Why Is Transformational Leadership So Elusive?

adsit80By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

Dale Lick’s very fine article talks about the importance of culture, transformational leadership, and staff development in creating effective educational change. Of the three, it can be argued that transformational leadership is the most important, for such leadership is critical to bringing about the kind of staff development that can change the culture of a school. Unfortunately, finding such leadership seems to be the most elusive aspect of educational change. When we look to see why, we realize that it is actually the current culture that is most important, for it makes transformational leadership impossible.

In Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Howard Gardner describes the skills and qualities of effective leadership, and he provides a series of biographical sketches to illustrate his points. As I read them, I drew an ironic conclusion about leadership that was different from (although not contradictory to) his thesis: people who display the potential for transformational leadership are generally disqualified from being transformational leaders.

leading_mindsLet’s look at one of Gardner’s examples. He chronicles the life of an obscure Italian priest named Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli, whose lifetime journals showed that at an early age he resolved to live his life so that no one would ever doubt his allegiance to the existing order of the Catholic Church. By doing absolutely nothing of note throughout his life, he found himself in his old age among the College of Cardinals, helping to elect a Pope. The Cardinals debated and voted for days and could not agree, because all of the nominated candidates were too controversial, too likely to rock the boat in one direction or another. Roncalli’s journals show that he well understood that when his peers finally elected him Pope, they were in effect tabling the motion by electing an aged and nondescript man who would do nothing in the few years of his reign, after which the debate could be renewed.

After his election, Roncalli took the name John XXIII, convened the second Vatican Council, and provided the transformative leadership that brought the greatest change to the church in centuries. If the Cardinals had had any inkling he would have done that, they never would have elected him, and he would have died in obscurity.

This election process is almost exactly what happens in the world of education. When a K-12 school needs a new principal or a college needs a new president, some kind of a search committee is formed to oversee the process and select the new leader. Who sits on this committee? Although the process is different in different schools, the one constant is that the members of the committee are generally people who have been thriving under the outgoing leadership. They are at the heart of the current culture.

In their search and their interviews, they are not likely to be persuaded to favor a candidate who says, “If you choose me, I am really going to shake things up. You won’t recognize this place when I am done.” Such a leader can only come into a leadership by either disguising true potential (like Roncalli) or by being thrust upon the culture from outside. Lick accurately says that “without serious adsit27feb09aintervention, the culture always wins. This is cultural paralysis: the very culture that gives education its great stability also stands in the way, potentially inhibiting major progress in new directions.” It is hard enough for a transformational leader to change the culture within the system; it is impossible when a potential leader is never even given the role.

Years ago, the Annenberg Institute’s Re:Learning program had the opposite point of view, that such leadership was actually counterproductive to educational change, and they required a system that had school leadership hiding in the wings while change took place. Their own research showed that this approach was dead wrong, and that all their failed reforms (and they were many) were primarily due to this absence of leadership.

Today we know that reform efforts without transformational leaders are doomed. The only problem we have to solve is getting these leaders through the door. In one case I know of, a large school district violated its own policies when it learned to its horror that the principal search committee of a dysfunctional school was preparing to replace the principal with an assistant principal who promised to carry on the policies of the past. By forcing an unwanted reformer on that school, the district put that new leader in a challenging position, but she had the skills to pull it off eventually.

If we want transformational leadership, we must do something along those lines. We must deal effectively with that current culture before the new leader is even selected. We need policies that will force the leadship selection process to truly understand what is needed in transformational leadership and set its sights on such a person.

One Response

  1. “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

    Machiavelli, The Prince

    Few people would dispute that educational leadership has largely become the domain of PhD’s.


    1. Between 1960 and 1999, 59,212 doctorates were granted in educational administration, supervision, and leadership.

    2. During the same period, there were 655 doctorates granted in educational assessment, testing and measurement.

    3. During the same period, only 10,117 wre granted in higher education evaluation and research, 1,707 in educational measurement and statistics, and 1,148 in educational research methods.

    4. 23,082 were granted in curriculum and instruction.

    Statistical summary:

    1. Sub-disciplines of education in were nominal before the 1960 reporting period.

    2. 91% of all Doctorates granted were granted in the period from 1960 through the end of the century.

    3. 52% of Doctorates were granted in the period from 1980 and 1999.

    4. 99% of all Doctorates in Educational Administration were grated in the period of 1960 – 1999.

    5. 55% of all 21st century Doctorates in Education Administration were granted in the period of 1980-1999.

    6. Doctorates in Administration outnumbered Doctorates in curriculum 2.21 to 1.

    7. Doctorates in Administration outnumbered Doctorates in educational research, statistics, measurement, and research design by 17 to 1.

    8. Doctorates in Educational media design were outnumbered by Doctorates in Administration by 17 to 1.
    9. In the period of 1985 to 1999 there were “no” Doctorates granted in Educational measurement and statistics.


    1. Do the requirements for Doctorates include enough measurement, statistics, and research design to provide the required skills for current mandated decision processes? Most non-research graduate programs require 12 credit hours.

    2. Has there been the development of an administratively oriented bureaucracy in education?

    3. Should more attention be paid to curriculum development to foster innovation?

    4. How did education evolve into a PhD culture?

    5. Does this emphasis on theory serve the national goals?

    6. Can a person without a PhD have a successful career in P-20 education?
    7. Despite the increased number of PhDs, why has general education languished in achievement levels?

    8. Is there too much emphasis on administration and too little on application?

    9. Does the lack of research oriented professional impact the development of empirically driven decisions as required by NCLB.

    10. Does technology afford the opportunity to address some of these issues?

    11. Are we training enough people to exploit the available technology?

    12. Has higher education responded appropriately to the emerging technologies?

    13. What resources inform this culture of administration?


    National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century, NSF 06-319, Lori Thurgood, Mary J. Golladay, and Susan T. Hill (Arlington, VA 2006).

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