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Moving from Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Being a Mindful Principal

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

By Dana Asby, CEI Intern and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

Editor’s Note: This is Part I of our series on transformational leadership

However, in a culture and climate with a push to excel, staying humanistic and inspirational is not always easy. As Anthony Muhammad (2009) describes in his study of 34 schools, even with population shifts, including an influx of Latinos, and the persistent gap in resources available to whites versus other races in the US, our education system ‘has remained largely the same.’ Despite the dramatic changes our education system has undergone, there is a ‘lack of consensus about what is needed to ensure that all of our schools perform at a high level and all of our students achieve success.’ The reality is that academic achievement has not improved for many of our most vulnerable students. As Muhammad explains, many of our nation’s poorest schools are under-resourced, and many educators are not ready or willing to undertake the tremendous cultural change that may be needed to truly transform schools. Given all of the effort that has been made, and the relative inadequacy of results to date, he concluded that transformational educational change is neither easy nor is it something that can be undertaken without a substantial investment and willingness to address the many difficult issues that will inevitably emerge.

Guiding Components of Transformational Leadership

Rather than being principals who act as managers relating to their faculty and staff in a transactional manner, the strongest leaders act as visionaries with a transformational mindset. Phenomenal leaders appeal to their followers’ moral values to achieve goals by supporting them as they transcend their self-interest for the larger good of the school. Dr. Lynn Kagan (1997), a pre-eminent leader in the field of early childhood education, compares transactional and transformational leadership:

Transactional Leadership/Transformational Leadership Administer for stability/Administer for change

Adopt clear, short-term goals/Focused on long-term vision

Focus on details/Sets a direction for a broader vision

Concerns oneself only with school building issues/

Works between and within various related organizations and schools

Transformational leadership requires leaders with a longer-term, broader vision: leaders who are not myopic and focused only on their school, but rather leaders who look beyond the walls of their school and learn from others.

Previous research on leadership development has pointed to self-reflection and cognitive processes, such as increasing executive functioning, to enhance leadership capability (Branson, 2007; Bailey, 2007). However, recent research has shown that in our fast-paced, ever-changing world, these components of leadership alone are not sufficient. Instead, good leaders must embody a ‘way of being’ where their purpose is aligned with their actions and spans all contexts of their life (Brendel & Bennett, 2016).

Mindset Shift: Heart Centered Learning™

Like the administrators at Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, we at the Center for Educational Improvement also believe that compassion is essential for a well-functioning school and for what we are calling Heart Centered Learning where we use evidenced-based practices to build confidence, courage, and a sense of belonging and community. It’s even more important if students at that school have experienced trauma such as abuse, neglect, or extreme poverty. To enhance levels of compassion in teachers, principals can introduce trauma-informed care training, either online or during professional development sessions. This helps teachers understand why some of their students might be experiencing socio-emotional difficulties and how best to support them. To increase compassion among students, principals can encourage teachers to integrate compassion into the curriculum by helping them understand multiple perspectives during class activities. For example, asking students to write a story using the voice of a familiar character whose life is very different from theirs can support theory of mind, one’s ability to understand how others think and act differently than them.

It’s important for leaders to remember that true transformation takes time and that they need to plan with intentionality and collaboration to make it effective and lasting. During this process, the ambiguity around success can cause leaders anxiety that threatens to derail their impact. Using mindfulness to quiet this particular anxiety is an effective method of healthily managing emotions. Incorporating mindfulness into their leadership styles helps principals interact and attune with others with more ease. It also helps leaders maintain perspective, bolsters confidence, and makes them appear more trustworthy (Wylson & Chesley, 2016). A recent study found that internal coping methods for stress, especially mindfulness techniques, were most effective at not only relieving the symptoms of stress but also building resiliency to protect against future stress (Wells & Klocko, 2018).

Stress Points, Stress Management, and a Path to Progress

In schools, principals are impacted by a multitude of stress points: the stress involved in raising academic achievement, handling complaints and concerns, maintaining order, dealing with the everyday logistics, having courageous conversations, finding time for students, and addressing dictates that come from the district and state, to name a few. When attempting transformational change, principals can expect that some of these stressors will be exacerbated by teachers who may be resistant to change, lack of adequate resources, and competing demands. Principals may find that a few of the following mindfulness techniques may help them manage their stress:

  1. Meditate daily

  2. Reflect on failures and successes without judgement to inform future decisions

  3. Engage in a physical activity such as running or yoga that allows you to reach a flow state

  4. Practice intentional breathing

In addition to reducing stress, adopting a mindful perspective to transformational leadership can enhance several aspects of leadership including self-awareness, empathy for self, energy management skills, listening skills, ability to engage others, trust in intuition, ability to adapt, clarity, and focus (Inam, 2012). By integrating the mindfulness principles of intention, self-reflection, and compassion, principals may be taking steps to transform schools, increasing creativity, and inspiring their faculty and staff to improve positivity and build a school culture that better support student needs.


Bailey, C. E. (2007). Cognitive accuracy and intelligent executive function in the brain and business. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118,1, 122-141.

Branson, C. (2007). Effects of structured self-reflection on the development of authentic leadership practices among Queensland primary school principals. Educational Management and Leadership, 35, 2, 225-246.

Branson, C. M. (2010). Leading educational change wisely. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Brendel, W. & Bennett, C. (2016). Learning to embody leadership through mindfulness and somatics practice. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 18, 3, 409-425.

Carr, V., Johnson, L.J., & Corkwell, C. (2009). Principle-centered leadership in early childhood education. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 37, 3, 25-32.

Decker, K. (2015). Transformational leadership: Engineering creative solutions. Edutopia School Leadership Blog.

Inam, H. (2012). Breathe. meditate. lead. Ten ways mindfulness practice can make us better leaders. Transformational Leadership Coaching & Leadership Development Blog.

Lutz, J., Bruhl, A.B., Scheerer, H., Jancke, L., & Herwig, U. (2016). Neural correlates of mindful self-awareness in mindfulness meditators and meditation-naive subjects revisited. Biological Psychology, 119, 21-30.

Kagan, S.L. & Bowman, B.T. (1997). Leadership in early care and education: Issues and challenges. Leadership in Early Care and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Muhammad, A. (2009). Transforming school culture: How to overcome staff division. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Wells, C.M. & Klocko, B.A. (2018). Principal well-being and resilience: Mindfulness as a means to that end. National Association of Secondary Principals Bulletin, 102, 2, 161-173.

Wilson, A. & Chesley, J.A. (2016). The benefits of mindfulness in leading transformational change. Graziadio Business Review.


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