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.