Free article: Leadership: Transactional vs transformational

Published: Thursday, 05 March 2020
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Kenny Wheeler continues his series of articles about leadership, and discusses how best to categorise and use the different styles available.


  • Transactional leadership looks to maintain a status quo by imposing prescribed practices and standards.
  • Transformational leadership looks to change and improve, allowing a degree of autonomy.
  • Transactional leadership has clear rewards and sanctions and is hierarchical.
  • Transformational leadership builds trust and emotional bonds with staff and promotes collaborative working.

Leadership is contextual, we may find ourselves in a situation where we have to flex our leadership style in order to get things done. Before we start thinking about what could be, we might need to make sure that the basics are in place. If you are ‘stuck’ then, as a leader, you may have to be over prescriptive so that everyone is clear about how things should be done.

The writer Daniel Goleman has outlined  the following different leadership styles

  • Visionary: Come with me because
  • Affiliative: People come first
  • Democratic/participative: What do you think?
  • Coaching: What can you contribute?
  • Pacesetting: Do it the way I’ve shown you. Now!
  • Directive/commanding: Do what I tell you!

Let’s now think about these styles in the context of transformational or transactional approaches. If we look at both lists in Figure 1, Two styles of leadership, we might favour one style over the other because that is how we want to be led. However, we should take a step back before we condemn one of the lists to the rubbish bin.

p15 Table

Transactional leadership

We may see ourselves in a situation where things are not being done properly and, despite successive training days and clear messages in staff meetings, things have not and appear unlikely to ever change. In this context, transactional leadership could be the best option. This is because it’s going to be necessary to micro-manage people in order to ensure that standards are being met and all staff are delivering high quality teaching in the classroom. We need this rather drastic approach to leadership to help us get unstuck and ensure everyone is on board. Naturally, there will be some who dislike this autocratic and controlling approach who will leave, but those that remain know what they need to do and are reminded through the use of rewards and sanctions.

Our article Leadership: Emotional intelligence looked at emotional intelligence. If we link this approach to that article there are two different approaches we can use with transactional leadership.

The future

One of them goes against traditional transactional leadership because we are talking about the future.

It would involve reassuring staff that this controlled approach is necessary to get us out of being ‘stuck’. You would then talk about the future, which deviates from traditional transactional leadership, and how things might look.

Routines with rewards

The other approach is commanding and directive, where leaders dictate how things must be and offer little reassurance that things will be different in the future. Morale may then be impacted in different ways. One approach offers a vision of things being better, whilst the other perhaps offers a standard approach and routines, with some rewards if you comply with expectations (there are no nuanced approaches, you do things the way you have been told).

Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership looks to change and improve how we do things in a setting. Leaders will create or develop a vision and inspire others to work in different ways, allowing a degree of autonomy. Rather than focusing solely on the here and now, leaders will talk about what could be, and how individuals and teams will contribute to a better future. Competent and capable individuals are likely to appreciate this approach as they are given freedom to think and do things differently. There will be a degree of creative licence so that staff can explore different and hopefully better ways of engaging learners.

Build vision

In terms of accompanying leadership styles, leaders’ styles are likely to be visionary with some affiliative and coaching elements. Rather than punish individuals for not meeting expectations, there will be a degree of coaching and offers of support to help achieve improvements in practice over time. There will also be some public and private celebration of success done in a genuine way so that staff feel proud of their achievements.

Acknowledgment and praise

Notice the private acknowledgement linked to transformational leadership. This is key as it gives individuals personal validation that their efforts matter and are important. It also ensures that staff feel there is a genuine approach from leaders that they take time to praise individuals and have conversations about what is working and what could be even better. The private acknowledgement also helps avoid overuse of public praise which can at times feel a little disingenuous: you have your name read out in a staff meeting, you get a cheer and then nothing else.

Consider context

The transformational leadership approach is also concerned with empowering individuals and trusting that they know how and where things could be better. Within the classroom setting we would not be looking for algorithmic approaches to teaching but seeking for individuals to flex and be more heuristic. Context may well influence this approach. This is because leaders may feel more inclined to trust staff if they do not have other stakeholders holding them to account because improvements need to be made in a short amount of time.


One of the key differences between the two leadership approaches is the use of hierarchy. Transactional leadership has clear rewards and sanctions, staff are likely to be reminded of the hierarchy and that you do what you are told because the boss wields the power. Indeed, whilst it is called transactional leadership, it could be argued that it is more management than leadership. Transformational leadership builds trust and emotional bonds with staff as ‘we are all in this together’ working towards a common goal and vision. There are also likely to be more informal conversations as leaders seek opportunities to coach and guide rather than lecture and correct.

Short term and long term

Overall, there are merits to each approach and context may well affect which approach to take, as well as the confidence and competence of the leaders in each setting. Transactional leadership looks to maintain a status quo by imposing prescribed practices and standards. Helpful in the short term to perhaps get you out of being stuck, but in the long term it is likely to demotivate staff by being overly prescriptive and not trusting professionals to make the right decisions. Transformational leadership requires a clear vision and trust, trust that individuals and teams can improve practices when given the autonomy. Leaders develop trust through conversations which support and inspire individuals and give confidence to think beyond approaches that may have been the norm. This approach also acknowledges that leaders will not always have the solutions.

I hope that this has given an unbiased overview of the two different leadership approaches. It is too easy to dismiss an approach because it does not appeal to our natural instincts about how people should be managed and led. There will be times when each approach might work best but I think it is worth bearing in mind one approach looks to ensure the status quo remains whilst the other looks to change and evolve practices.

In the next article we will be looking at change: both management and leadership of it.


Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Kenny Wheeler has over a decade’s experience as a secondary SENCo and senior leader. He works for the Driver Youth Trust (@DriverTrust) as a senior consultant. He is also a consultant for SEN, Inclusion and Leadership. You can contact him on Twitter @KennyInclusion.

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