through which support groups assist each another, especially newly appointed teachers (Respondent B). Respondent D also commented that stress was handled in groups and that teachers did Pilates exercises together and then went for tea to a nearby coffee shop.

Generally, the responses showed that teachers’ stress should be seen and dealt with in the educational sector as one concept and must not be divided into personal stress and work stress. Schools, the department and management staff are therefore accordingly responsible to deal with all the stress that teachers experience.

How can stress management in the school, or the lack of it, affect teachers’ stress?

The responses revealed that all participants felt that an important part of teachers’ stress was caused by the actions or inactions of management staff. It was indicated that these staff members were in a position to control stressors that emanated from factors such as the introduction of new teaching and assessment methods, financial mismanagement, poor working conditions and pupil misbehaviour. Two participants added that there were also a number of day-to-day managerial issues that were created through inefficient management. Participant F and D mentioned the following, time-wasters, including holding and attending poorly managed meetings, allowing interruptions, not planning properly, not communicating effectively, and allowing paperwork to pile up so that time was wasted by looking for important documents.

The participants further agreed that those in managerial positions were partially to blame for teachers’ stress. Participant C was in fact very severe in her criticism of principals by remarking that some principals were ignorant people with manhandling attitudes and escalating and cascading corruption and paltry salaries. Participant F was more specific in criticising principals personally for teachers’ stress, explaining that some principals were absent, bullying and corrupt leaders who had no vision and were involved in uneven distribution of duties, unnecessary paperwork as well as in unfair promotions of learners.

It is clear that there was a strong view amongst participants that the role that principals played in stress management was at best minimal because they had not been trained to perform it and that some principals did not seem to be interested in applying themselves to perform this function.

What kind of leadership style is suitable for the management of teachers’ stress?

In analysing the responses it became clear that the participants saw stress management from different angles. The views of teachers and managers differed noticeably regarding a suitable leadership style for teachers’ stress management. Teachers emphasised the importance of the direct involvement of those in leadership positions by indicating that their first port of call when their stress problems started, was the principal. It seems as if they depended heavily on those in managerial positions to solve their anxieties. Participant F reported however stress concerns were referred to the HOD, the Deputy Principal and the Principal to resolve, but they could not assist. Participant F mentioned that her health was suffering due to the stress she had undergone and not a single member of the School Management Team (SMT) could be of any help. It thus seemed that they felt principals should be efficient leaders whereas the ones that they knew could be described as “weak leaders” (Participant C).

The participants who had experience of senior management responsibilities understood that managerial staff were directly responsible for a whole array of leadership and management tasks. They thought that the leadership style of principals was directly influenced by factors that could in broad terms be described as “departmental-inefficiencies”. If this view point is related to the management of teachers’ stress, attention should be paid to the words of Participant C who saw principals as bossy principals who adhered to the public or to the political rulers and were responsible for stress by introducing incompatible policies and using unfair practical measures.

All participants further agreed that teachers should not be seen as keen and willing to participate in a wide variety of school-wide management activities since there were already a whole range of stressors that influenced their professional working life and that they would therefore not like to be involved in too many additional managerial activities (Participant D). Learners’ behaviour and attitude, coupled with teaching, were seen as a big responsibility. An exception to this rule was teachers’ involvement in managerial activities that were linked to the instructional programmes. As direct custodians of the curriculum process teachers saw themselves as more knowledgeable than management staff on instructional matters.

In general terms, it seems as if the participants thought that a kind of combined leadership style was the most suitable for managing teachers’ stress. This style entails that principals should on the one hand be “father-like” figures who can address their stress issues in a top-down and very effective fashion. On the other hand they also expect principals to allow them to have the main say in curricular and teaching matters because they are “more knowledgeable than management staff on instructional matters”.

To what degree is teachers’ stress officially identified and handled as such by management staff?

The responses of the two groups varied slightly on this question. As described in the previous category the teachers felt that there was very little evidence of any effort from principals to manage stress in schools. Participant E mentioned in a somewhat conciliatory fashion that the principal was kindly disposed towards the staff, but there did not appear to be any internal “support” mechanisms to help her manage stress problems.

The managers accepted that there were no official stress management programmes in schools mainly because no training on how to handle stress related issues was available. They however felt that some effort was made in schools to manage teachers’ stress. One of the managers said that even though stress was not officially recognised as a situation or condition that had to be managed in a school, they had worked out their own methods or routines to cope with stressful situations (Participant B). Respondent A also said that she had never received any training in the management of stress but was overly sensitive to recognising stress symptoms and supported colleagues purely for common humanity reasons. Participant B added that teachers did not just approach you and told you they had stress. It was important for a senior manager to recognise stress symptoms in a school.

It thus seems that even though there are no official programmes available for stress management in schools, an effort is made to support teachers in a way that their stress levels can be reduced.

Concluding remarks

In broad terms the results of this study indicated an awareness amongst all participants that stress was present in their day-to-day operation in school and that it should be handled or managed, although it was not viewed as a life-threatening quiescent condition that necessitated urgent intervention. It seemed as if the effects of stress were underestimated and negated. From the responses it was clear that not only principals, but the whole School Management Team (SMT), were in some way or another involved with the managing of stress and tried their utmost to manage factors causing stress (Bennett, 1997). Being in a senior position necessitates that one has to notice the mien of stress, but it often went by unseen and was managed by all involved in their own manner. Due to the severity of unattended stress, a teacher eventually resigns or collapses as teachers frequently don’t reveal their stress condition (Motshekga, 2013). Some managers handle stress management on a laity level, and none of the participants were ever trained in this regard. To have had Psychology as a subject whilst being trained to become a teacher might be useful in the management of stress.

The results further indicate the danger of reducing the stress management simplistically to specific interventions that must be undertaken under certain circumstances to prevent or correct undesired results. Stress management is not measurable as a single factor and does not exist in a single definable situation. Instead, it should be viewed because of a transaction between an individual and peers or superiors (Van Wyk & Pelser, 2016). It is therefore not possible to do a situational or needs analysis with the idea to establish identifiable shortcomings for which specific stress-management remedies can be applied. The reality of stress management in educational institutions displays itself as a multi-dimensional phenomenon that cannot be practised in a piecemeal way by linking specific issues such as conflict and the presence of bureaucratic school structures with stress-management actions. These and other issues should rather be seen as part of a whole range of interwoven stressors that form part of a complex work environment that necessitates a combination of different stress-management techniques and approaches that should be applied in an integrative manner. The integrated nature of stress management is also evident from the fact that it manifests itself as being both pro-active and re-active. Pro-active stress management in a school is conducted with the idea to “increase the level of awareness of the negative consequences of stress and help educators to identify the symptoms of stress” (Steyn and van Niekerk, 2012: 224). Re-active stress has to do with corrective measures or the application of traditional management actions such as the provision of good leadership where the existence of stress levels is very high. Re-active stress management deals with the application of sound organisational and managerial principles in stressful relationships between teachers-and-teachers and between teachers-and-managers.

Results further show that there is a strong correlation between the tenets of the two leadership theories and the practice of stress management in schools. The way in which teachers expect their stress to be handled shows parallels with the authority allocated to principals in managerial leadership in terms of their official positions in the hierarchical organisation structure (Leithwood & Sun, 2012). Teachers not only accept that principals are responsible for all day-to-day managerial issues, which include the handling of stress, but expect them to manage their stress in both a preventative and corrective manner. Distributed leadership on the other hand fosters participation in decision-making (Bush 2007). Teachers themselves should be involved in taking decisions about their own stress (Botha, 2006). In the study there is however little evidence of teachers being willing to be involved in the management of their own stress. All participants agree that teachers should not be seen as keen and willing to participate in a wide variety of school-wide management activities since they feel that there are already a whole range of stressors that influenced their professional working life and that they would therefore not like to be involved in any additional stressful managerial activities. Although managers pointed out that there were a number of stress-reducing mechanisms available in schools and at the offices of the Education Department, teachers are hesitant to accept these opportunities, but prefer to be involved in informal stress management with other teachers. Another angle showed that teachers had an attraction for a particular aspect of distributed leadership. They see themselves as the direct custodians of the curriculum=implementation process. This view is clearly based on their perceived expertise in teaching and learning matters. Teachers should be regarded as specialists in the field of teaching and in managing and organising their classrooms (Wadesango, 2011). They even regard themselves as “more knowledgeable than management staff on instructional matters”. Ironically the teaching-learning situation is inherently the bearer of most teachers’ stress. The classroom is the engine room of school stressors such as disciplinary problems, assessment methods and pupil misbehaviour.


In view of the above the following suggestions are made:

Specific proactive steps can be taken by introducing programmes that are aimed at stress prevention.

  • Holistic stress relief is a program followed to reduce and alleviate chronic and acute stress at the physical, mental or spiritual levels. Easing in one area, impacts positively on another level. This approach impacts your mind, body and spirit in a powerful way and will lead to a continuum of health and illness as it increases your self-awareness and gives you a way in which you can develop inner peace and better physical health. Of the essence here is your mental, physical and emotional habits which either enhances or negates your health and moves you along the continuum. Once you are aware of the real problems causing physical and mental distress, the natural stress relievers that will help you will become obvious.
  • Mindfulness means the building of self-awareness and frustration tolerance in stressful conditions. Exercises on how to stay calm in a daring classroom situation, noticing, accepting and letting go of negative thoughts. Practise breathing and self-awareness techniques in the classroom, relaxing the tensions by implementing relaxation techniques in class. Use mindful walking, drawing and listening.
  • Cognisance of the role of thoughts, feelings, body and behaviour in stress response, the exploring of the internal world in stressful conditions — understanding “self-developed individual patterns” — the role of thoughts, feelings, body and behaviour in stress response, team teaching, regular feedback and workload division and by just being aware of stress indicators such as teacher absenteeism, missing deadlines and making careless mistakes.
  • The viewing of stress from the learners angle — building sustainable stress management capabilities for students in the classroom (helping to gain insights into “the teacher’s self-developed individual patterns”, calming the body, clearing the mind, maintaining emotional balance, building and nurturing kind connections). Supporting students when dealing with stressful (exams, public speaking) and traumatic experience (accidents, losses, violence). Self-reflection as a protective factor of self-care.
  • Maintaining newly-learned skills in stress management, review key learning points, personal action plan, action plan for classroom, feedback to the trainer using creativity technique. Celebrate teachers at regular meetings to create a win-win feeling in the school; regular staff meetings should be held to give teachers an opportunity to air their views; management to have an open-door policy for discussions with individual staff members; utilizing of social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook should be available for communication between teachers and management; provision should be made for teachers to get involved in informal stress-reducing methods such as exercises and clubs; teachers are free to enrol as individuals in the official departmental stress-support programmes.


The information acquired indicates that management of stress is of significance to prevent it from escalating and forcing teachers out of the system. There is an urgent need to support managers and individual teachers with stress-management skills. The Provincial Department of Education and School Management Teams have to be made aware of the role it should play in managing teachers’ stress.

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