Transformational schools and transformational leadership are terms easily and readily applied to educational institutions and leaders who are perceived, but not often verified, to have experienced or facilitated positive changes.

Transformational schools and transformational leadership are terms easily and readily applied to educational institutions and leaders who are perceived, but not often verified, to have experienced or facilitated positive changes. An improved school climate, increased student achievement, more involved stakeholders, more rigorous instruction, and/or fluid and transparent communications are expected to occur instantaneously and boldly once the label “underperforming” is attached to a school or leader. No matter the governing body, geographical region, or setting of an underperforming school, there is a common belief that the leader (singular) is solely responsible for changes to occur. This common belief is partly correct; however, transformation requires the leadership of more than one individual for pervasive and lasting change. Transformational leadership is not limited to the building principal or the school system superintendent; all educators in a building or school system must contribute to the evolution from an underperforming school or system to an effective school or system. To understand better transformational leadership, a quick trip back in time is needed.

Transformational Leadership Theory

Although extensive research conducted over four decades concludes that more research is needed to increase our understanding of leadership, a significant knowledge base has been established from which we can glean effective practices to influence and improve one’s leadership skills, especially in organizations that need improvement. Transformational leadership, a popular leadership theory, has research roots as early as 1978 when James McGregor Burns, considered the founder of modern leadership theory, defined a transformational leader as one who “looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower.” Although this model of leadership was developed for political leaders and without empirical evidence, it influenced other researchers to further conceptualize and make the model applicable to business and education. For example, Bass and Avolio (1994) and Leithwood (1994) developed the transformational leadership model for education, with a primary focus on school principals. Leithwood, Begley, and Cousins (1994), defined transformational leadership as leadership that “implies major changes in the form, nature, function and/or potential of some phenomenon; applied to leadership, it specifies general ends to be pursued although it is largely mute with respect to means.” Later, Bass (1998) continued to research this theory and determined that transformational leaders are judged by their impact on followers in the areas of trust, admiration, and respect.

Seven discrete characteristics of transformational leaders (or dimensions) were formulated by Leithwood (1994):

  1. building school vision and establishing goals,
  2. creating a productive school culture,
  3. providing intellectual stimulation,
  4. offering individualized support,
  5. modeling best practices and important organizational values
  6. demonstrating high-performance expectations, and
  7. developing structures to foster participation in school decisions.

These seven dimensions or characteristics for transformational leadership clearly align to the AdvancED Standards for Quality (see table below):

Skills and Characteristics of Transformational Leaders and AdvancED Standards for Quality

So, what is the connection between Leithwood’s dimensions of transformational leadership and the AdvancED Standards for Quality? Generally regarded and respected as research and practitioner-based quality practices essential to achieve improved student performance and organizational effectiveness, the Standards are adaptable as transformational leadership behaviors or practices. After comparing the research on transformational leadership to AdvancED’s Standard statements, the extrapolation can be made that if a leader internalizes, exemplifies, and implements the Standards, a leader could be characterized as a transformational leader who achieves lasting results. Practical examples of how the AdvancED Standards promote transformational leadership, through a leadership perspective, will bring life to this notion.

Teaching and Assessing for Learning (Standard 3) states, “the school’s curriculum, instructional design, and assessment practices guide and ensure teacher effectiveness and student learning.” From a leadership lens, this Standard means the leader of a classroom, department, school or school system performs as the instructional leader to ensure high-quality teaching and improved student learning. Another example is apparent in the Standard that describes the importance of a school’s purpose and direction (Standard 1) and is supported by the dimension “building school vision and establishing school goals” (Leithwood, 1994). Almost all leadership literature and research state an effective and successful organization has a clear and purposeful direction that embodies the values and beliefs of the stakeholders. This adaptation continues to demonstrate how each Standard statement interpreted through the leadership lens and effectively applied, can transform a school or a school system. The logic is simple, consistent, and rational: if the AdvancED Standards are implemented with fidelity as a process for continuous improvement or sustained transformation, then the Standards are a process for leaders to become or refine their skills as transformational leaders. It is just a matter of perspective.

Transformational Leadership and Systems Thinking

In the introduction, it was stated that the transformation of an underperforming school or school system requires the leadership of more than one individual. Staying true to research, for transformation to occur in an underperforming school or school system, then leaders must act as system thinkers. True transformation happens not in silo-structured organizations, but in organizations that respect all of their elements, maintain their interconnectedness, and have a common purpose. Systems thinking serves as the conceptual framework for the AdvancED Standards for Quality, evident in the focus on continuous improvement and the interdependency of one Standard with another. Systems thinking is pervasive in the Standards, and is directly stated or strongly implied throughout, making it easy for leaders to follow, as exemplified in Standard 3.2, “Curriculum, instruction, and assessment are monitored and adjusted systematically in response to data from multiple assessments of student learning and an examination of professional practice.” Simply stated, a transformational leader must establish and ensure that the elements of the system (curriculum, instruction, and assessment) connect and align to the organization’s purpose. Furthermore, a report that examined the top 20 school systems in the world concluded that all parts of a school system must properly function in order to produce desired outcomes for sustainable improvement, (Mourshed, Chijike, and Barber, 2010). Fullan (2011, p. 51), stated, “all schools in a district must be treated as part of a single system” and “changing one school at a time is no longer an option for countries that want to compete internationally.” Perhaps Reeves (2009, p. 5) more elegantly promotes systems thinking for transformational leadership by stating, “…each star in a firmament holds an essential place, and without it, a constellation would be diminished.”

Simply stated, a transformational leader must establish and ensure that the elements of the system (curriculum, instruction, and assessment) connect and align to the organization’s purpose.

Leaders, regardless of their roles, want lasting results for the organizations they serve. They are expected to implement changes or reforms that have direct, immediate, and lasting impacts on student achievement — a task not easily accomplished without practicing systems thinking and implementing a process for continuous improvement. Everyone who serves in a leadership capacity in a school or school system fully realizes that regardless of the size, configuration, or challenges, positive change can occur for a short period of time. Transformational leaders however, make lasting, widespread improvement by following a process that ensures all parts of the school or system are connected and share a common purpose (systems thinking). The AdvancED Standards, based on systems thinking and educational research, are best practices for school improvement and transformational leaders. It is just a matter of perspective.


AdvancED. (2011). Standards for Quality.

Bass, B. (1998). Transformational leadership: Industry, military, and educational impact. Mahwah, NJ: Eribaum Associates.

Bass, B, & Avolio, B. (eds.) (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.

Fullan, M. (2011). Coaches as system leaders, Educational Leadership, 69, (2), 50-53.

Hargreaves, A., Fink, D. (2006). Sustainable leadership. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Leithwood, K, Begley, P. T, & Cousins, J.B. (1994). Developing expert leadership for future schools. London: Falmer.

Leithwood, K., & Riehl, C. (2003). What we know about successful school leadership. Philadelphia: Temple University Laboratory for Student Success.

Mourshed, M., Chijike, C., & Barber, M. (2010). How the world’s most improved school systems kept getting better. McKinsey Quarterly.

Reeves, D. (2009). Leading change in your school. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Vicki Denmark, Ph.D.
Dr. Vicki Denmark previously served as the Chief Architect at Cognia. Dr. Denmark oversaw the design and development of solutions and resources for educational institutions to improve organizationally and most importantly, for students. She served as the subject matter expert for products, content, and solutions and identifies new opportunities that lead to innovative solutions for institutions. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from Georgia State University.