Educational leaders come in all shapes and sizes, their styles shaped by their gifts and circumstances. There are servant leaders, whose transparency and empathy come to the fore. There are transactional leaders, who rely on efficiency and structure. There are emotional leaders, who are buoyed by their emotional intelligence (i.e., their  self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management).

And then there are transformational leaders, who seek to move mountains. Their mission, as they see it, is to reshape a district or a school – to enact positive, continuous change while spurring others to do the same. They are innovators. They are collaborators. They are motivators.

First identified by sociologist James V. Downton in 1973, this style was later defined by leadership expert James Burns as being practiced by those who “seek to change existing thoughts, techniques and goals for better results and the greater good.” It is not exclusive to education, of course. Such business leaders as Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are among those to have been labeled transformational leaders.

So too was President Barack Obama, who during his eight years in the Oval Office (2008-2016) was known to encourage outside-the-box thinking and the sharing of ideas among everyone in his inner circle.

And indeed, all transformational leaders approach matters in that fashion. They take a personal interest in all those with whom they work. They encourage them, empower them, challenge them and make them feel valued, while always keeping the big picture in mind: Where are we going? What is our ultimate goal?

It has been said that transformational leadership is characterized by “four I’s”: inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation and idealized influence. And certainly such an approach has particular value today, given the challenges many school districts face.

A joint report undertaken by the University of Minnesota, University of Toronto and the Wallace Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic organization, once boiled it down as follows:

Especially when we think of leaders in formal administrative roles, the greater the challenge the greater the impact of their actions on learning. While the evidence shows small but significant effects of leadership actions on student learning across the spectrum of schools, existing research also shows that demonstrated effects of successful leadership are considerably greater in schools that are in more difficult circumstances. Indeed, there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader. Many other factors may contribute to such turnarounds, but leadership is the catalyst.

I have learned this for myself across my 30 years in education, not only as an administrator in Florida, my native state, but also in the five years I spent as the superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS).

Immediately upon taking the latter job in 2016, I convened 10 listening sessions that included teachers, students and various staffers and visited all 54 schools within the district, in order to connect with various stakeholders. That informed our strategy going forward, resulting in improved test scores and graduation rates and decreases in out-of-school suspensions.

Moreover, we engaged in 2019 with various outside stakeholders to enact a program called Imagine PPS, which further enhanced our educational delivery model by focusing on feeder patterns, magnet pathways and technology enhancements.

During my tenure, Positive Behavior Supports and Interventions (PBIS) tools were put in place throughout the district, and initiatives focusing on technical education were introduced at one of our magnet schools, as well as one of our International Baccalaureate World Schools.

All of this reinforces the idea that transformation is possible, if a leader sees the big picture, gets everyone pulling in the right direction and keeps students’ needs top of mind. In short, an innovative, collaborative, forward-thinking mindset can permeate a school, or a district as a whole. But it has to start at the top.