Transactional and Transformational Leadership

Recently, I was asked to discuss the differences between “transactional” and “transformational” leadership. I agreed and then thought to myself, “What do those things even mean??!?!”

Off to the Google machine, and I found the following from the Florida Tech website:



This brief definition was also shared:



That made sense, but I want to dig deeper.

One of the things that I have tried to model in my career is not to think about things as an “either/or” but more of a continuum. For example, are elements of “transactional” AND “transformational” leadership needed in our world.  Structures are required, AND we also want people to be motivated to find their own direction.

A fallacy I often hear is that we need “leaders” not “managers,” where in fact, you need people who have the ability to do both.  I often quote the Stephen Covey adage that “management is about things and leadership is about people.” In practice, let’s say you have a leader that has a tremendous vision of where schools should be but doesn’t know how to manage a budget to provide the tools needed to support people to get to that place and space?  Adversely, you might be great with a budget, but people don’t see the value in the tools provided because there is no shared vision.  People that can manage AND lead are crucial; it is not an “either/or.”

But instead of only defining “transformational leadership,” I thought about the story I shared in “Because of a Teacher” about my high school football coach and PE teacher, Calvin Hobbs:



I was a cocky football player who felt my four years of playing on the team entitled me to the captain position. And because he was a new coach at our school, I had no issue telling him that was what should happen. He smiled and said, “You think so?”

I did, and I told him as much. He said he looked forward to me proving it, which, to be honest, I thought was ridiculous. I had spent four years on the team, and he had been there for twenty-four hours; I was not the one who needed to prove anything. Still, I took his words to heart and worked extremely hard in the first couple of weeks of practice.

When the day came for Coach Hobbs to name captains, he listed the first four with no mention of my name. He then said, “Oh, by the way, we have one more captain.” And he said my name.

I was grateful and relieved. He pulled me aside after practice and said, “You earned the opportunity to become a captain because of your leadership in practice, not because you have been here for four years. Don’t ever think in your lifetime that you shouldn’t have to earn respect from others and that leadership is something you’re entitled to.”



From that story, Coach Hobbs taught me that you could be ready to lead all you want, but you need to be someone worth following.

That is transformational leadership. 

But again, it is not an “either/or” but a continuum.  I used the following example in discussing professional learning for educators.



In some cases, there are things that we have to learn because we have to learn them (i.e., how to input information for report cards, etc.).  But is the “have to” experience the norm or the exception? For example, I “have to” file taxes every year in the way that the separate agencies ask me to do. I can’t say to the IRS, “Check out this awesome video I made of my tax filing this year.” I have to fill out their forms the way they ask.  I am not a fan, but I am okay with it because I have a job I love.  If I didn’t, that would be a different story.

But too often, many feel that professional learning is seen as “filing taxes” instead of something of high value. Sometimes we have to file taxes, but if that is the norm, we might be “at” our job, but not necessarily there.  

Compliance (transactional leadership) is a reality in our world. But it should be the exception rather than the norm.  How do we move along that continuum to get to that “transformational” space not only in leadership but in teaching and learning as well?

I am glad that I have had the opportunity to think about more in-depth because I saw the value in the process.

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