Transformative Leadership Primer

by Carolyn M. Shields (Author)
©2016 Textbook 192 Pages
Series: Counterpoints Primers, Volume 32


Transformative Leadership: A Primer both delivers a complete and engaging overview of transformative leadership and also clearly distinguishes it from other popular approaches to leadership. Hence, this will be the text of choice for many graduate courses in educational leadership. Carolyn M. Shields shows how the tenets of transformative leadership interact with one another, and how they provide a lens for leadership that offers an excellent, inclusive, equitable, and socially just education for all students. Using anecdotes and narratives drawn from empirical research, as well as current data, Dr. Shields establishes how transformative leadership comprises a comprehensive approach to leadership in highly diverse contexts, and how it can empower students who are traditionally marginalized due to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, home language, or religion. Accepting a mandate for educational change, reconstructing knowledge frameworks, and redistributing power in more equitable ways are starting points for transformative leaders. Changing the structures, cultures, curricula, and pedagogies of the school to be more democratic and emancipatory; acknowledging our interconnectedness and interdependence with global neighbors; and accepting responsibility for promoting both public and private good are processes that implement the transformation. Taken together, these changes cannot be accomplished without considerable collaboration, conversation, and moral courage. No leader wanting to promote excellence and equity for all should be without this primer that offers a new way of thinking about all aspects of schooling, from facilities and fiscal issues to academic programs and school policy. Transformative leadership offers a promising and robust theory of change for all situations and contexts.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance praise for Transformative Leadership
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Understanding Leadership Theories
  • 2. Critique, Challenge, Deconstruction, and Reconstruction
  • 3. Power and Community
  • 4. Transforming Action
  • 5. Transformation Underway
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

| 1 →

I hope to demonstrate that the processes of leadership must be seen as part of the dynamics of conflict and of power; that leadership is nothing if not linked to collective purpose; that the effectiveness of leaders must be judged not by their press clippings but by actual social change.

—Burns, 1978, p. 3

There are competing theories and competing practices, and it is our role as administrators, individuals of action, to sort among them … A critical theory is necessary; to encourage us to view events in historical perspective, to doubt the validity of received truth (…), and to continue our search for more adequate solutions to our problems.

—Foster, 1986, p. 13 ← 1 | 2 →

Why Do We Need Yet Another Leadership Theory?

My response to the question of why another primer on educational leadership lies in the quotations with which this chapter opens. Pulitzer Prize–winning scholar James McGregor Burns, in his seminal work simply called Leadership (1978), argued that the impact of leadership should be judged by actual social change. Approximately a decade later, educational leadership scholar William Foster asserted the need for a critical theory of leadership to judge from among the myriad theories to discover “more adequate solutions to our problems.” And there definitely is a myriad of theories.

In the 2010 International Encyclopedia of Education, there are 47 chapters relating to different aspects of educational leadership. Moreover, the 2002 Second International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration (Leithwood & Chapman) comprised 34 chapters, and indeed, the list of handbooks, edited books, authored books, and chapters related to educational leadership is virtually endless. However, the quest for an appropriate theory of leadership is not new. We have looked to historical giants of the past, including the military commanders Sun Tzu and Alexander the Great; politicians such as Machiavelli, Lincoln, and Churchill; entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs; athletes and coaches like Vince Lombardi and John Wooden; and other diverse individuals including Warren Buffet, Pope Francis, and even Jesus Christ. Leadership has been broken down into seven habits (Covey, 1989), 21 irrefutable laws (Maxwell & Ziglar, 2007), five levels (Maxwell, 2013), nine steps (Martens, 2015), seven simple secrets (Stone, 2014), and so on. In fact, at the time of writing Amazon.com lists 138,733 books on leadership. In education alone, Amazon.com lists 29,409 books, to say nothing of the countless chapters and articles indexed in scholarly and not so scholarly publications.

The argument of this primer and the underlying impetus for transformative leadership is that, ← 2 | 3 → even taken together, many popular, current theories have not resulted, and will not result, in either “actual social change” or “more adequate solutions to our problems”—including problems associated with social exclusion, the education “empowerment” or “achievement gap,” and the preparation of democratic citizens. Hence, I will argue here that a new, critical, and radically different approach to leadership is necessary. Although leadership is a pressing issue in many fields, including non-profit, social services, or governmental agencies such as police and firefighting, my focus in this primer will be on educational leadership. At the same time, I firmly believe that transformative leadership is a way of thinking and living that can guide leadership in numerous other fields as well.

Neither transformative leadership nor social justice is an add-on, something to fit into the school leader’s busy day. It is an essential underpinning of significant transformation. And transformation is the necessary pre-condition for creating learning conditions under which all children, regardless of social situation, identity markers, or home background, will be able to succeed.

In this chapter, I will first briefly examine the current socio-political context for public education, some factors exacerbating the ability of educational organizations to support the creation of a strong and deeply democratic society, and the inadequacy of many popular leadership theories to respond to the need. The chapter will conclude with an overview of transformative leadership in which I introduce its potential for deep and significant change.

The 21st Century Context

I recall once making a conference presentation with a young doctoral student who began our paper with the following quote by Maxine Greene (1998): ← 3 | 4 →

To our surprise, she was immediately interrupted by someone from the back of the room asking, “What do you mean by unfulfilled promises?” We were astounded at the time, and I continue to be surprised when my students fall silent in response to this question. Our society (and many others) founded on what we like to think of as democratic principles, purports to offer to every individual certain liberties and protections without regard to race, gender, religious practice, and so on. Nevertheless, one would likely have to have lived in an isolation tank not to be aware of the many social, economic, and cultural challenges of the 21st century.

The problems that need solutions—both social and educational—have not abated. As I write, the media is consumed with violence—shootings and other violence in schools, the killings of young Black males in numerous cities around the United States, gang violence, inappropriate police actions, and so forth. The financial state of the nation’s largest cities is precarious as many cities teeter on the edge of bankruptcy or, like Detroit (where I live), have emerged from under the governance of emergency management, still to be confronted by a plethora of serious challenges. Corporations decry trade agreements that may result in the loss of jobs to underemployed countries while salaries of corporate executives continue to increase exponentially. In fact Piketty, of the Paris School of Economics, found that the proportion of income accumulated by the top 10% of earners in the United States has grown from 33.5% in 1960 to 47.9% in 2010; moreover, these higher wages ← 4 | 5 → accounted for two-thirds of the increase in American income inequality over the last four decades (Eavis, 2014). The income gap continues to widen in almost every developed country, with a 2015 Oxfam report announcing that by 2016 the richest 1% of the world’s population will own more than all the rest, having “seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 percent in 2016” (Byanyima, 2015).

New security threats, including natural disasters, global warming, terrorism, identity theft, and many others, continue to preoccupy scholars and politicians alike. Globally, poverty affects nearly half of the world’s population, with more than 3 billion people living on less than $2.50 a day, 850 million of them experiencing hunger daily, and 750 million lacking access to clean drinking water.1 Poverty is also rampant in the United States despite President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 emotional appeal for war on poverty—a war, he said, we cannot afford to lose. In fact, approximately 12 million American children live under the poverty line, and 1.6 million of them experience homelessness in a given year. Moreover, “Black and Hispanic children were more than twice as likely to live in poverty in 2007 as non-Hispanic white and Asian children” (Moore, Redd, Burkhauser, Mbwana, & Collins, 2009).


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
race minority wasp inclusion
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 192 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Carolyn M. Shields (Author)

Carolyn M. Shields (PhD, University of Saskatchewan, Canada), is a professor and former dean of education at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She has written twelve books, hundreds of articles, and spoken in numerous countries, always addressing the provision of academically excellent, inclusive, equitable, and socially just learning environments for all students.


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204 pages