Transformational leadership goes beyond the conventional transactional leadership approach. It inspires people to achieve unexpected or remarkable results by focusing on creating a shared vision, empowering individuals, fostering innovation, and inspiring others to achieve higher levels of performance and personal growth.
Being a transformational leader begins with being transformed personally, shaking oneself free of the patterns of leadership experienced in the past and ‘becoming’ the sort of person you need to be to lead in transformational ways.
In my keynote presentation at the Learning Environments Australasia conference in Christchurch I referred to what I call the Four Cs of transformational leadership, and have been asked since to expand a little on my thinking here – so this blog post is an attempt to do that.
By clarity I mean the deep understanding of one’s own beliefs and the factors that shape those beliefs.
In his book, The Four Pivots, Shawn Ginwright comments that most of us live our lives with very little self-reflection, and as a result, we end up working with an outwardly focused perception of how the world works. He argues that this is why we often see toxic, blame-driven behaviours in our work environments.
Ginwright encourages the practice of what he calls ‘mirror work’, a disciplined approach to taking stock of what’s going on inside. He says…
“When we practice mirror work.. and truth telling, we arrive at clarity. Clarity can be defined as a state of vivid and transparent certainty, which illuminates an unambiguous path toward a desired goal or direction.”Shawn Ginwright, Four Pillars, p.73
Educational leaders need to invest time and effort in self-reflection and introspection to gain clarity about their values, purpose, and goals. This process involves examining personal biases, exploring educational research and best practices, and considering the needs and aspirations of the students, teachers, and community they serve. By attaining clarity, leaders can articulate a compelling vision and rationale for change, enabling them to communicate effectively and inspire others.
Achieving this level of personal clarity creates opportunities for the development of deep conviction and motivation. By conviction here I mean the unwavering belief in the importance of the educational transformation you seek to achieve. Such conviction becomes the driving force to overcome obstacles and persevere in the face of challenges. This conviction emanates from a deep understanding of the potential impact of the transformation on student learning and achievement, and the belief that it is the right path to follow. As Mahatma Ghandi is quoted as saying: “
A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.“
Leaders with conviction can therefore inspire and motivate others, building a shared sense of purpose and commitment. Their conviction can become ‘infectious’.
In his book, The Courage to Lead, Brian Stanfield argues that the complexity of our world can paralyse even the most committed individuals in their efforts to bring about social change. But being an agent of change does not mean we have to start a revolution-it can be done in small ways, wherever and whenever.
Implementing transformational approaches often involves navigating unfamiliar territories, taking risks, and challenging the status quo.
When we dare to lead, we don’t pretend to have the right answers; we stay curious and ask the right questions.
Brene Brown, Dare to Lead
Educational leaders need courage to face opposition, confront resistance, and overcome obstacles. This requires the development of personal qualities, such as resilience, empathy, and effective communication skills. Courageous leaders are willing to question existing practices, make difficult decisions, and advocate for change even in the face of pushback. They foster a culture of innovation, openness to new ideas, and a willingness to learn from failures.
“If you want to be successful in a particular field of endeavor, I think perseverance is one of the key qualities. It’s very important that you find something that you care about, that you have a deep passion for, because you’re going to have to devote a lot of your life to it.”George Lucas
From my experience transformational change in education doesn’t happen quickly. It takes time and requires sustained effort. Transformational leaders must therefore be prepared to demonstrate long-term commitment to the vision and goals they set.
I am saddened sometimes to hear of situations where an inspirational leader departs just as things appear to be getting started, sometimes to move onto the ‘next challenge’, or at other times because they’ve struck opposition or attack. I’ve seen this a number of times with the establishment of new schools, where the establishment principal is there for just the first few years, during the period where everything is tantalisingly new and exciting – but then another opportunity draws them away and things have to start over again.
I know that in making this comment there’ll be pushback from some who have found they need to leave because of the sheer exhaustion of navigating those start-up years, or from others who’ll argue that they deliberately set about to encourage the next leaders to take over etc. and I do acknowledge that every context will different, and that finding this balance can be difficult. The point I’m making is simply this, that the commitment to ‘see things through’ is a key quality of an effective transformational leader.
Such leaders will commit to fostering a culture of continuous improvement, where goals are regularly revisited and refined based on feedback and evidence. They will invest in professional development for themselves and their staff, allocate resources effectively, and provide the necessary support and guidance to sustain change efforts. Most importantly, they will remain focused on the long-term impact and be prepared to adjust strategies as needed while staying true to the overarching vision.
When transformational leaders remain committed to their leadership positions, it brings stability, continuity, long-term vision, team cohesion, talent attraction and retention, adaptability, and a positive organisational culture. This commitment has a ripple effect, inspiring others to share the same level of dedication and contributing to the organisation’s overall success.
I’m sure there may be other characteristics that could be suggested here, but in my thinking and reading on the topic, this simple sequence captures the essence of what I believe is required for transformational leadership. A ‘litmus test’ for my thinking is to consider the many areas of weakness or failure in our education system or schools at present, and it will generally boil down to one or a combination of these things.
Sadly, the combination of short political cycles, our appalling descent into ‘blame’ politics, the loss of ‘professionalism’ in our profession and a lack of an inspired and rigorous approach to developing and supporting our leaders as part of a strategic ‘whole’ within our education system are all factors that make it difficult for these four qualities to emerge.
But, as Ghandi is quoted as saying, “the longest journey begins with the first step” – so I encourage any who are seeking to pursue a transformational approach to leadership, whether that is at a system, school or classroom level, to reflect on the four characteristics above and consider how to apply them at a personal level.