"Transformational change." It has a great ring to it, doesn’t it? While multiple definitions exist, they seem to share similar phrases, such as holisticprofound, and over time. Many feel that the process of transformational change needs to mirror what it seeks to create, which might lead us to this oft quoted remark, “We must be the change we want to see happen in the world.” Many schools, states, and districts are looking to make substantive, transformational change. In this article, we’ll clarify what transformative change is, talk about some of the challenges for this type of change, and describe the need for transformational leadership. This piece will help you understand what transformational change requires, what it can do for you, and how you can get started.

What Is Transformational Change?

In most change models, we create a picture of what we think should be, then work hard to make reality fit that picture. Transformational change, however, focuses on a more strategic approach. Rather than simply inserting new demands or practices into existing systems, transformational change requires changing the system itself. Changing the system calls for building a common understanding of the need for change, assessing where capacity is needed, and then developing that capacity to sustain the change. In many ways, the internal nature of transformational change aligns with Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002) work on adaptive leadership, which requires “experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.” 

Transformational change is a result of either organizational transformation or the implementation or installation of a program, project, or initiative that impacts the structure and culture of the organization. For instance, in some places, an educational assessment, implemented properly, requires changes in the structure (rules, roles, and relationships) and culture (beliefs, values, traditions) of the school and/or district.

We mentioned organizational transformation. What we mean is transforming an organization from one type of organization (bureaucracy) to another type (learning organization). It is useful to assess whether the organization has the capacity to be transformed. Using a set of standards to complete a self-assessment can provide strong suggestions regarding what systems need attention to support the transformation. 

How do we go about capacity building to sustain change? Consider these three questions to get the process started:

  1. How is the core business of our school district defined?
  2. Is there a common understanding of the challenges that confront the district?
  3. Is there a vision of the future, a vision that is sufficiently compelling to earn the attention of those whose support is needed? 

The Challenge of Transformational Change

All transformation requires the approach above. Let’s consider a challenge that many school districts face — balancing accountability and answerability — which may provide an impetus for transformative change. 

Accountability is the responsibility for results, whereas answerability is the responsibility for explaining or justifying one’s actions. In districts, accountability involves activities like improving performance and reporting numbers, measuring learning, and reporting to stakeholders. Answerability, meanwhile, involves improving performance and showing growthsupporting learning, and dialoguing with stakeholders

Districts deal with both accountability and answerability daily. In conversations with superintendents this year, several said that accountability kept them from working on the answerability pieces they wanted to focus on. What’s more, they realized that their current systems might not have the capacity to support a change toward answerability. 

Making this shift requires transformational change, and it’s not always an easy process. Why are transformation efforts so challenging? Sometimes the reason is a lack of attention given to developing the organizational capacity necessary to support and sustain change. Other times, initiatives start with the flawed assumption that there is already a common understanding of why the change is needed. Without these key components — organizational capacity and a common understanding of the change—leaders can’t engage in true transformational change. 

Sometimes we must remind ourselves that resistance to change is not really in the system itself, but in the perceptions of those working in the system. How do we shift perceptions? What information is needed? (But sometimes the resistance is in the system itself, as is the case when support, even ownership, for a change exists, but the structures and culture are not supportive.)

A Framework for Transformational Change

The following framework is useful for those who are leading the change effort. Consider these as capacity indicators of the organization — questions leaders should consider prior to implementing or installing a new initiative, project, or program.

  • Purpose and values: Are the beliefs and assumptions that underlie the initiative consistent with those of the organization?
  • Sense of direction: Do we have valid reasons to believe the initiative will support and enhance the goals of the organization?
  • Leadership commitment: It is likely the initiative will earn commitment and support from key organizational leaders? 
  • Assessment mechanisms: Do we have both traditional measures and a commitment to developing new ones to determine the progress and success of the initiative? 
  • Infrastructure for taking action: Are the existing culture and structure of the organization supportive of the aims and means of the initiative?
  • Resource allocation: Will those closest to the work required have access to and flexible use of the resources needed for successful implementation?

Transformational Leadership

In Michael Fullan’s model of change in education, he talks about moral purpose (vision and values), sharing and building new knowledge (sense of direction and assessment mechanisms), and the idea of creating coherence in the system (sense of direction and infrastructure for taking action). Fullan reminds us: “Don’t forget the why questions. Don’t get lost in the how-to questions” (Fullan, 2003). Transformational leaders understand the idea that moral purpose is a driving factor in transformational change. The interactions and relationships between people are what will carry transformational change efforts, sustained by systems that can support the change.

Transformational leaders stir peoples’ emotions — they hold clear goals, have high expectations, and inspire people to reach for what might seem improbable. That deep commitment to shared purpose, values, and direction is key, inspiring people to look beyond themselves to something greater than themselves, then offering support, encouragement, and recognition along the way.

Those who lead transformation must understand that the necessary changes will impact the structure and culture of the organizations they lead. Such change requires attention to both the systemic and the technical properties of the organization. In Shaking Up the Schoolhouse, Phillip Schlechty says that in leading systemic change “leaders must be prepared to lead movements and to mount campaigns. It is not enough to manage people, products, and procedures; they must become masters at managing symbols as well” (p. 164). According to Schlechty, “The leadership required is transformational rather than transactional” (p. 164).

In developing educational leaders, the Schlechty Center (2017) uses this frame: transformational leadership versus transactional leadership.

Transformational leadership requires leaders to:

  • Embrace new assumptions
  • Think systematically
  • Make and help others see connections
  • Reduce fear of abandoning valued habits
  • Inspire hope
  • Support and reassure

Transactional leadership requires leaders to: 

  • Build on commonly accepted assumptions
  • Improve operational effectiveness
  • Exercise authority
  • Operate within defined boundaries
  • Promote compliance

Successful transformation efforts in school districts require balancing control and letting go in a highly collaborative way. They require a codeveloped vision through stakeholder engagement, activating the heart, and transparency about the work. They necessitate combining ideas about moral purpose and sharing differing ideas. Transformational change can be a challenging process, but an incredibly rewarding one. With this in mind, district leaders can be prepared to initiate successful transformational change efforts.


Kathy Dyer is a professional learning designer for NWEA, where she creates learning opportunities for educators. Follow her on Twitter.

George Thompson, president of the Schlechty Center, uses his experience as a teacher, principal, and superintendent to support school and community leaders in their efforts to transform schools from bureaucracies into learning organizations by building the capacity of the system and the stakeholders. You can follow the Schlechty Center on Twitter.