Sunday, December 18, 2016

Leadership Transformed

For every education professional, adversity is a constant reality: lack of time, not enough resources, outdated facilities, resistant staff, and a slew of mandates/directives, to name a few. It can be difficult at times to envision and implement progressive change when you feel buried by these challenges. I wish I could tell you that these daily demands will dissipate in the near future, but that would create an allure of false hope.  Instead, I will tell you what, in my opinion, is the greatest adversary we as leaders face: our own mindset.  

The human brain is wired to keep us safe, and as a result we often become averse to change. The status quo and our personal comfort zones create a perceived safety net that is difficult for many leaders to break free from. In many cases, we teach the way we were taught and lead the way we were led;  our past experiences often dictate or influence professional practice. When this mindset is combined with silos that have been erected to protect organizations from information and new ideas, it becomes more clear as to why transformational change is often just an idea that never gets put into motion.

We must take a critical look at the effect fixed mindsets can have on a learning culture. Shifting our mindset begins with a renewed focus on our senses. As leaders, we must constantly make observations and own what we see. One important reflection point: is your school is preparing students for life or only to do well in school?  Just as important as observing the reality is listening, not just hearing your stakeholders. When leaders don’t listen, people will shut down and withdraw. Saying no or refusing to embrace new ideas has become the safe bet against unwanted risk in a time of disruptive change. However, the unfortunate result is a dramatic decrease in motivation, enthusiasm, willingness to innovate, and respect for one’s ability to lead. 

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; and by focusing on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah, but’s.”  This is where a growth mindset begins to reap professional rewards.  Leaders who shift to a growth mindset:

  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as the path to mastery
  • Learn from criticism
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

When leaders shift to a growth mindset, the foundation is set to really transform learning cultures. Transformational leadership is the collaborative responsibility for taking action to reach future-oriented goals while meeting the intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of each student. Transformational leaders consistently make observations, listen intently, leverage a growth mindset, and most importantly, take action to improve the organization. These leaders:

  • Focus on vision and empowerment.
  • Embrace risk to facilitate change
  • Engage in future-focused problem-solving to create learning opportunities
  • Adapt to situations effectively
  • Develop and articulate a vision about the future needs of students to ensure that all stakeholders are using the same language about leadership in the school
  • Work with people in a manner that ignites their passions, talents, and desires to attain a shared vision

The Transformational Leadership Framework above that we have developed at the International Center for Leadership in Education has four quadrants.  The vertical axis is the vision continuum, or the level of thinking about what is important in a school.  At its lowest level—quadrant A—leaders are authoritative and focus on school rules, practices, and the management of day-to-day tasks. At higher levels, leaders anticipate the future and consider what skills and knowledge students will need and what should be added to current programs and services to help students succeed. 

The horizontal axis is the empowerment continuum. On the left side, leaders execute leadership practices more unilaterally, making decisions and solving day-to-day problems themselves. Moving to the right, leadership shifts from the actions of a single leader to decision making by a leadership team to distributed leadership throughout the district or school.

There is no such thing as a perfect leader, school or district. Each day we have the opportunity to improve professional practice to create a better learning culture for students and educators. Think about your own practice and the steps you can take to make transformation a reality instead of an overused buzzword. 


  1. The first step is to unlearn many things.

  2. Hi Eric,

    I had the opportunity to hear you present at ICE at the beginning of March 2017. Thank you for an inspiring and engaging speech about the students we are teaching in our classrooms today.

    We recently discussed transformational leaders in my current teacher leadership grad class. One main discussion revolved around inspiration. Inspiration fits well with your last bullet point about transformational leader qualities- igniting passions, talents, and shared visions. Transformational leaders need to inspire teachers to embrace risks and passions, inspire principals to foster the culture for change agents and inspire students to grow. Without the ability to inspire, are they a leader at all?

    The quadrant chart you provided is a great visual for understanding your own leadership style and how to begin addressing the action needed to become transformational in and out of your classroom.

    Thanks for a great post!

    1. So true Rachel! Inspiration is interwoven into virtually all of the more concrete qualities possessed by transformational leaders. In addition to what you mentioned, I believe modeling is one of the best ways to inspire others to embrace change.

  3. Excellent quadrant. Transformation is possible by thought provoking n absorbing ways. It is through all the four quadrants based upon the learning situations. Creative styles are impressive when the focus is not deviated from what should be learnt.For example if movies have influence it should be through the story n character n not the whole attention on the actor as to how well he acted or how much was he paid.Where do we find such discussions about stories or movies that are inspiring or as role modeling.Having specific goal to help students in a specific attribute and achieving it by the right approach is the responsibility of leadership.