Transformational Leadership in Schools

A new school year is a fresh opportunity to revisit, reconnect, and reimagine your school’s mission and vision. It’s the perfect time to open up your leadership practice and share the work with your team to truly and sustainably make a change. Hear from the leading experts on school leadership to learn how to become a transformational leader for your learning community!

By Jennifer Gunn 

What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership in schools is when a leader empowers members of the learning community to improve from within. The transformational leader does not simply run a school, merely keeping it afloat. Instead, such leaders seek to make things better through genuine collaboration between the school’s members and stakeholders.

Transformational leadership fosters autonomy in all individuals, empowering them to problem-solve and innovate without seeking permission. Traditionally speaking, some schools continue to place emphasis on hierarchical leadership models where top-down decision-making reigns, often negatively impacting teacher motivation as they may be left feeling that their voice doesn’t matter. Within a school where transformational leadership flourishes, individuals are confident that their voice matters, elevating collective efficacy and increasing learner achievement.

Transformational leaders are captains who trust their crew to help design and carry out improvement. They create a culture of innovation and motivate teachers and students to continuously progress, ever aiming to create the best learning environment for students.

Fearless leaders need the self-confidence and courage that allows them to reach out to others. They are acutely aware that transformation is not a one-person performance, that they must take aim at their goals not as lone heroes but as members of a unified effort.  They realize that their role is to be present, to show up for students, staff, and community and then to get out of the way to allow students, staff, and community to take up the challenge. They make the structural and institutional arrangements that promote risk-taking and alter the culture of the school.

Challenge the status quo

Transformational leadership begins by getting reflective. School leaders and teachers often rely on tried and true practices that may be comfortable, but ineffective. To truly transform a community we must question and sometimes abandon habits, beliefs, practices, and mindsets that no longer work.

A shift in mindset empowers leaders to create change, not respond to change. It is this shift that can begin to lay the foundation for transformation. How do we do this? By beginning to challenge the way things are done; by replacing the word ‘no’ with the word ‘yes’ more often.

Leaders can start to pioneer change by reflecting upon and identifying their current practices and then considering how to challenge them to make room for new ideas and methods.

Build together, day by day

It would be amazing if we could stop time and have the hours and headspace to truly get things done, but the reality is schools don’t stop. Transformational leaders need to be able to rebuild the ship from the inside out.

There will never be a perfect or less-chaotic time to start to change the way things are done. The work has to happen in the midst of the commotion, keeping your school’s culture and values at the forefront of this collaborative effort. How can you start? Identify goals with your team and create a series of steps and a timeline.

Set and stick to meeting times with your staff to discuss and work on these goals even when daily challenges make it difficult. Reflect at the end of each day. Check in to make sure you’re progressing and not reverting back to what’s familiar. Keep encouraging your staff to continue the work and celebrate successes.

Be intentional, not reactive

On any given day, a school leader is pulled in many unpredictable directions -usually due to immediate needs that can’t be ignored. This constancy can lead to a habit of jumping from crisis to crisis with no real mission or underlying progress.

Be clear about your school’s goals, beliefs, practices, and long-term innovations. When we pour our focus into our mission, the commotion and confusion decrease as the culture solidifies. As emergencies arise, view and handle them through the lens of your transformational work. Consider ways that you can advance your practice so that you are an example of growth.

Be ethical and compassionate

Transactional leaders rely on fear and reward to get their staff to function and produce results. However, transformational leaders emphasize collaboration, ethics, and compassion to form a collective momentum to grow and succeed.

Relationships rooted in trust, respect, and compassion can take a nice school and make it an extraordinary space where excitement and passion become palpable.

 Foster trust by being collaborative.

Decisions should rarely be made in isolation; instead, all members of the school community should have some voice, and it is your responsibility to listen to others — to be present -in order to broaden your perspective and make the best decisions possible. Maintaining that trust sustains the work. Transformational leaders take time to develop trust and understand their team’s talent.

Patience and dedication truly pay off.