Changing the Language to Build a Culture to Support Transformational Leadership

School of yellow fish being led by red fish
(Image credit: iStock/Lonely__)

As defined in Simply Psychology, “Transformational leadership inspires positive changes in those led and invests in the success of every member involved in the process.” Nowhere is this more critical than in the post-pandemic educational environment. With a focus on student-centered learning and personalized professional growth, educational leaders must reevaluate their leadership systems to inspire, support, and collaborate to transform learning and innovation.  

Quintin Shepherd, Superintendent at Victoria ISD in Texas, and Sarah Williamson’s recently released book, The Secret to Transformational Leadership, recognizes the ‘lone wolf’ leader as a thing of the past. Instead, leadership is an influence relationship between leaders and followers who intend fundamental changes that reflect their mutual purpose. Therefore, educational leaders need to have a growth mindset and follow another path of leadership skills that results in high achievement and academic success in schools.  

Competency vs. Compassionate Language

Competencies are a person's knowledge, skills, abilities, and talents that allow them to complete the responsibilities of a specific job successfully. However,  simply communicating competency may not be enough to inspire success. 

“Competency-based language of leadership is like a suit that doesn’t quite fit right anymore,” writes Shepherd. “It works and gets the job done, but you know it is not as good as it could be. Leaders want to tackle the critical and challenging topics facing them every day, but competent language gets in the way of having the conversations that matter.” 

According to Shepherd and Williamson, following another path of skills requires leaders to move away from competency language to the more collaborative language of compassion. This mindset shift will result in better performance and visibility into what the school community expects of its leaders. Choosing to use compassionate language prompts leaders to think differently about how they evaluate their efforts. Compassionate leadership’s transparent and shared purpose or vision includes positively valuing differences, frequent face-to-face contact, continuous commitment to equality and inclusion, clear roles, and a strong team. It embraces the digital world we live in, the generational difference in the school community, and the need to accomplish organizational goals and bring people together around ideas. 

This new language inspires and empowers at the same time. It can unite the school community regarding complex issues that impact students and staff. “It focuses equally on great questions over satisfactory answers, embraces the unknown, and wrestles it into manageable,” writes Shepherd.   

Building Relationships 

To master the new language of leadership, leaders must pivot their thinking from focusing on individuals to concentrating on interactions between individuals. This pivot requires constructive de-polarization that brings people together around purposes and relationships and does not divide based on ideas or ideology. 

The relationships between leaders and active followers should be based on influence and, therefore, multi-directional with more than one follower and typically more than one leader. Leaders and followers purposely desire specific changes, and these changes must be substantive and transforming. Through non-coercive influence relationships, compassionate leaders and the school community can develop objectives that reflect their ideals and mutual intentions. 

Communication Framework 

Shepherd and Williamson identify a four-part communication framework of why, who, how, and what embedded in the shift to compassionate language and transformational leadership.  

Communicating the “why” is mission-critical for the work’s success, as the words of a leader will fall flat without meaning, and the innovation’s success will be in jeopardy. 

Communicating the “who” of the work builds unconditional faith and an ability to connect with the emotions of others. Investing in training resources and processes is non-negotiable, so leaders must have the compassion to treat others as professionals in their work. Shepherd says that if leaders intend to embrace compassionate leadership to the fullest, they must immerse themselves fully in the work and dreams of others.  

Communicating the “how” means enthusiastically embracing innovative ideas. By doing so, districts reduce the cost of failure while increasing the value of innovation, resulting in a powerful paradigm shift in the school culture.  

Communicating the “what” is key as improvement cannot exist in a vacuum. Compassionate transformational leaders share the “what” of the work with deep compassion. 


Shepherd highlights that leaders need to understand their thought processes and disrupt any competency-based language that falls into the “good” or “bad” continuum. His advice to leaders traveling down the path of transformational leadership is to embrace compassionate language by connecting more deeply with their current climate and community. Immersing in the crowd-sourcing of decisions and optimizing digital strategies will create shared spaces for everyone to have their voices heard.