Article Review: Transformational Leadership by Lynn Balster Liontos

Northern and Native schools are notorious for student dropout. Even with the addition of grade extensions in Inuit community schools, very few students are managing to graduate from school. Little has been written about Canadian Inuit students but a large body of research on the American Indian dropout situation has identified critical factors that include passive teaching methods, inappropriate curriculum, inappropriate testing/student retention, and tracked classes (Reyhner, 1992). In a 1992 study by Reyhner, many Native students reported that they saw themselves "as pushouts or kickouts rather than dropouts" (p. 11). Transformational leadership may be the first step in coming to grips with this unfortunate educational issue.

The article by Lynn Balster Liontos (1992) defines transformational leadership as a way to be "successful in collaboratively defining the essential purpose of teaching and learning and then empowering the entire school community to become energised and focused. In schools where such a focus has been achieved, we found that teaching and learning became transformative for everyone" (Liontos, 1992). Transformational leadership may be one way to eliminate Native dropout because of its focus on teamwork and comprehensive school improvement (Liontos, 1992).

The author begins the article by defining transformational leadership as compared to instructional leadership (top-down hierarchy leadership) and transactional leadership (based on an exchange of services for rewards). The problem with other forms of leadership is that there is a tendency to think of leadership as the ability to take charge and get things done, where the leader is expected to know the best form of instruction for students (Liontos, 1992). This type of thinking keeps us from focusing on important factors like teamwork and overall school improvement. Once schools focus more on these elements, teaching and learning become transformative for everyone (Liontos, 1992). Transformation and empowerment for students in attitude, motivation, and achievement are desperately needed for students who are at risk of dropping out of school.

Liontos (1992) states that transformational leaders have three fundamental goals. One goal is to help staff development and encouraging a collaborative, professional school culture; this means that staff members are invited to learn from each other to become better teachers and be involved in shared leadership (Liontos, 1992). A second goal is to foster teacher development by internalising goals for professional growth and school improvement; this goal is supported by the belief that "teachers will more likely teacher for thinking if they are in an intellectually stimulating environment themselves" (Costa, 1991, p. 93). Finally, the third goal is to help teachers solve problems effectively by stimulating teachers to engage in new activities; these activities force the group to work smarter, not harder and the group develops better solutions together than the principal could alone (Liontos, 1992).

The author also provides a number of strategies that transformational leaders use to fulfil these three goals. Transformational leaders should visit each classroom each day and use active listening to survey the staff often about their wants and needs. Good leaders help teachers work smarter by actively looking at a variety of interpretations school-wide and encourage teachers to experiment with new ideas based on good research. They use action research teams as a way of sharing power with the school so that everyone has responsibilities in governance functions. Transformational leaders get others involved in school goals and beliefs; they let prospective staff members know that they are wanted to be actively involved in school decision-making and collaboration. Celebrating the good things that are happening in the school and making sure to say thank you for special efforts is important (Liontos, 1992). These strategies help transformational leaders make a difference to the learning community; as Costa states "Our schools will prove futile unless we create a school environment that signals the staff, students, and community that the development of the intellect, cooperative decision making and the enhancement of individual diversity are of basic importance as the school’s core values." (Costa, 1991, 93).

Transformational leaders encourage teachers to learn to be better teachers, work together and internalise goals for school improvement. These are important goals when considering how they reflect on decreasing student dropout rates. In the article by Reyhner (1992) on American Indian dropouts, students reported that educators of Indian students use passive teaching methods to instruct Indian students; classes became boring and repetitive for remedial classes. Transformational leaders give encouragement to teachers to develop better teaching techniques; Liontos (1992) states that "student achievement can be remarkably improved by such leadership . . . Schools where teachers and students reported a culture conducive to school success had a transformational leader as its principal" (p. 3). This supports a belief that schools with transformational leaders would have a lower dropout out rate; this is definitely important in Native schools where the dropout rate is extremely high.

Finally, Liontos (1992) emphasises the need for balance when leaders approach creating successful schools; transformational leadership becomes just one part of the power continuum between the top-down hierarchy end and the facilitative end. Finding the right balance is important and transformational leadership is a critical element which has influence on teacher collaboration, changes in attitudes toward school improvement, and altered instructional behaviour (Liontos, 1992). These changes in attitude and instructional behaviour are vital to making differences for students who might dropout because schools are not meeting their needs.

Liontos (1992) does a very good job of defining terms and listing the transformative leadership goals and strategies. Much of the research reported in the article is drawn from quality authors like Thomas Sergiovanni. Unfortunately, Liontos (1992) does not make any of her own conclusions on transformational leadership; instead the author simply paraphrases the work of others. Although it is convenient for the reader to have an overview of research and contributions about transformational leadership in such a summary format, it might have been more effective if Liontos (1992) had gone an extra step in critically thinking about the topic and providing her own reflections.

Although I believe that there is a connection between transformational leadership and the dropout situation, this article by Liontos (1992) is not quite strong enough to support restructuring in this area. More research is needed before Native and Northern schools will be able to make the changes that are so desperately needed to reverse the outcome of student dropout.


Costa, Arthur L. (1992). The learning community. In A.L. Costa , J. Bellanca, & R. Fogarty (Eds.), If Minds Matter vol. 1. (pp. 93 - 100). Arlingtom Heights, IL: IRI/SkyLight Publishing, Inc.

Liontos, Lynn Balster. (1992). Transformational leadership. ERIC digest [On-line], 72. Available: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, ED347636.

Swisher, K. & Hoisch M. (1992). Dropping Out Among American Indians and Alaska Natives: A Review of Studies. Journal of American Indian Education, 31, 3 - 23.