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Is transformational leadership effective in schools

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 2892 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The leadership behaviour of school principals is an important aspect of student performance and the general functioning of the school as a whole. The importance of high quality, effective leadership has been shown to be one of the major contributing factors leading to high performance in schools (Reynolds, 1991; Hallinger and Heck, 1999; Sammons et al, 1995). Several research studies have shown Effective leadership not only improves educational outcomes; it also ensures that disciplinary problems among students are addressed effectively. Two major leadership styles that have been predominantly used are transactional and transformational styles of leadership. While the former is predominantly an “instructional” style of leadership while a transformational approach tends to be more team based. In applying different models of leaders and various approaches to leadership, there has been a general consensus that school leadership differs from organizational leadership, hence a team based approach may be more suitable.

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School leadership essentially needs to combine leadership and management capabilities. Everard and Morris (1990) have laid out five stages of management, wherein setting goals, planning and organizing resources for the achievement of goals and implementing control and corrective procedures are important in achieving the desired objectives. In the context of transformational leadership styles, Bolman and Deal (1997) are of the view that “Poorly managed organizations with strong, charismatic leaders may soar temporarily only to crash shortly thereafter.” (Bolman and Deal, 1997: xiii-xiv). In the international context, cultural implications may also need to be taken into consideration in determining what kind of leadership style would be relevant.

On the basis of the above, the research question examined in this study is whether a transformational leadership style is really effective in schools?

Definitions of school leadership:

“Outstanding leadership has invariably emerged as a key characteristic of outstanding schools (Beare, Caldwell and Millikan, 1989:99). The concept of leadership itself however, is not easy to define. There is no “correct” definition (Cuban, 1988:190), but some of its constituent elements include the “process of influence”(Leithwood et al, 1999:6; Ogawa and Bossert, 1995:225-6), mostly a “social influence” (Yuki, 2002:3) that may be exercised by individuals or by teams (Harris, 2002; Leithwood, 2001).

The school as an organization is somewhat different from other organizations. As Mitchell and Tucker (1992) have pointed out, leadership has generally been viewed as the ability to take charge and ensure that the required objectives are met, which presents the quality of leadership as being somewhat aggressive. In the school environment however, such a view of leadership might not be entirely appropriate, because aggressive or “instructional” leadership would tend to ignore the benefits of teamwork or “transformational” leadership. With a school environment, leadership would be more about leaders extending invitations to the individuals and groups with whom they interact, in order to build “a shared and evolving vision of enhanced educational experiences for pupils.” (Stoll and Fink, 1996: 109).

Leadership theories and models:

Within an educational context, existing leadership practices for school leaders prior to the 1950s were focused upon the lessons to be learnt from the prior experiences of school administrators and their insights into effective practice methods on the basis of their personal experiences. (Heck and Hallinger, 2005). This approach was however inadequate and attention shifted to the need to apply scientific principles based on empiricism rather than on the basis of ideals or personal beliefs and experiences.

A transactional leadership style involves leaders who exchange tangible rewards for the work and the loyalty of their followers, thereby adopting a purely practical approach. Transformational leaders on the other hand, are able to motivate and inspire their followers and raise their consciousness about the desired objectives and outcomes, and how they could be achieved (Gellis, 2001; Judge and Piccolo, 2004). A later approach however, suggested that these two styles of leadership were not necessarily mutually exclusive; rather most good leaders appear to demonstrate some traits of both styles of leadership (Judge and Piccolo, 2004:755).

A transformational leadership style relies largely upon the personality of the leader and his or her capacity to inspire and motivate followers. As Everard and Morris (1985) have pointed out within the school context however, an important task in an educational institution is the “reconciliation of value systems” of different people in such a manner that a clear statement of aims and beliefs is derived, to which a “majority of the stakeholders can subscribe.” (Everard and Morris, 1985:142). This must also be coupled with a clear, educationally focused vision, which articulates a “realistic, credible, attractive” future for the organization (Deal and Peterson, 1994). While the input, vision and ideals of the principal are important, the school context requires “bringing together the ideas and commitments of a variety of people who have a stake in the success of the school.” (Tom Sergiovanni, 1987). As Beare, Caldwell and Millikan (1989) have stated, outstanding leaders are those who have a vision for their school, but they also share this mental picture with everyone in the school community.

The vision of the principal is vital because it serves as a pointer to the direction in which the school should go; however, if this vision is the principal’s alone and is not shared by the other members of the organization, then staff and students may tend to merely go through the motions rather than actually supporting the vision and being deeply committed to it.

As Hopkins has pointed out, effective school leadership must embrace both the distinctive aspects of the school which set it apart, as well as the inclusive context of the school, which fosters unity of purpose. He points out that there are two aspects to leadership – the first is the policy that one size fits all while on the other hand, is the claim that because each institution is unique and different, it cannot learn from the experiences of another institution. This principle may be fallacious and school leadership may need to adopt a policy of adapt practices that have been proven to be effective elsewhere and incorporate it within the specific context of their own schools. On this basis, he has suggested policy that school leadership must include both the distinctive and inclusive context of the school. This implies that (a) the context of the school must be embraced in its entirety before any practices proven elsewhere can be incorporated and (b) the particular mix of skills required in school leadership will differ from one context to the other.

The contingency model of leadership specifically stipulates that in terms of its contextual variables, each school is unique. Although the homogeneity associated with globalisation tend to produce an assumption that a uniform leadership style may successfully be applied to all schools, this perception may not be strictly correct. Rather, as Dimmock and Walker have suggested, policies and practices should not be imported without “due consideration of cultural and contextual appropriateness” (Dimmock and Walker, 2000:144). Furthermore, Dimmer and Walker (2005) point out that globalization has produced phenomena such as distance education, which has produced an ethnocentric view of educational leadership issues, centred upon issues that are relevant in the US and the UK. But with the globalization of education, indicated that there may be a need to develop a cross cultural, international perspective of educational leadership and management.

Another model proposed for educational leadership is the Leadership for Learning model, which is based upon a set of well defined principles that can be used to guide schools, their leaders and school districts in achieving high performance standards and sustaining learning (www.cebe.us) The basic principles associated with this model are as follows: (a) a focus on learning, i.e., learning is personalized and occurs in multiple contexts (b) creates setting to promote learning, i.e., providing multiple opportunities for learning and reflections on its nature (c) shares leadership, i.e., invites participation in leadership (d) promotes explicit conversations about leadership and learning, i.e., strengthening the relationship between the two and (e) incorporates mutual accountability, i.e., involving all stakeholders in making judgments about practice and outcomes.

The transformational approach applied in schools:

Barnett et al (2001) carried out a study in several state secondary schools in Wales, in which they investigated the relationship that existed between the transactional versus the transformational styles of leadership of the principals, taking into account the school outcomes as well as the school learning culture. The findings in this study suggested that contrary to what was expected, teacher outcomes such as satisfaction, extra effort and the perception of leader effectiveness were not positive where transformational leadership style were concerned. Rather, transformational leadership behaviour on the part of the principal, in terms of his or her vision and inspiration produced a significant negative association, both with teacher outcomes as well as with student learning culture.

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A transformational leadership style was however found to be quite effective in bringing about changed practices in teachers in a Dutch study which investigated the impact of this leadership style in the context of innovation programs. (Geijsel et al, 1999) This study showed that there were three significant dimensions to a transformational leadership style in school leadership, i.e., vision, individual consideration and intellectual stimulation. These three aspects were analyzed in relation to how they influenced teacher concerns, teachers’ learning activities and teachers’ changed practices. The results showed that a transformational leadership style in school principals appeared to be quite effective in fostering innovative practices and bringing about changes in teacher practices.

The direct effect of a transformational leadership style of principals on school staff turnover and school performance was examined in a study carried out by Griffin (2004). The data relied upon for deriving the findings in this study were (a) survey data from elementary school students and teachers and (b) student achievement test scores, derived from the student archives. This study did not demonstrate a direct positive or negative impact of transformational leadership on either student achievement scores or on the turnover of school staff. Principal transformational leadership showed a positive indirect impact on the job satisfaction of staff members and student achievement scores, which it had an indirect negative impact on staff turnover in terms of reducing the levels of staff turnover and thereby indicating that staff turnover had actually reduced as a result of the principal’s leadership style. Since the principal’s transformational style also produced a smaller gap between the achievements of minority and non minority students, this further contributed to high job satisfaction levels.

A new leadership paradigm:

The skills of leadership are even more important in a changing world. As Dilts (no date) points out, most of the existing literature on leadership focuses upon the characteristics of good leaders, but such characteristics are too vague and general to be of much use. Examining effective leadership styles within the business context may also be ineffective in a school environment, because the organization is geared towards profit making, while schools are geared towards imparting a strong educational foundation for students that does not merely include academic achievement. According to Dilts, effective leadership covers a variety of skills, including self skills, relational skills, strategic and systemic thinking skills and involves a mastery of various elements such as self, relationship, communication and problem space.

On this basis, Dilts states that effective leadership in schools needs to address all of three different levels (a) micro leadership, i.e., issues at the levels of environment, behaviour and capability (b) macro leadership, or issues at the level of beliefs, values and role identity and (c) meta leadership or the levels of spirit and identity.

Similarly, Dimmer and Walker (2005) have pointed out the need to incorporate cultural elements into the study of school leadership, especially in the context of globalization. They have put forward five propositions to map the direction of future cross cultural research into educational leadership and management. The essence of these propositions is that there is a need to develop “a systematic, robust, comparative branch of educational leadership and management” (Dimmer and Walker, 2005:198). The concept of culture must be clearly defined in order to avoid an over-simplified portrayal of societal differences as Western/Asian. Moreover, it could be difficult to successfully apply transformational leadership styles across different cultures, while a transactional approach that is based upon a simple system of incentives and rewards for the production of certain specific educational outcomes that are measured through tests, is much easier to apply.

Bush has outlined different kinds of preparatory programs that principals are expected to take up. Daresh and Male (2000) carried out a comparative study of first year principals in Britain and the United States and point out that a significant culture shock is associated with moving into being the head of an institutional institution. “Nothing could prepare the respondents….. For the change of perceptions of others or for the intensity of the job. (Daresh and Male, 2000:95). The major differences between leadership programs for principals in different countries is that some of them require a formal qualification for the position, while in others, this qualification is not mandatory and extensive teaching experience is used as the criterion for appointment.


The research question that has been posed in this study is whether a transformational educational leadership style is really effective in educational leadership. In order to assess the efficacy of transformational leadership in education, the literature review above has also shown the need to incorporate cultural perspectives and the level of formal training principals receive. This aspect is especially relevant because not all administrators are able to inspire staff and students or fully understand their concerns. An approach to leadership that is derived purely on the basis of past experiences may also not be effective in the present day content. The transactional style of leadership may be effective in terms of applying measurable incentives in achieving the desired outcomes. Theoretically, a transformational approach should be more effective in providing a more successful educational leadership, but as shown above, in actual practice this might not necessarily be the case. The vision and direction of the transformational approach must necessarily be participative if it is to be truly effective. If the vision for the school is purely the principal’s, then it is not likely to be successful in securing the commitment of the staff and students and may actually produce negative outcomes, especially when it fails to incorporate the cultural perspective.

The Leadership for learning model appears to be the most relevant in the school context and it does incorporate a transformational approach in that it focuses on the context of learning; however most importantly, it also provides for a shared leadership. This indicates that the schools would need to develop a common vision and goals based upon the active participation of the principal, teachers and the students. This is the important aspect of transformational leadership which must be introduced if it is to be successful, i.e., the participative element. It could be successful in bringing about necessary changes in both students and teachers and also achieving the desired grades and educational outcomes, if the processes and procedures which are developed are based upon a common vision and common goals which the principal develops in association and with the active participation of all members of a school community, This would ensure commitment from everyone towards achieving those goals.


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