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Part II: Transformational Leadership is the Key to Empowering Students

Updated: May 26, 2021

By Lindsey Erin Feltis, CEI Intern and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

Good Leaders vs. Great Leaders

For decades, researchers and educators have been asking “what makes a good leader?” when they should have been asking “what makes a great leader?” However, Tony Bush, a professor of leadership in Nottingham (UK), suggests that there has been a shift in our language and understanding of school leadership in the 21st century (2017). At the Center for Educational Improvement, our mission is to “support and uplift schools through 21st century learning and leadership.” This requires a shift of emphasis to leadership, rather than management. According to George Theoharis, a professor in educational leadership at Syracuse University, researchers and educators must look beyond what “traditionally has been understood as good leadership” to achieve greater equity and support students in achieving their full potential (2007, p. 253). Theoharis recommends that educators, particularly principals, enact social justice in their schools, and in their classrooms, every day. Transformational leadership can be key to promoting social justice and positive change in schools.

Transformational leadership, described by some scholars as the “fourth wave” of teacher leadership, offers teachers and principals an innovative approach to inspiring their students and enacting positive change in their classrooms (Bush, 2017; Pounder, 2006, p. 538). Transformational leaders are passionate; they emphasize social justice and consider the needs of everyone with whom they interact. They genuinely care about the physical, emotional and social needs of all. In addition, research has shown that transformational leadership leads to improvements in students’ academic achievements and classroom culture, higher well-being, increased staff motivation and the creation of school climates conducive to positive change (Cherry, 2018; McCarley, Peters & Decman, 2016; Theoharis, 2007).

Student-Achievements of Transformational School Principals

In one empirical study, Theoharis examined a subgroup of seven principals in an attempt to further understand transformational leadership (2007). All seven principals were carefully selected to participate as they “made issues of race, class, gender, disability sexual orientation” integral to their values, vision and mission (Theoharis, 2007, p. 223). Theoharis asked how these principals were using social justice in their schools; he also wanted to know what resistance these principals faced and what strategies led to the sustainability of their leadership. These seven principals focused on “(a) raising student achievement, (b) improving school structures, (c) recentering and enhancing staff capacity, and (d) strengthening school culture and community” (2007, p. 231).

Improvements in School Culture and Community

All seven principals in Theoharis (2007) study reported that they strived to create warm and welcoming school climates that included members of the community and marginalized families, One principal noted the “night-and-day” difference between schools that emphasized relationships and community when compared to other schools  (p. 236). In improving their school cultures and communities, principals created safer environments for their students to prosper. With these improvements:

  1. Fewer physical altercations occurred between students,

  2. There were fewer false fire alarms,

  3. Students and parents reported feeling more respected than they had at previous schools and,

  4. Students and parents reported feeling more connected to this school than they had at previous schools (Theoharis, 2007).

Resistance to Change

While Theoharis’ research revealed the tremendous benefits of transformational principals, his research also found that principals often face enormous barriers in their work (2007, p. 238). One principal described difficulties in promoting change, indicating that the prevailing sentiment was that there was no need to change since the current system “had worked for 32 years.” Principals experienced resistance to change simply because students, parents and teachers didn’t see, or understand, why change was necessary.

All seven principals worked to reduce historical marginalization of particular students. As a result, “privileged parental expectations” created barriers to change and principals sometimes met with resistance from their students and members of the community (Theoharis, 2007, p. 238). However, amidst this resistance, these principals continued to find the resilience to develop and sustain their commitment to social justice in their schools, as their own commitment to social justice was necessary to advance social justice for marginalized students.

In developing and sustaining their commitment to social justice, many principals shared with Theoharis strategies that led to their success. Theoharis revealed that their strategies fell into one of two categories: proactive strategies and coping strategies.Their proactive strategies enabled them to move forward professionally and personally as a transformational leader, and their coping strategies enabled them to adapt and overcome challenges they faced. Please see table below for a few examples of proactive strategies and coping strategies these principals relied on for empowering their staff and students.

Proactive Strategies Coping Strategies

  • Engaging in purposeful and authentic communication

  • Finding a sustainable work/life balance

  • Developing supportive networks

  • Utilizing mindful diversions

  • Celebrating successes

  • Engaging in regular physical activity

  • Keeping equity and justice at the forefront of conversationsProviding for others (Theoharis, 2007).

Final Thoughts

Principals who emphasize transformational leadership focus on more than managing their staff members and making administrative decisions; they inspire and empower their students, staff and entire school communities to grow and seek continual improvement. Many principals, teachers and leaders teach, support and guide their students, but transformational leaders inspire and empower their students and, as evident in research, that inspiration and empowerment often leads to higher achieving students, engaged educators and better, stronger classroom communities.


Bush, T. (2017). The enduring power of transformational leadership. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45(4), 563-565.

Cherry, K. (2018, November 12). What is transformational leadership? A closer look at the effects of transformational leadership. Very Well Mind.

Duran, I. J. (2016). Transformative leadership: A case study of schools in a network designed to improve turnaround schools. Educational leadership and policy studies: Doctoral research projects. Denver, CO: University of Denver.

McCarley, T. A., Peters, M. L., & Decman, J. M. (2016). Transformational leadership related to school climate: A multi-level analysis. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 44(2), 322-342.

Pounder, J. S. (2006). Transformational classroom leadership. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 34(4), 533-545.

Theoharis, G. (2007). Social justice educational leadership and resistance: Toward a theory of social justice leadership. Educational Administrative Quarterly, 43 (2), 221-258.

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