Transformational Leadership in Higher Education

Subject: Education
Pages: 15
Words: 3873
Reading time:
14 min
Study level: College


A number of factors have come up exacerbating the problems in the academic world, particularly higher education. The educational sector has to introduce changes but at the same time, adjust with the challenges brought about by technology, globalisation, and economic factors. This scenario requires leaders who are not ordinary leaders but can transform followers to make an effective force to balance the imperfections in the new environment. Researchers and scholars have paid attention to the role of transformational leadership in education because many have recognised its positive impact. Education needs effective, efficient and determined leaders to implement organisational objectives in light of negative forces.

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Institutions of learning are now functioning in unstable environments, and their operations are affected by many factors. The many demands and pressure in the academic world and the scholarly community are major reasons why there is a need to provide an understanding of effective leadership and an analysis of the traditional transactional leadership and transformational leadership. Educational institutions have shifted focus, i.e. from learning to business. Short-term runs have been introduced in institutions in terms of marketing and business development, forgetting the focus on students. Higher education is more concerned with the business side of education, and leaders are focused on this aspect. This is why leaders have to change and refocus their efforts on the students and the academe.

The primary focus should be on leaders, their attitude, vision and goals, and how they will react to the present challenges. School administrators should be advocates of change because leaders who do not know how to adapt to change cannot effectively lead. Educational leadership is essential in a world that needs multi-skilled workers. States without effectively run, educational institutions cannot produce good leaders (Simsek, 2013, p. 1). However, the kind of leading institutions of higher education need is the key factor here.

This brief essay will focus on the challenges faced by leaders in higher education, and will deal with the question: is transformational leadership an effective management tool in helping educational leaders deal with the changes and innovations of the twenty-first century? First, this essay will describe effective educational leadership and theories, to include differentiation of transactional and transformational leadership practices and how these can help reduce the impact of the challenges in higher education due to the factors mentioned above. After narrating the practices and positive characteristics of effective leadership and transformational leadership briefly, citing studies and researches, it is important to provide further understanding by way of interpreting, analysing, and critiquing those characteristics enumerated in the studies and empirical data in the literature.

The hypothesis

A significant focus is on the hypothesis that transformational leadership is important to prepare leaders in higher education for the adjustment period in the economic, technological, and academic challenges. Corollary to this is the idea that transformational leadership practices can deal with the impact of the new environment.

Phases in leadership theory

Leadership theory had gone through evolutionary stages before this concept of transactional and transformational leadership model came to its popularity. The first phase describes leadership as innate in one’s being, or “being born into a leadership role” (Brymer & Gray, 2006, p. 13). The second one includes individuals with explicit personality traits as leaders. The third stage includes “formal positions and the power to command”. Finally, the fourth phase is about relationships of leaders and followers. Brymer and Gray (2006) conceptualised the fifth stage as the time when leaders recognise the environmental situation and are able to provide changes.

The authors provided theories as examples to the fifth stage. It is important that this evolution of leadership theory is presented so that steps can be identified. Brymer and Gray (2006) argued that leaders have come to know environmental situations and adjust their behaviours to the situation. This means the situation is ripe and ready for some change. The authors mentioned the “path-goal theory” of Szilagyi and Sims (1974 as cited in Brymer & Gray, 2006, p. 14), the “contingency theory” of Fielder (1967 as cited in Brymer & Gray, p. 14), and the “situational theory” of Hersey and Blanchard (1982 as cited in Brymer & Gray, p. 14). This does not mean, however, that one theory arrived while another ended. The purpose here is to explain the leadership theory in the past and present contexts, and to answer the question, which one is effective for the present situation?

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Effective leadership

In this section, it is proper to define what leadership is. There are many definitions for the word leadership, but the central point refers to influence. This definition must be accompanied by actions (Bush & Glover, 2003, p. 3). Effective leadership provides personal growth for followers and the organisation through their personal and social qualities. They have to possess qualities like understanding, concern for others, honesty, sympathy, imagination, and the desire to encourage and not judge people. Effective leaders conquer limitations and make possible the impossible (Nicholls, 1986 as cited in Brymer & Gray, 2006, p. 14). These are values needed of an effective leader.

Some leadership principles can be effective for outdoor situations. Outdoor leadership is emphasised and given importance for outdoor situations. For example, leaders need followers to follow certain rules, but followers also need leaders to possess certain characteristics. Ford and Blanchard (1985, as cited in Brymer & Gray, 2006, p. 14) argued that followers need leaders to own responsibility where followers cannot. Owning responsibility is very important for followers, and they want this to belong to leaders. “If something happens, I own the responsibility.” The leader should be able to say that aloud because that strengthens followers’ trust.

A leader must be multi-skilled and must have a good attitude and easy to get along. Soft skills are needed for a good leader to be effective. Members of an organisation would want their leaders to be experienced, charismatic, energetic, have good perspectives of the world, and are well-versed in risk management. In enumerating the qualities of a good leader from the literature, it can be said that followers want their leaders to be perfect. This is common in real situations because leaders are not ordinary individuals who lead because they are forced to do it. Even in the military, leaders are not forced to do what they do not want to do.

Instead, leaders are trained and allowed to change voluntarily. However, before training is conducted to produce good leaders, the process of internalisation should have occurred first on the individual. The individual must be able to absorb and practice within himself the concepts and attitudes of a transformational leader. This is not acquired during training. Education might help, but the process of development should start from “within”.

Transactional versus transformational leadership

In the various studies of leadership, transactional leadership issues are usually juxtaposed with transformational leadership. According to Onorato (2013), transformational leadership is an effective method of changing situations that immediately impact the curriculum and instructions excellence students need, aims factors in the change activity using methods such as motivating continuous learning among team members, contributing learning amongst organisational members and working with the local community toward acquiring wider organisational objectives. This is opposed to instructional leadership, which is a way of targeting what they called first-order variables or methods of supervising teachers or transforming or changing curriculum (Hallinger, 2003, p. 338 as cited in Onorato, 2013, p. 38). Transactional and transformational leadership practices are varied, but both have to be discussed altogether in order to understand effective leadership fully.

Transformational leaders in history were looked upon as heroes. They were individuals with charismatic personalities, like Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others in the business world and organisations. They not only promoted simplicity and humility but also expressed and enhanced organisational objectives and motivated and transformed people to be good followers and God-fearing individuals.

Increased scholarly attention on transformational leadership began in the 1990s, focusing on the advantages and concepts of this phenomenon. This was triggered by two factors. The first was the development of scepticism and disenchantment with the concept of leadership and the varying atmosphere of opinion providing different types of leadership available. Another was the widely occurring types of leadership used to cope with multiculturalism brought about by globalisation and technology. This situation provided for a backdrop for the interest in research in transformational leadership (Bass & Avolio, 1993 as cited in Basham, 2012, p. 344). Transformational leadership then became a basic need in organisations.

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Transactional leadership

Traditional leadership practices, or transactional leadership, should be clearly defined and examined whether this is effective in dealing with the challenges of globalisation and the problems in the conduct of education and learning. Transactional leadership has a single factor, contingent reward behaviours, as against transformational leadership’s four, that points to its effectiveness. Contingent reward behaviours are “associated with a positive relationship with performance and work attitudes of followers” (Brown & Moshavi, 2002, p. 81) although at a lower rate than transformational leadership behaviours.

The meta-analysis of Lowe, Kroeck, and Sivasubramanian (1996 as cited in Brown & Moshavi, 2002, p. 81) found that transformational leadership is more effective if conducted in public organisations than in private and that it was more common at lower echelons of organisations. This is still realistic if applied in educational institutions. As stated earlier, transactional leadership and transformation leadership are interrelated, meaning they have to be combined to produce effective leadership.

Transformational leadership

Leaders have to follow a transformation process before they become effective transformational leaders. Transformation is transforming or “changing the very form of the container – remaking it larger, more complex, more able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainties” (Poutiatine & Conners, 2012, p. 72). In other words, before leaders change followers, they have to change themselves into a “form” or “state” capable of changing others and looking at several perspectives. It is a process in everyday life that humans have to understand and follow.

Adult and child development have to conform to this process, that change cannot be introduced without providing factors that act as moulders that will turn the once-stagnant character and personality into a different form, and enhance the change for ordinary team members to become leaders. It might be in the form of experience, but education can do a lot to change individuals to become leaders. Transformational learning occurs when an individual changes not just his/her feelings and attitudes, but the way he acquires knowledge about the world (Kegan, 1994, p. 17).

This means it is not just about “formational development of the self” (Poutiatine & Conners, 2012, p. 72) but changing the self’s feelings and knowledge of the world. This transformational process can lead to a growing delineation and “internalisation between self and other” (Poutiatine & Conners, 2012, p. 72). The change involves the self to others, a primary characteristic of formation and transformational learning. To have a realistic transformation, a profound and wide understanding of the self and how it interacts with the world is needed. The transformational change should always involve a construct of the self and other (Kegan, 1994, p. 17).

Transformation is an individual undertaking, a process that takes place within the self. The stimulant might come from the outside or inside of the person, but the definite development involves “identity formation and transformation” (Kegan, 1994 as cited in (Poutiatine & Conners, 2012, p. 73). This means that if a person is called to move in consciousness, that kind of shift must be a change in that person’s identity, as that identity reflects his/her views of the world. Since this person is part of the world, his “consciousness of the world must always be framed by the consciousness of the self” (Poutiatine & Conners, 2012, p. 73).

When transformation occurs in a person, the outcome is a different individual, unique but simple and looks for the welfare of the followers. This is the process which looks like training for individual leaders. Education might have a hand on this, or it can influence the process, but it has to be an individual endeavour. Before a leader can transform others, he/she has to transform himself/herself and goes through the process of transformation.

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Transformational leadership is not about rewards and performance, which is one of the tenets of transactional leadership, but stimulates followers to be thinking members, and provides inspiration, faith and respect (Barling et al., 1996 as cited in Brymer & Gray, 2006, p. 15). Burns (1978 as cited in Brown & Moshavi, 2002, p. 80) theorised that leadership could be either transactional or transformational, citing studies that proved transformational as more effective than the former. However, transactional leadership cannot be taken away from transformational leadership, for the two are interdependent with each other (Bass, 1998 as cited in Geijsel, Sleegers, Leithwood, & Jantzi, 2003, p. 230).

Transformational practices supplement transactional leadership by creating enhanced levels of follower effort. Transactional leadership aims for change while transformational leadership makes followers accept change. Values are a speciality of transformational leadership. The leader is concerned with setting standards and purposes for team members, providing them with motivation, examples of good deeds, cooperation, and honesty (Basham, 2012, p. 344).

Leithwood et al. (1990 as cited in Geijsel et al., 2003, p. 231) conducted a study in Canada basing on the work of Burns (1978, 1979) and Bass (1985, 1999 as cited in Geijsel et al., p. 231) on transformational leadership in the educational environment. In their study, they provided a transformational school leadership model with some semblance to the Bass model. The model included practices like setting directions, developing people, and redesigning the organisation (Geijsel et al., 2003, p. 231). Other studies such as those in The Netherlands confirmed the Canadian studies about dimensions of “vision building, intellectual stimulation, and individualised consideration” wherein empirical studies produced qualitative and quantitative results on the positive impact of leadership dimensions about teachers’ feelings. Outcomes created large-scale changes and the circumstances that enhanced its implementation.

The “4Is.”

Educational leaders must have specialised skills like “individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation and idealised influence,” concepts identified by Bass and Avolio (1994 as cited in Onorato, 2013, p. 39), later termed the “4Is”, to cope with the challenges of the new millennium. Burns (1978 as cited in Onorato, 2013, p. 39) explains that the transforming leader acknowledges and develops a current demand of a prospective follower, at the same time looks for possible intentions in followers, intends to fulfil higher needs and taps the personality of followers into creating results, without forcing them.

Developmental orientation occurs when a leader assigns tasks that encourage followers to express their talents and creativity. Individual orientation refers to a leader’s openness to subordinates in order to enhance communication (Hsu et al., 2001 as cited in Brymer & Gray, 2006, p. 15). Individualised consideration focuses on members’ needs and interests and providing coaching and mentoring practices with the aim in view of elevating their personal potential (Geijsel et al., 2003, p. 231). Transformational leaders transform followers into leaders and raise the apprehensions of followers from the lower to the upper level of Maslow’s need hierarchy, i.e. “from needs for safety and security to needs for achievement and self-actualisation” (Bass, 1995 as cited in Onorato, 2013, p. 39). Leaders should motivate followers by challenging and helping them how problems can be reframed.

Studies on leadership

In the study by Bass (1985 as cited in Brown & Moshavi, 2002, p. 81), they identified the “3Is” (idealised influence or charisma, intellectual stimulation and individual consideration) and another two related with transactional leadership (contingent reward and management-by-exception) after conducting the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ), which was used to measure the two leadership styles. The MLQ is a reliable measurement used by many researchers. The latest factor added to the three factors is inspirational motivation, making the factors identified as the “4Ɩs” and are all related to transformational leadership.

Evidence of the impact of the four “core” dimensions of transformational leadership in school environments were the results of about 30 empirical studies. However, even if there is a reasonably large body of evidence “by social standards” (Geijsel et al., 2003, p. 231), the quality of results is not the same among the studies conducted, which allows researchers to conclude that evidence-wise, the effects of transformational leadership are still inconclusive. The recommendation was the need for more qualitative and quantitative studies on the effects of transformation leadership with almost equal quality of results. This remains to be seen in the foreseeable future.

Some studies provided a framework on the leader’s skill to elevate the organisation’s ability to change the follower’s concerns and motivation to a greater degree. Leithwood (1992 as cited in Onorato, 2013, p. 39) argues that positive changes can be achieved by promoting organisational goals, providing models of behaviour for the staff, offering intellectual motivation, and personalised help. Along this line of reasoning, educational leaders were seen as effective in helping the staff, giving recognition and concern about school problems, looking for fresh ideas and helping achieve follower’s goals. Leaders who inspire and foster transformational leadership share with fellow administrators and staff. They are willing to learn more and listen to followers’ concerns to improve their well-being (Basham, 2012, p. 344).

It can be concluded from the various studies that transformational leadership is more advantageous and effective than transactional leadership. Transformational leaders formulate high standards for followers by interacting with them through inspiration, excellent tasks performance, cooperation, and conviction. Transformational leadership reacts to change so fast and brings out the best in people, evaluates the leader’s morals and how leaders introduce their values with the members wherein the interaction becomes a personal exchange, allowing and motivating the members to accept their leaders’ values as their own.

Behaviour is important in pursuing goals. If leaders dislike some people’s actions and are candid about it, they would not be able to acquire followers. Transformational leaders are good at motivating people into doing more than what they could possibly achieve. In inspirational motivation, leaders stimulate and motivate the staff or do things that create attractive visions of future states, placing emphasis on followers’ goals and inspiring enthusiasm and optimism. These motivations put value and meaning on followers’ work (Bass & Avolio, 1994, as cited in Geijsel et al., 2003, p. 230).

Of the four factors of transformational leadership behaviours, charisma or idealised influence is the most effective compared to the other factors. A meta-analysis of 56 studies conducted by Lowe, Kroeck, and Sivasubramanian (1996 as cited in Brown & Moshavi, 2002, p. 82) found that there was a close relationship between idealised influence (charisma) and leadership effectiveness. In the order of correlation coefficients, the average mean was high for charisma, next was individualised consideration, the third was intellectual stimulation, and the last was the contingent reward. In all of the transformational leadership components, including the contingent reward of transactional leadership, varying levels of association with supervision, organisational effectiveness and free will to exert extra effort, were found (Brown & Moshavi, 2002, p. 81).

Evidence for transformational leadership

Most of the studies on transformational leadership focused on theories, but these were theories on change. Even if they were mostly theoretical, change is easy to understand because everybody seems to experience it. The only problem is how to deal with it successfully. In educational institutions, teacher commitment is seen as a key factor of an institution’s capability to accept reform and rejuvenation through ideas sourced from research and experience. The present focus on capability improvement is connected to the increasing need for school change that depends on faculty obligation for change (Geijsel et al., 2003, p. 232). Faculty’s willingness for change must be accompanied by transformational leadership practices.

Leithwood et al. (1999 as cited in Geijsel et al., 2003, p. 232) argue that teachers’ pledge to change is a motivation component and the theories about those studies “predict most of the causes and consequences of teacher commitment identified in recent empirical research” (Bandura, 1986; Ford, 1992 as cited in Geijsel et al., 2003, p. 232). Aside from commitment, motivation is also focused on bringing in organisational change through transformational leadership. What is most advantageous with transformational leadership is that it is associated with organisational goals. These goals can be summarised into simple terms, for example, effectiveness, followers’ voluntariness to utilise extra effort, and satisfaction (Brown & Moshavi, 2002, p. 81).

The Basham (2012) study

Basham (2012) cited a study to determine how effective leadership is attained in higher education by providing an environment of different leader qualities to a sample of respondents who were university presidents. It was a Delphi study which was used to investigate whether the university presidents used effective leadership, or, whether their methods of leadership were effective.

The problem mentioned in the study was about the small population of enrollees in higher education, the intense growth of the Internet, globalisation that heavily affected higher education, changes in demographics, and the changes and innovations in businesses and organisations (Basham, 2012, p. 345). These factors required not only management but leadership skills and practices. The focus of the study was transformational leadership, whether this could enhance management or leadership in higher education? Another focus was on leadership qualities that administrators or university presidents must possess to enable them to formulate a clear vision and properly-developed strategy to beat funding shortages and to provide a substitute and effective plans for their organisations.

The Delphi study (Basham, 2012) is a tool in acquiring agreement and to find out if the leadership used by the university presidents are effective or can be used as a model. The study selected 300 university presidents from the various institutions of higher learning across the United States. The names of the presidents were selected at random from the Higher Education Directory, by way of software. The university presidents became an expert panel for the conduct of the Delphi study. The findings of transformational leadership were inconclusive, meaning, the role of educational research in higher education could not be ascertained and that further research was needed. The association of transformational leadership and its applicable formula in higher education did not appear like it was perceived before. University administrators knew the serious demand for dedicating time in giving all persons involved in education with a visualisation and principles that point to an understandable direction (Basham, 2012, p. 346).


So how can charismatic and transformational leaders help administrators in higher education cope with the challenges of the new millennium? Leaders can influence the educational staff, the academe, and the scholarly community to become good followers and effective leaders themselves through their behaviour.

Discussed in this essay were the definitions and theories of leadership with a focus on transformational leadership. While theories and concepts provided insights and possible applications of transformational leadership in higher education, the empirical studies provided in the literature did not have conclusive evidence that transformational leadership can provide the leadership practices and skills needed in higher education to cope with the challenges of the new millennium. However, the transformational leadership practices mentioned in the literature are good examples to show that indeed transformational leadership can provide a good defence mechanism to the many problems and pressure brought about by the challenges of technology, globalisation, and economic factors.


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Brown, F. W. & Moshavi, D. (2002). Herding academic cats: Faculty reactions to transformational and contingent reward leadership by department chairs. The Journal of Leadership Studies, 8(3), 79-93. Web.

Brymer, E. & Gray, T. (2006). Effective leadership: Transformational or transactional? Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 10(2), 13-19. Web.

Bush, T. & Glover, D. (2003). School leadership: concepts and evidence. Web.

Geijsel, F., Sleegers, P., Leithwood, K., & Jantzi, D. (2003). Transformational leadership effects on teachers’ commitment and effort toward school reform. Journal of Educational Administration, 41(3), 228-256. Web.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. United States of America: President and Fellows of Harvard College. Web.

Onorato, M. (2013). Transformational leadership style in the educational sector: An empirical study of corporate managers and educational leaders. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 17(1), 33-47. Web.

Poutiatine, M. & Conners, D. (2012). The role of identity in transformational learning, teaching, and leading. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1(130), 67-75. Web.

Simsek, H. (2013). Transformational leadership in educational context: A fantasy of education scholars. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, 51(1),1-6. Web.