Transformative leadership theory (TLT) is distinct from other leadership theories because of its inherently normative and critical approach grounded in the values of equity, inclusion, excellence, and social justice. It critiques inequitable practices, oppression, and marginalization wherever they are found and offers the promise not only of greater individual achievement but of a better life lived in common with others.
Two basic propositions (or hypotheses) and eight tenets ensure the comprehensiveness of TLT. The first hypothesis is that when students feel welcome, respected, and included, they are better able to focus on learning and, hence, distal academic outcomes improve. The second hypothesis is that when there is a balance between public and private good emphases, and students are taught about civic participation, democratic society is strengthened. To fulfil these hypotheses, TLT is neither prescriptive nor instrumental; it does not offer a checklist of actions, but instead offers eight guiding tenets to ensure responsiveness to the needs of specific organizational and cultural contexts.
The origins of TLT lie in a rejection of primarily technical approaches to leadership that do not adequately address the diversity of 21st-century schools and that have not been able to reduce the disparities between dominant and minoritized groups of students. Transformative leadership theory, like transformational leadership, draws on Burns’s concept of transforming leadership, although the two have sometimes been confused and confounded. Transformational leadership has more positivist overtones and focuses more on organizational effectiveness and efficiency; TLT has been operationalized as a values-based critical theory, focused both on beliefs and actions that challenge inequity and that promote more equity and inclusive participation.
TLT draws on other critical theories, including critical race theory, queer theory, leadership for social justice, and culturally responsive leadership, as well as transformative learning theory, in order to promote a more equitable approach to education. Thus, it takes into account the material, lived realities of those who participate in the institution as well as organizational contingencies. To do so, the following eight specific interconnected and interrelated principles have been identified from the literature:
• the mandate for deep and equitable change;
• the need to deconstruct and reconstruct knowledge frameworks that perpetuate inequity and injustice;
• the need to address the inequitable distribution of power;
• an emphasis on both private and public (individual and collective) good;
• a focus on emancipation, democracy, equity, and justice;
• an emphasis on interdependence, interconnectedness, and global awareness;
• the necessity of balancing critique with promise;
• the call to exhibit moral courage.
Questioning, dialogue, free-writing, reflection, deliberative and distributive processes, and relationship-building are central to the successful implementation of TLT.
TLT in education is a proven way to address the persistent opportunity and achievement gaps between dominant and minoritized students and of enhancing democratic participation in civil society. In other areas, such as business, non-profits, social services, or sociocultural support agencies, TLT offers a comprehensive way for leaders to reflect on how to provide equitable, inclusive, and excellent environments for both clients and employees.