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Learn the new language of transformational leadership

Learning to be a transformational rather than a transactional leader requires learning a whole new language and approach.

7 min read

Educational Leadership

transformational leadership


Our current reality in the education landscape has changed dramatically, and many leaders and school districts are lost. We see examples around the country where the public is pulling away from public schools. Although many leaders want to apply the concept of transformational and adaptive leadership, we need to dramatically alter our approach to keep up with the times. We need to learn the new language of transformational leadership. 

transformational leadership

Here’s the context: Even transformational leaders are unintentionally using language that communicates a transactional intent. This creates tremendous difficulties for the leaders, their organizations and the communities they serve. 

I have spent the last 18 years as a public school superintendent studying the language leaders use, and when their use of it is most impactful, identifying a new language of transformational leadership.

Why the old language of transformational leadership no longer works

The language of transformational leadership has changed largely because of the ubiquitous availability of information. Anything can be looked up in an instant. Everyone has Google in their pocket. For leaders, this everyone-is-an-expert mentality means that the most important decision they make is whether they are solving a complicated problem or a complex problem

Complicated problems have one right answer and require a certain expertise to solve. Schools have myriad complicated tasks and problems. School finance, human resources, curriculum deployment, and calendar and schedule creation are just some examples of the complicated work we do in schools. 

The answers to complex problems, on the other hand, are inherently unknowable. There isn’t one right answer. The best way to educate kids during a global pandemic is a complex problem. In the world of the complex, we must learn this new language of transformational leadership

Forget buy-in — go for ownership

Unfortunately, many leaders still perceive most, if not all, problems as complicated. Many are doing this unintentionally. As an example, most districts perceive curriculum adoption as complicated. Within the typical process, a group meets to make an informed decision, which it then brings to the staff in an effort to get “buy-in” and “engagement.” 

These words are transactional. Buy-in sends the message that you have solved the problem (because you’re smart or have the right answer or have a privileged view of reality) and that others must support the solution. If you are selling something and expecting someone else to buy, it is a transactional relationship. 

Through actions and words like these, leaders who genuinely want to be transformational undermine themselves by clearly sending a message that their decisions are transactional and based on power dynamics. By contrast, the transformational leader eschews these words and instead chooses “ownership.” Ownership is a paradigm shift from buy-in. Ownership requires us to go to the staff before any decisions have been made — with tremendous vulnerability, recognizing there is more than one right answer — because collectively we make better decisions together. This demonstrates our belief that those most affected by a decision should have the greatest voice in that decision. Instead of starting with an answer, the leader starts with a question.

Query others at the start, not the middle or end

Other examples of complex problems include anything related to bonds, opening schools, closing schools or changing boundary lines. Wie can find administrators who treat every one of these as complicated decisions. They yield to their inclination to rely on a small group of people, rationalizing it through a belief that these decisions require a certain level of expertise. These administrators will use the word “openness” in decision-making, but that isn’t accurate. 

transformational leadership
Involve the community early. (Poptech/Creative Commons)

Let’s say your district is reconfiguring enrollment for its elementary schools after a period of growth, because some are above 100% capacity and others have space available. You could simply draw new lines. But if you want the community to understand the issue, you would first talk about how the staff and students are suffering due to overcrowded buildings and classrooms. Then you would invite questions and concerns through town hall forums, social media outlets, local news, email, personal conversations and so on. You wouldn’t just guestimate on the feedback — you’d use a digital tool to ensure you are crowdsourcing effectively and not being inundated with the loudest voices. 

When it’s time for a decision, no one will be able to claim they didn’t have an opportunity for their voice to be heard. You will be able to lift up thousands of points of interaction. You’ll also have better insights into your community’s values and concerns. That allows you to address them as you change the boundary lines and communicate the decisions to the public. 

Vulnerability, transparency and accessibility

Decisions about issues like bonds and boundaries are unknowable, which is why solutions sometimes work and sometimes don’t. A transformational leader recognizes these as complex, which means starting with the community and in a state of vulnerability. Transformational leaders don’t talk about “openness.” Instead, they provide radical transparency and unprecedented levels of accessibility to both information and to people. The movement from openness to radical transparency is a move from transactional to transformational.

Professional development is a prime opportunity to start putting transformational leadership into practice. So many leaders see professional development as complicated and rely on power and hierarchy in their decisions. They tell new teachers what training must occur, offer professional development calendars and hire professional development experts. 

Although some of the work of professional development is complicated, other parts are complex. For example: What professional development would be most helpful for teachers now to close learning gaps? There is no one right answer to this question. 

Using networks, not hierarchies

The transformational leader recognizes the need to back away from power hierarchies and instead uses power networks. A network of crowdsourced teachers who are asked what professional development is needed now will generate a robust constellation of options. That lets the leader make a much more informed decision. This is transformational leadership in action, a movement away from hierarchies and towards networks. 

Through these examples, it’s easy to see how our words and actions can get in the way of our intentions. Transformational leadership requires us to learn and then speak a new language — after discerning when the context is appropriate for it. 

That’s the secret to transformational leadership. It is both quite simple and deceptively difficult. But to adjust to the current reality — and help our students thrive within it — leaders must learn this new language and know when to apply it.

Quintin Shepherd is the superintendent at Victoria Independent School District in Victoria, Texas. He and Sarah Williamson co-authored the new book The Secret to Transformational Leadership.


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