Sometimes effective school leaders are described as being transformational, but what does this term really mean? For over a quarter of a century leadership has been characterised in much of the literature in terms of the twin contrasting concepts of transformational leadership and transactional leadership. Many writers cite the work of Burns (1978) as being seminal in making this distinction between the two and in particular in the development of the thinking and approach to transformational leadership. In this section we will look at transformational leadership, and in the next section at transactional leadership.
There are a number of features that characterise transformational leadership.
First, at the heart of transformational leadership is a creative, dynamic relationship between leaders and followers. It entails a fundamental change in the organisation, inspired by leaders, which in particular focuses on establishing a new relationship with followers to bring about this change. A fundamental precept of transformational leadership is that leadership is not just the preserve of the few in a hierarchical position, but works through other people. So:
Leadership is not just the province of people at the top. Leadership can occur at all levels and by any individual. In fact, we see that it is important for leaders to develop leadership in those below them. This notion is at the heart of the paradigm of transformational leadership.
(Bass and Riggio, 2006; p.2).
Next, a significant recurring emphasis is that transformational leadership not only assumes high performance expectations but also inspires followers to higher levels of commitment and achievement, often beyond what they thought possible. Transformational leaders are great motivators who enable colleagues to understand and ’buy into‘ the purposes and journey of their school:
Transformational leaders motivate followers by raising their consciousness about the importance of organizational goals and by inspiring them to transcend their own self-interest for the sake of the organization.
(Marks and Printy, 2003; p.275)
The last quote highlights the important issues of values, needs and motivation which figure strongly within transformational leadership. The transformational leader focuses on vision and goals. By creating a sense of shared values the leader generates confidence among followers and a cohesion of trust and loyalty which has its dividends in common focus on goals and positive organisational outcomes. Bound up with this sense of the leader generating a common sense of values is ’inspirational motivation’ which Bass and Steidlmier (1999) see as one of the key components of ‘authentic transformational leadership’ (p.181).
In motivating followers to achieve ambitious outcomes it is also essentially future focussed; so transformational leadership is concerned less with ‘transforming what was’, but rather ‘forming what would be’ (Gunter, 2011; p.97). According to Burns and others who have built on this thinking, transformational leaders play a particularly significant role in engaging and indeed moulding the motivation of their followers: they ‘serve as an independent force in changing the makeup of the followers’ motive base through gratifying their motives’ (Burns, 1978; p.20).
They do this by recognising and utilising/exploiting the needs and wants of others in a way that brings about support for collective action. Those who advocate transformational approaches see this as a feature of inspirational leadership that brings about a synthesis and common purpose between leaders and followers. Indeed some would claim that it is precisely this form of transformational leadership that is needed in a modern era of increasingly autonomous schools:
In our view a powerful capacity for transformational leadership is required for the successful transition to a system of self-managing schools.
(Caldwell and Spinks, 1992; p.50).
Transformational leadership is often seen as very attractive because of its inspirational qualities. However for some it raises concerns about potential manipulation of followers and their needs, and of leaders imposing their values. Criticism of transformational leadership revolves around a possible tendency to exploit needs, resulting in a power imbalance that may be used to control teachers.
One of the ironies of the rise of transformational leadership is that while it has increased in response to the complexity and change demands of modern times, the present climate has also increased the possibilities for its abuse. Many see the present era as being a period of greater control and direction, particularly within the public sector, and this has led to the charge of the cynical use of transformational leadership by school leaders and politicians. The response made to these accusations about transformational leadership is that they take insufficient account of its clear moral dimension which guards against such potential abuse.
So, transformational leadership is founded on bringing about a different relationship between leader and follower. The following video clip is of an interview with James MacGregor Burns (external link). He reflects on how his views about transactional leadership grew out of his thinking about military contexts, and the dynamics of political interaction.
Consider what Burns says in the interview and in particular the quote below taken from the video.
I define leadership in a rather unique way . . . leadership is followership and followership is leadership, and the great leader creates more leaders of the people he or she works with and involves them in the work of the day, and gives them not only recognition but also gives them power and authenticity.
(Burns, 2010, video extract)
What is your view of Burns’ definition of leadership? To what extent do you think that this is practical as well as inspiring? What would ‘leadership is followership and followership is leadership’ look like within a school context? Draw on your own experience to describe an example of such transformational leadership which gives followers ‘recognition, power and authenticity’.