Harnessing the power of language: A shift from transactional to transformational leadership in education

The words we choose in a conversation significantly shape the interaction, impact, and the ensuing relationship. As a superintendent, I’ve seen firsthand how a single word can change the entire nature of a conversation, influencing the culture and direction of an educational institution. I’ve written about this extensively in my book, “The Secret to Transformational Leadership” and I get the opportunity to speak about this often. Today, I invite you to explore two phrases that represent two markedly different leadership styles: “this is what I want from you” and “this is what I want for you.”

The phrase “this is what I want from you” is imbued with transactional language. Its use denotes an underlying assumption – that the listener is either incapable, unwilling, or in need of management. This perspective constrains potential, puts the speaker in an authoritative position, and reduces the conversation to a mere exchange of services. It says, ‘Your value lies solely in what you can offer.’ Unfortunately, this attitude inhibits creativity, reduces motivation, and hinders the development of a collaborative, nurturing educational community.

Conversely, the phrase “this is what I want for you” evokes a transformational perspective. It is compassionate, inspiring, hopeful, and filled with positive expectations. It shifts the narrative to one of care, trust, and mutual growth. It says, ‘I believe in your potential, and I am here to support your journey.’ This view stimulates individual growth, fosters a positive learning environment, and ultimately leads to a vibrant, thriving school community.

These contrasting phrases highlight two distinct leadership styles: transactional and transformational. A transactional leader emphasizes performance and compliance, casting a long shadow of expectation and control. This approach, while it may have short-term effectiveness, often fails to inspire commitment and genuine growth in the long run. It tends to suppress individuality, innovation, and intrinsic motivation, all vital elements for a thriving educational environment. Further, it sets a tone throughout the district and this tone materializes in our classrooms, much to the detriment of authentic learning.

On the other hand, a transformational leader prioritizes human and professional development as one of their key responsibilities. They inspire, challenge, and engage those they lead, fostering a community that is rooted in trust, collaboration, and mutual respect. Transformational leaders empower their colleagues and students to take ownership of their learning, encourage innovative thinking, and create an environment where everyone is motivated to bring their best self forward. The positive effects of transformational leadership cascade throughout the organization, impacting every aspect of school life… from the Board room to the classroom.

In examining the way a superintendent and a board of education communicate, these two phrases’ implications become even more salient. A conversation starting with “this is what I want from you” might ensure task completion, but it is unlikely to foster a warm, collegial environment or engender a sense of shared responsibility and vision. It treats board members as task-completers rather than integral, creative contributors to the school’s mission.

However, if the conversation begins with “this is what I want for you,” it transforms the dialogue. It promotes a culture of shared aspirations, mutual support, and collective growth. It empowers board members to contribute actively to the school’s mission, fostering a sense of shared purpose and collegiality. This approach not only enhances the quality of work but also nurtures a supportive, dynamic, and innovative educational community.

As educators and leaders, we must constantly reflect on the language we use and the leadership style we embody. The shift from “what I want from you” to “what I want for you” can serve as a powerful catalyst, transforming our conversations, our relationships, and our school communities. By embracing a transformational leadership style, we can create educational environments where everyone is motivated, inspired, and empowered to achieve their best. In such a culture, we are not just preparing students for exams; we are preparing them for life, instilling in them a love for learning, a curiosity about the world, and a resilience that will stand them in good stead in their lives beyond school.

This is not to say that transactional leadership is entirely without merit. There are moments in every organization’s journey where an explicit emphasis on tasks and goals is both necessary and beneficial. Yet, these instances should be the exception, not the norm. Our primary focus should remain on transformational leadership, utilizing transactional strategies as and when required.

Superintendents, like all leaders, cast long shadows. If we lean towards transactional language and behavior, that is what we will see reflected back to us in our organization’s culture and operations. On the other hand, if we consistently demonstrate transformational leadership, we will foster an environment where everyone feels valued, supported, and inspired to contribute to the best of their abilities. This will not only lead to better outcomes for our schools but also contribute to a more positive, engaged, and productive school community.

Moreover, the “want for you” approach promotes an environment of trust and respect. It gives space for professional growth, encourages innovative ideas, and creates a culture of ongoing learning and improvement. It motivates educators to take risks, to experiment, and to learn from failures – all of which are key to advancing educational outcomes.

In conclusion, the choice of language in leadership is more than mere semantics; it’s a fundamental reflection of our approach towards those we lead. As we strive to cultivate an empowering, innovative, and compassionate school culture, let us consciously shift our language and leadership style from “what I want from you” to “what I want for you”. This subtle change can profoundly impact our relationships, foster a spirit of collegiality, and create a school environment that supports everyone to excel. Let us choose to be transformational leaders who inspire, challenge, and nurture, casting long shadows of positivity, growth, and shared success.

Quintin Shepherd
Quintin Shepherd
Dr. Quintin “Q” Shepherd is a seasoned public-school superintendent with 18 years of experience serving in three states. He began his career in education as a school custodian, became a PreK-12 music teacher, and served as an elementary principal before serving as a high school principal. Q has made significant contributions to the education sector and is recognized for his exceptional leadership skills. In addition to his professional achievements, Q is also an Adjunct Faculty at the University of Houston- Victoria, imparting his knowledge and expertise to the next generation of educational leaders. He is the author of the highly acclaimed and best-selling book "The Secret to Transformational Leadership", which has been widely celebrated for its insights into effective leadership and is considered a must-read for anyone seeking to make a difference in the world of education.