Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University


No matter how competent school leaders are, they can never be competent enough. Why? Because America’s diversity generates unresolvable disagreements regarding what schools should teach and how they should teach it. The only way to generate even superficial consensus is with strategic ambiguity. We use vague slogans such as: “Every school a good school.” “No Child Left Behind,” or “Every Child Succeeds.” Why are they ambiguous? Because everyone supplies their own meaning to the key words; for instance: “good,” “left behind” or “succeeds.” And, importantly, we typically fail to recognize that others often apply very different meanings to these terms than we do.

Since we don’t agree on what these key words mean, implementation quickly bogs down in endless disagreements. For example, just try to get detailed policy agreement on what must be done to make a school “good.”

Also bear in mind that it isn’t only that we disagree with one another. What we as individuals want from schools also changes with our circumstances. In certain situations we want schools that resemble temples and educational leaders who are moral leaders — high priests of rectitude. Provided, of course, it’s our version of rectitude. In other circumstances we want schools to be business-like and school administrators to be production managers. In still other circumstances we want schools to resemble town meetings where policies and procedures are subject to negotiation and compromise — at least for us. Here administrators function as arbitrators, mediating disputes. Even the most gifted administrators find such antagonistic, roles extremely difficult to prioritize. And balance is utterly impossible in circumstances where these roles must be played simultaneously. 

Further adding to these complications is the fact that irreconcilable organizational conflicts also are built into schools.[1]To the extent that leaders exercise power, they can undermine morale. To the extent that they follow policy, they must ignore individual differences. To the extent that they pursue authorized goals, they must give short shrift to delegating authority. In short, it’s a no-win situation.  

What does all this mean for educational administrators? It means that they inevitably fall short of expectations. But transformational leadership theorists allege that school administrators can surmount all of these inevitable contradictions. We are promised that transformational leaders can be pedagogical shamans who magically reconcile our irreconcilable expectations for schools and schooling. How? Presumably through charisma, the purity of their motivation and their force of will.

The literature on “transformational” school leadership is replete with solemn assurances that visionary change agents, expert at dealing with complexity and ambiguity, can successfully convince everyone to agree and commonly serve goodness, righteousness, duty, and obligation. Such humbug may seem harmless—more of the wishful thinking that often substitutes for thought in education. But it’s actually  dangerous to expect charismatic educational leaders to achieve the unachievable. As evidence consider Hoy and Miskell.[2] These transformational leadership gurus say that their type of leaders will: 

a. Define the need for change 
b. Create new visions and muster commitment to them 
c. Concentrate on long-term goals 
d. Inspire followers to transcend their own interests for higher-order goals 
e. Alter organizations to accommodate their own visions rather than work within existing ones 
f. Mentor followers to take greater responsibility for their development and that of others. 

These traits may sound appealing; but stop and think. They fit some of history’s major monsters. Adolf Hitler’s style of leadership, for instance, fulfills every one of these criteria. 

a. He convinced a critical mass of Germans that things must change. “Germany awake!” was emblazoned on Nazi banners. 
b. He offered a new vision for Germany and was able to muster the public support necessary to implement it. Then 20 million people paid for it with their lives. 
c. He pursued very long-term goals — a “thousand-year Reich.”
d. He inspired Germans to set aside their private wants in favor of his public vision. 
e. He altered the organization of German government to fit his own vision. In fact, his Law for Alleviating the Distress of People and Reich is precisely such a blueprint. 
f. He mentored his followers own development (as Nazis) and made sure they closely monitored their neighbor’s “development” as well. 

Hoy and Miskell aren’t the only transformational educational leadership advocates to inadvertently prescribe elements of Hitler’s leadership style. Glickman[3], for instance, emphasizes that a transformational leader develops as a primary focus a “cause beyond self.” Hitler did that too—in spades. In fact, his frighteningly successful demands for self-surrender were a defining feature of National Socialism. “Fuehrer command, we follow!” was the motto that led millions to their doom. In like manner Jim Jones, with his cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, and Marshall Applewhite, the self-neutered Heaven’s Gate cult leader, inspired their followers to embrace causes beyond themselves. But to what end? 

To be fair, many aspects of transformational leadership theory contradict the Hitlerian style of leadership. Its advocates say schools should be safe places for everyone. They champion open and trusting relationships. They celebrate collaboration and introspection. Nevertheless, their relentless insistence on the need for charismatic leadership betrays a dangerous myopia. They fail to recognize that transformational leadership can and does go very wrong, very quickly. 

The search for transformational leadership distracts us from this simple fact: our schools mirror our nation. What is wrong with them is largely wrong with America. We don’t need educational Führers. We need a less-savage nation where the rich can’t buy the government and the young, the old, the sick, and the poor have a voice and dignity. Achieve these objectives and our schools will be more productive. Fail to achieve them and they will remain very troubled. But even if, by some magic, our nation becomes kinder and more compassionate, there will be irreconcilable school conflicts that no style of leadership can ever surmount. In short, school administrators must remain forever east of Eden.



1. Clabaugh, G. K. & Rozycki, E. G. The School as Organization at 

2. Hoy, W., and Miskel, C. (1996). Educational administration: theory, research and practice. New York: McGraw-Hill. 

3. Glickman, C. (1990). Supervision and instruction:A developmental approach. Boston:Allyn and Bacon. 

The first version of this article appeared in educational HORIZONS. It was extensively rewritten 2/4/17