Transformational Leadership: A Case Study
by Brent Phillips
Master of Education course 5P73
Dr. C. Mitchell

November 4, 1996

Transformational Leadership: A Case Study

Transformational leadership is defined by Burns (1978, as cited by Tierney, 1991) as occurring when, “one or persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality...” It is a style of leadership which emphasizes the interactivity between leaders and followers.  Burns was interested in how leaders could help facilitate social change through mutual awareness, concern, and innovation. Presumably, as a leader inspires his followers to act in a certain way, their inspiration and enthusiasm validates  the leader’s initial vision.  Thus, momentum continues to build toward the attainment of the desired goal. Transformative leaders are able to relinquish the more traditional reigns of control and collaborate with their followers to create positive reform.

In order to be successful, four conditions need to be met by the transformational leader (Tierney, 1991). First, the individual needs to act as a teacher. Second, that person needs to be  able to understand the needs of others. Third, the transformational leader must interact with those people. Fourth, there needs to be an increase in the level of moral awareness in the followers. All these conditions must be present before a leader can be labeled as truly “transformative”.  These are internal characteristics of the transformational leader. However, in addition to these intrinsic behaviours, certain external influences still affect the ability of a transformational leader to perform his or her duties. The structure of the organization itself may influence how a leader operates (Osterman, 1993).

Transformational leadership will be the  lens through which this case study will examine the subject’s leadership style throughout his career. This paper will analyze the leadership performance of the subject across his three key leadership positions as minister in the United church, union leader, and elementary principal. It will also examine how the structure of each organization affected his attempts at being a transformational leader.

The subject was interviewed over a one-hour period at his work location.  Notes were taken by the researcher and form the basis for the findings presented.

Bart is a 56-year old principal working for the Waterloo Board of Education.  Upon graduation from high school, he enrolled at Western University to pursue an Honours English and Philosophy Bachelor of Arts degree.  Bart subsequently earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree over the next three years and became a minister in the United church.  He remained with the church for five years, but left the clergy after this brief period of time after realizing that he had serious philosophical differences with some of his church’s teachings that could not be resolved.

Throughout his tenure as minister, Bart was actively involved in the local schools. As part of his training, he would visit with students in nearby high schools to offer guidance and counseling on a regular basis. He reported that this was the part of his job that he enjoyed most. He worked closely with the students and developed very positive relationships with many of them.

After his departure from the church, Bart felt that teaching would be a natural extension of his experience as a minister so he enrolled in teacher’s college.  Bart reported that he was able to relax while there since it was his second foray through a professional school. He was able to feel more at ease with his courses because he felt that what he was learning in teacher’s college was not that relevant to the classroom experience he would gain once he was teaching.  In addition, he spent a lot of his time counseling the younger students on personal and academic problems due to his previous experience as a minister.

After receiving his teaching certificate, Bart taught at the Waterloo Board of Education in the elementary division for five years.  During that time he taught students from Grade 4 to Grade 8.  He then took his Principal’s Course over two summers. Bart considers those “wasted summers”, as he feels that they did not prepare him at all for the job of principal. He was promoted to vice-principal in 1972 and worked with three different principals in two different schools before he was given his first principalship in 1977.  When reflecting back on that first position, Bart indicated that all the practical knowledge that he needed to succeed as a principal was gained through his experience as a vice-principal and observing the principals that he worked with. His first principalship was at an open-concept school in Kitchener, Ontario.  Following that were placements at two other elementary schools in Kitchener. After his third school, Bart took a leave from his duties as principal to serve in another leadership position.

In 1993, Bart was elected president of the local chapter of the elementary men’s teachers union, the Ontario Public School Teachers Federation (OPSTF).  This role reversed his position from a representative of the school board to a representative of the teachers. In 1994 Bart was also the president of the Waterloo Elementary Teacher’s Association (WETA) in addition to his existing role as president of OPSTF.  It was during his tenure as WETA and local OPSTF president that Bart successfully negotiated a new contract for the elementary teachers that would include the restoration of the pay grid that was in place before the Social Contract was imposed three years previously by the provincial government of Ontario.

By 1995, Bart had returned to his previous role as principal for the Waterloo Board of Education.  He was placed at Meadowville Public School in Cambridge, Ontario which is a Kindergarten to Grade 8 school with approximately 650 students.  Over the past two years at this school, Bart has developed a good relationship with the staff, the students, and the parents in the community. He has begun to transform the school from a fractionalized, unfocused group of teachers acting as individuals with disparate objectives to a team of teachers working collaboratively toward a common goal of using technology to aid in educational excellence.  He is looking forward to spending the last three years of his career at Meadowville.

Analysis and Evaluation

The subject demonstrated a transformative leadership style which he attempted to employ in his three positions of leadership throughout his career.  The structures of two of the organizations in which he was a leader were not conducive to a truly transformative leadership style. The first situation presented moral issues to which he was not prepared to acquiesce, resulting in his leaving the position.  The second situation, when he was union leader, employed an hierarchical structure which was not collaborative by nature.  The subject’s third role as principal, however, allowed him the freedom to share his vision with his staff and create a dynamic and collaborative environment in which every staff member contributed to the common goal at the school.

It is important to look at how the subject exhibited transformative leadership qualities throughout his various positions of leadership.  Burns’ (1978, as cited in Tierney, 1991) four characteristics of a transformational leader will be used as the basis for the analysis of the subject’s leadership style.  In addition, the characteristic of collaboration with his followers will also be examined, as it has been shown to be a key component of transformational leadership (Brandt, 1992; Burns, 1978 as cited in Osterman, 1993; Tierney, 1991).

Leadership Situation #1: Minister of the United Church of Canada

It is clear that Bart is a man of conviction. He has demonstrated commitment to his principles throughout all of  the positions of leadership he has occupied.  The earliest example of this was his decision to leave the Ministry.  When faced with the option of continuing to guide, counsel, lead, and encourage within an organization which tried to dictate its morality onto him, Bart chose to leave.  Bart’s commitment to his beliefs were so strong that he chose to throw away a career that was his passion once he realized that some of his beliefs were contradictory to what he represented when he acted as a Minister of the United church. He understood the importance of his role as Minister and what it meant to his parish. He led by example and based his decision on what he felt was the right thing to do, rather than continue under false pretenses.

A Transformational Leader Acts as a Teacher. The key role of a Minister is to teach. By its very nature, being a Minister means instructing others in the ways of the church to which they are members.

A Transformational Leader is Able to Understand the Needs of Others.  As Minister, the subject was aware of his parish’s needs.  The subject  spoke to issues that were of importance to his church’s followers and offered advice on how to lead honest lives.

A Transformational Leader Interacts with Those People.  The subject reported that he truly enjoyed helping others. He was able to do this individually, and in large group situations. There was a high level of interaction when members of his parish sought guidance in personal manners to which he was able to help them understand and resolve.

A Transformational Leader Succeeds in Elevating Followers to New Levels of Consciousness.  This is one of the most important goals for a Minister to aspire toward.  The goal of many sermons is to raise the parishioners’ levels of consciousness about an issue or a topic to the degree that they do something about it. They may change their attitudes, change their actions, or decide to take the message to others in the hopes that others will respond as they have.   The subject was successful in this endeavour.

Transformational Leadership Requires Collaboration.  The church is the epitome of an hierarchical organization. Doctrines, rituals, and methodologies are dictated from above (management). In this case, the subject’s own personal beliefs conflicted with the church’s teachings and he was not allowed to promote or discuss his views to his parish. The subject was a victim of a top-down authoritative decision-making process to which he was not allowed input.  As a result, once he realized that there would be no changing the attitudes of his superiors he felt that he was no longer able to lead within the existing framework of the organization.  Collaboration and creativity were silenced by required compliance.

Leadership Situation #2: Union Leader

Although he was a successful leader during his two year term as union leader, Bart was not able to employ a truly transformative leadership style while leader of the local teacher’s union due to the structure of the union itself.  The union is a rigid organizational structure.  There are clear definitions of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and there are procedures for almost every situation that could arise that would affect the union’s members.  Clearly Bart was an effective leader in his capacity as union president.  However, this occurred within the local union environment.  There was not an opportunity to change the organization above his level in the organization.  Bart reported that this leadership position was by far the easiest one due to the fact that almost every problem had a solution that had been proceduralized previously. Once again, I will use the characteristics of transformative leadership to examine Bart’s success in this leadership position.

A Transformational Leader Acts as a Teacher.  Part of Bart’s role as union leader was to inform members of procedures, processes, and information that was relevant to their jobs. This was an important component of Bart’s job, especially during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement for the elementary teachers.  For a lot of teachers it was the first time that negotiations had produced hostility toward management and there was the threat of job action. Bart had to inform the teachers of procedures that many had never been expected to perform.

A Transformational Leader is Able to Understand the Needs of Others.  As a former teacher, Bart was very aware of the teachers’ concerns and needs.  As union leader, he listened to members’ concerns and responded appropriately.  When his team negotiated an agreement, they did so knowing what their teachers considered most important.

A Transformational Leader Interacts with Those People.  During the labour unrest at the Board of Education, Bart made sure that members were informed of the situation on a regular basis.  He understood the anxiety that the teachers were dealing with and he ensured that communication between his team and the teachers was clear.  He achieved this by answering phone calls, e-mail, and letters from teachers.  He also conducted general information meetings for the entire teaching force, and he chaired the monthly union meetings.

A Transformational Leader Succeeds in Elevating Followers to New Levels of Consciousness.  Bart was successful in bringing together the teachers that were already at the maximum level on the pay grid and those were still moving up the pay ladder and were not yet at the 12 years experience necessary to reach maximum pay.  This was difficult because those at the maximum level were in the majority and stood to lose the most financially.  Through the communication of his personal beliefs and reasoning, Bart was able to demonstrate to the majority of individuals the importance of remaining collectively strong in this issue. He helped individuals put aside concerns for their own  welfare and reflect instead on the concerns of the organization.

Transformational Leadership Requires Collaboration.  Under Bart’s leadership, teachers and negotiators worked together to establish goals for the ongoing contract discussions. Members were given input into which issues they considered most, and the negotiating strategies were then developed from the members’ input.

Leadership Situation #3: Elementary School Principal

Bart  finally experienced true transformational leadership in his third major leadership position.  After leaving his position as union leader, Bart became principal at Meadowville Public School in Cambridge, Ontario.   He created a team atmosphere among the staff and students and developed a vision that pointed the school in a new direction.  Bart is transforming the school from a fractionalized set of independent classroom teachers to a cohesive team with the common goal of using technology to better the learning opportunities and experiences of the students.

Bart has demonstrated the following five characteristics of transformational leadership. The difference between his efforts in this case compared with the previous two cases was that he was able to change the behaviours and views of his superiors as well as his followers - an critical achievement for a transformational leader who is in a middle management position.

A Transformational Leader Acts as a Teacher.  Bart took a pivotal role in preparing his staff for the use of technology in the classroom.  He personally demonstrated technological excellence and leadership by instructing staff members in hardware and software use for personal and instructional uses.  As well, he encouraged teachers on staff with computer skills to mentor others who were in the process of becoming more computer literate.  He led by example.

Bart was also able to demonstrate to his superintendent the need for his school to proceed in the direction he set out.  Initially, administration was wary of the amount of resources and time this vision would require, but Bart was able to convince them to support his school both financially and philosophically.  This is where the process had failed in his previous leadership position as Minister - when he was trying to convince his superiors of the validity of his vision or belief.  This time they supported him.

A Transformational Leader is Able to Understand the Needs of Others.  Bart understood that many of the teachers on his staff were not computer users, and had no desire to use computers.  He changed that by demonstrating how technology would make their lives easier. He helped those teachers become more accepting of technology as a valid educational  and personal tool.  Report cards, timetables, duty schedules, achievement certificates, and the sign-in book were all computerized. He slowly introduced technology until everyone was comfortable using it.

Professional development was also a necessity, so Bart arranged for the coverage of teachers who attended workshops to learn more about computers.  Money was used from the school budget for 10 teachers to attend a 6 month course on using the internet professionally, and in the classroom. He understood that his staff needed to be competent and comfortable using technology if it was to be used effectively in the classroom.

The community became involved as well.  A fund raising committee comprised of parents and teachers was organized for the sole purpose of raising money to purchase computer equipment.  Bart was aware of the need to reach outside the school walls to help the vision succeed.  The school needed parental support for its goal.

Bart also understood that his superiors needed to see that the new direction was benefiting students and staff so he invited them in to see the process in action.

A Transformational Leader Interacts with Those People.  It should be clear through the above description of Bart’s understanding of the needs of his teachers, the parents, and his superiors that there was a high level of interaction with those groups.

A Transformational Leader Succeeds in Elevating Followers to New Levels of Consciousness.  This was perhaps the hardest task Bart faced. He faced the difficult task of motivating his superiors to buy into the vision. He had to convince teachers to modify their teaching strategies and to take on the extra responsibility of learning how to use new technologies.  He had to convince parents that the fundamental change in philosophy at the school was a positive step toward improved student learning.

The end result was remarkable.

The parents became involved themselves, lending expertise where they could and soliciting computer professionals from the community to help out at the school. The Board provided an increased  budget for the special equipment that was needed to network the school.  The teachers became self-motivated to learn more about the new medium they were using. People were beginning to create learning experiences with the technology. One teacher decided to approach Apple Canada to ask for a donation of equipment, which led to a series of discussions between and proposals for the administration and Apple Canada. The result of these meetings was that the school became a test site for Apple’s newest technologies and the company has donated over $50 000 in state-of-the-art computer equipment for the students and teachers to incorporate into their learning and teaching. In 1995, Apple Canada financed the pressing of a CD-ROM containing a “multimediac virtual world” that was created by the students at Meadowville.  This CD-ROM was sent free of charge to every public school in Canada as a demonstration of what students can produce when given the necessary tools.

Bart changed the way the school operated. By doing so, he succeeded in imparting his vision on his staff, the community, and his superiors. He changed things for the better.

Transformational Leadership Requires Collaboration.  The collaboration between community, staff, and administration was critical and it should be is quite apparent that there was a high level of collaboration at each of these levels.  Business was given input into the use of their technologies. Teachers were requested to lead workshops and provide professional development for other schools. Students’ views were polled. Each link in the chain was vital.


The structure of an organization is a key factor in determining whether or not transformational leaders are able to effectively create change.  It appears that a transformational leadership style would be easier to adopt in situations where an individual is in a position of absolute authority, rather than holding a middle management position.  Change is unsettling and organizations can be very political. Those who have power often want to keep it and therefore rebuff attempts from workers below them to institute change that may lessen that power. Kanter (1996) offers a solution for middle managers (such as principals) who want a new initiative to succeed:

In making changes, it is wise to make sure that the key people in the level or two above and in neighbouring functions are sufficiently involved, informed, and taken into account, so that the program can be used to build their own sense of power also.  (p.73)

A transformational leader who does not hold a key-decision making position will have a better chance at being an effective change agent by ensuring that his superiors benefit from the new direction.

Previous research has suggested that effective principals are more likely to use transformational leadership strategies (Kushman, 1992, as cited in Osterman, 1993; Leithwood and Jantzi, 1990, as cited in Osterman, 1993; Sagor, 1991 as cited in Osterman, 1993).  Those findings were supported in this case. Bart demonstrated that an individual can effectively “change the system”.  It took initiative, commitment, and collaboration to be successful, and a key component was to get others involved quickly.  The change that occurred while he was principal at Meadowville Public School happened as a result of the teachers, the community, and the administration working together,  but this success was initiated by one man with a clear vision.  His ability to demonstrate the benefits of implementing his vision to others and to convince them of its viability was an important first step toward building the team of teachers and administrators that would be necessary to drive him toward his goal.


This case typifies many of the struggles that people in positions of leadership face when trying to implement changes to the accepted ways of doing things.  Transformational leaders do not always succeed, as is evident by the first leadership situation discussed in this paper.  Often times this lack of success happens as a result of the organizational structure the leader is working within, rather than the failure of the leader.  When a transformational leader demonstrates to his followers and his superiors the benefits of his vision, both personal and organizational, he will have a better chance of getting that vision accepted and endorsed by the people that will help him succeed.


Brandt, R. (1992). On rethinking leadership: A conversation with Tom Sergiovanni. Educational Leadership, 41(5), 46-49.

Kanter, R. M. (1979). Power failure in management circuits. Harvard Business Review, 57(4), 65-75.

Osterman, K. F., Crow, G. M., & Rosen, J. (1993). New principals: Problems, priorities, and preparation.  Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta, GA.

Tierney, W. G. (1991). Advancing democracy: A critical interpretation of leadership. Peabody Journal of Education, 66(3), 157-175.