Sunday, July 25, 2010

Transformational Leadership

Transactional leaders use conventional reward and punishment to gain compliance from their followers. The organizational structure is the typical top-down leadership pyramid and the targeted “motivational needs” are those that are on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.
Transformational Leadership, by contrast targets the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy and is built upon collaboration, communication, shared vision, distributed leadership and building of leadership within others, and the concepts of servant leadership and stewardship.
The transformational approach to leadership takes us from a constricting model of competition between individuals, teams or nations, to a connection with the whole of a situation, and leadership for the good of all. We move from making a sale at any cost, towards creating lasting relationships and seeking socially responsible outcomes; it takes us from a narrow focus primarily on the bottom line, to realizing a sustainable vision that contributes to the welfare of all involved, not just the ones with the power and control. (The Transformational Leadership Report, 2007)
Transformational school leaders develop a collaborative and participatory school culture that embraces a shared vision with common goals and priorities. This means that instead of solely issuing top-down directives, they foster discussion and shared decision-making; this also means transformational leaders must have the ability to work through divisiveness and among competing factions to build consensus. They value and believe in their team and they work to build relationships and nurture leadership in others. Transformational leaders hold high expectations for themselves, their teachers and their students and they model values and professional practices. (They “walk the walk”.) They believe in and promote continual growth though their own self-reflection and by providing ongoing evaluation, support, and resources for their teachers. Transformational leaders embrace the use of various technologies as tools for learning, and as a means to increase collaboration and communication between teachers, students, outside experts, home and school. They model appropriate and ethical use of technology and they continually investigate and evaluate new technologies.

It is certainly interesting and informative to learn about and discuss the merits of the transformational leadership model and identify its key characteristics, behaviors and strategies. However, it is also somewhat sobering to compare the theories and ideals to actual practice and level of implementation. Complex contextual differences, including the size of schools and districts, grade level or population served, type of organization (public, private, charter), the geographic and socio-economic demographics, and the political climate and policies are all factors. The later, political climate and policies, have had significant impact and influence on educational policies, organizational structures and administration/leadership, especially over the past decade.

Leithwood (2007) writes, “The dilemma is that both theory and evidence have begun to coalesce around “transformational” approaches to their leadership as best suited to the challenges they face, while the policy environment in which they work largely endorses the continuation of “transactional” practices.

There are often significant differences between what a growing body of research is showing to be effective and what is promoted and mandated through policy from the federal down though the state, district and local school level. Some of these are unintended consequences of well-intentioned initiatives and policies. We can say that we want to move more toward a transformational leadership model, but some of the policies, mandates, and laws actually promote more of a transactional and even punitive system. Examples are NCLB accountability with the focus on high-stakes testing and meeting AYP and the increasingly punitive consequences of not meeting targets. “School reform” and school improvement grants are based upon selecting one of four intervention models: the “turn-around”, “restart”, “school closure” or “transformation” model. Each of these intervention models require firing staff –from a minimum of the principal to over 50% of the staff to complete school closure. Even the current “Race to the Top” program has significant “carrot and stick” elements.

So how can administrators work within these disparate and often conflicting elements and become transformational leaders in spite of the myriad obstacles? How can administrators at all levels (school, district, state) go from theory to practical implementation – and in a way that doesn’t lose sight of the vision but also takes a deep look at realities and works within organizational and resource constraints? I believe that it is important to remember that one size does not fit all and that context does matter. Complex situations may call for different approaches or a continuum of strategies.

Following are excerpts from a March 2010 article in NEA Priority Schools Campaign.
Collaboration Results in Transformation at Maryland School
…A formal memorandum of understanding called for a three-year commitment from staff for school stability, staff-wide training….

In the fall of 2000, then-Superintendent of Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools (MCPS) Jerry Weast identified Broad Acres Elementary School for “reconstitution,” which meant removing its new principal and bringing in a new teaching staff. But Montgomery County Education Association opposed that idea. The union maintained that the existing staff needed support, not replacement.
Principal Jody Leleck was key. … She believed in and supported her teachers’ ability to figure out what needed to be done. She was their constant instructional guide and mentor, and did not compromise her expectations for improved student achievement.

MCEA Vice President Bonnie Cullison and Community Superintendent Kimberly Statham met with each teacher to describe to them the new, joint expectations in terms of teaming, planning, and the requirement for teacher leadership. …After three years, Broad Acres Elementary School was a community of teachers and administrators making instructional decisions together. …By the end of 2003…math score improvement was better than any other school in Montgomery County. …After three years, Broad Acres had achieved AYP.

According to Principal Leleck, “The reason Broad Acres succeeded was teacher leadership; and everyone holding themselves accountable for every student.”
I have to refer again to a Solution Tree (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker) PLC conference that I attended a little over a year ago. One of Robert Eaker’s sessions was titled, “The Role of the Central Office: Assisting Schools to Become Professional Learning Communities” (2009). He discussed the concept of a district-wide culture that is simultaneously "loose" and "tight."

Central Office Leaders Must Be Tight

We must be “tight” on the fundamental purpose of the organization (learning) and a few big ideas – insisting that those within the organization act in ways consistent with those concepts and demanding that the district align all of its practices and programs with them.” – Rick DuFour

Central Office Leaders Must Be Loose

We must encourage individual and organizational autonomy in the day-to-day operations… This autonomy is not characterized by random acts of innovation, but rather is guided by the carefully defined parameters that give focus and direction…

I think we can apply this to school leaders as well as central office leaders – tight on the big ideas, essential conditions and objectives, and loose where individual autonomy and innovation (and collaborative efforts) can support and stay within the parameters of the larger construct. It may not completely reflect a transformational leadership model, but combined with continual reflection and refinement to strike the right balance, I think it may be a step in the right direction.


Eaker, R. (2009, July). The Role of the Central Office: Assisting Schools to Become Professional Learning Communities. Presented at Professional Learning Communities at Work 2009 Institute, Palm Springs, CA.

Robertson, S. (March 11, 2010). Collaboration results in transformation at Maryland School. NEA Priority Schools Campaign. Retrieved from (2007). The Transformational Leadership Report. Retrieved from:

1 comment:

  1. Your comment about how sobering it is when comparing leadership theories and ideals to real practice and implementation quality rings true across school districts nationally. In reading about leadership theories, it can become very intoxicating to latch on to the various ideals of each approach. Each one can make very good sense as you read and reflect in the comforts of home or office. However, as you pointed out, demographics, political climate,and educational policies all impact the context in which a schoolleader leads, making most situations principals confront complex. Seeking simple or lofty solutions will not adequately resolve the problem.

    The MCPS example portrays the artfulness needed in leading schools through difficult times. Weast confronts the status quo--strong principal reacts by building a coalition of student-centered teachers inspired by a vision of success. The back and forth between central office and the school provide a vivid example of transformational leadership working at both levels.