Transformational Leadership in the Community College Classroom

John Neal
Learning Abstracts

Combining quality education with an open-door policy has been at the forefront of the community college’s existence for years. This can be a challenging task because of characteristics unique to community colleges. These characteristics include

serving students with disparate, complicated needs; decision-making authority that is highly diffuse and decentralized, causing the process to become fragmented, unstructured, and often partisan; vulnerability due to external influences, both in funding sources and in government regulations; and educational goals that are not product-oriented, but are often ambiguous, and highly contested, often by those assigned to execute the goals. (Roueche, Baker, & Rose, 2014, p. 9)

Basham (2012) believes that due to decreased funding, institutions of higher learning are focusing less on students and more on institutional marketing and business development to keep up with the changing economic environment. Research conducted by Roueche, Baker, and Rose (2014) explains that due to issues such as these, community colleges have come under scrutiny for not delivering on their promises of educating and graduating students in a timely manner. Faculty are the first line of defense regarding student retention and graduation. Therefore, a type of leadership is needed in college classrooms that (1) offers students motivation and inspiration, (2) stimulates students intellectually, (3) offers support unique to each student, and (4) is trusted and respected.

Transformational Leadership

Leadership is a broad concept that can be defined in many ways. There are types of leadership that offer hope and optimism, and that empower those who participate in the process. Leadership that “facilitates the redefinition of a people’s mission and vision, a renewal of their commitment, and the restructuring of their systems for goal accomplishment” (Roberts, 1985, p. 1024) is called transformational leadership. At one point used to describe the characteristics and behaviors of political leaders, transformational leadership is thought to evoke the transformation of individuals as well as organizations. James MacGregor Burns (1978), who introduced the phrase transformational leadership, described it as “a process in which leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level or morality and motivation” (p. 20). Transformational leadership is, therefore, essential to community college administration as they are often challenged to make decisions that hold true to the college’s mission and vision in the midst of low enrollment and declining state funding.

Transformational leadership is person-centered. It is highlighted by the remarkable relationship between leader and follower, which is analogous to the connection between faculty and student in the community college setting. This concept is important for community college instructors to realize because, according to Bass and Riggio (2010), transformational leaders “stimulate and inspire followers to both achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their own leadership capacity” (p. 76). This relationship is reinforced when viewed through the lens of the four components of transformational leadership.

  1. Intellectual stimulation is enhanced in an environment in which individuals feel free to make mistakes and are encouraged and challenged to solve problems in new and creative ways (Bass & Riggio, 2010). In this atmosphere, input from followers is valued even if their philosophies and actions are in direct opposition to the leader’s vision.
  2. Idealized influence or charisma refers to the admiration followers have for their leaders. This admiration can be so prevalent that followers identify with their leaders’ sense of moral judgement and believe that he/she is the epitome of hard work, resolve, and perseverance. Because of their influence over their followers, leaders are viewed as trusted, respected, and admired role models (Bass & Riggio, 2010) who communicate a sense of vision, emphasizing trust and commitment to achievement (Bass, 1997).
  3. Inspirational motivation refers to leaders’ ability to “energize followers by viewing the future with optimism and stressing ambitious goals,” (Bogler, Caspi, & Roccas, 2013, p. 379). Moreover, leaders “create clearly communicated expectations that followers want to meet” and “inspire those around them by providing meaning and challenge to their followers’ work” (Bass & Riggio, 2010, p. 78).
  4. Leaders turn experiences into teachable moments by becoming mentors and coaches. According to Bass (as cited in Balwant, 2016), individualized consideration “is the treatment of followers as unique individuals, giving specialized attention to followers’ needs and lending support when necessary so that the followers can realize their full potential” (p. 23).

Each component integrated into a community college environment has the capacity to increase factors that promote student and organizational success.

Transformational Instructor Leadership and Student Outcomes

Research indicates that the use of transformational leadership by faculty in two-year institutions increases positive student outcomes such as motivation (Avolio, 1999; Balwant, 2016), student satisfaction (Balwant, 2016; Conger, Kanungo, & Menon, 2000), academic performance (GPA), and affective learning (Balwant, 2016), all of which are at the core of every college’s mission.

Student Satisfaction

A study evaluating the relationship of three different leadership styles and their effects on student outcomes revealed student satisfaction was the outcome that most correlated to leadership style (Bogler et al., 2013). The study found that “the more the students attributed transformational leadership style to the instructor and the less they attributed to him/her a passive leadership style, the more satisfied they were” (p. 386). Another study of students who experience transformational instructor leadership in a college setting reported an increase in student satisfaction and perceived instructor credibility (Balwant, 2016; Conger et al., 2000). These factors could be used as a highly effective marketing tool to attract students looking to connect with inspirational faculty who are experts in their area of instruction. In addition, transformational instructor leaders look for ways to connect course content to students’ everyday lives (Conger et al., 2000). This effort may help community college students see the relevance of the material and help them relate to the instructor, creating a positive student environment leading to increased student satisfaction.

Academic Performance

A mentoring/coaching model is often used in transformational instructor leadership to enhance students’ self-efficacy. Increased self-efficacy can help students believe they have what it takes to complete course goals successfully, which can lead to increased academic performance (Bandura, 1986). A more recent study suggested the relationship between transformational leadership in the classroom, student academic performance, and motivation positively affected a significantly larger population of students who were serviced through a more traditional face-to-face teaching model versus online teaching methods (Balwant, 2016).

Student Learning

Balwant (2016) states that, “In an instructor-student relationship, intellectually stimulating leaders’ behaviors should create empowered thinkers and learners” (p. 26). This, consequently, “may create a classroom culture that encourages students to make mistakes as part of the learning process [and] to engage with, understand, and apply course material” (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p. 25). Community college instructors who encourage students to think outside the box are seen as individuals who want their students to express themselves openly, promoting an atmosphere of participation without judgement. In addition, William and Rosser (as cited in Boyd, 2009), believe that “when students can make connections between content and something in their lives, they are able to better integrate that knowledge” (p. 51).

Examples of Transformational Leadership in the Classroom

The process by which instructors apply the components of transformational leadership in an effort to directly “guide, structure and facilitate student activities and relationships” (Balwant, 2016, p. 21) within a classroom setting is known as transformational instructor leadership. An instructor, for example, may use her influence (charisma or idealized influence) to encourage a student’s development in a course subject (inspirational motivation), helping the student see the full scope of the course while taking into consideration the student’s individual needs (individualized consideration). Similarly, a business professor who owns a retail store may take the time to mentor a student who is interested in owning a business but has little to no experience in sales (individualized consideration). Seeing the student’s potential, the professor asks the student to look at his organization with a fresh pair of eyes, hoping the student will produce new and innovative ideas that can move the professor’s company forward (intellectual stimulation).

Faculty who employ inspirational motivation expect nothing less than the student’s best and encourage commitment to achieving previously set goals. They inspire students to work hard not just for themselves but for the progression of their fellow classmates. When instructors challenge students to question their own beliefs and assumptions about the world around them, even at the expense of the subject matter being taught, intellectual stimulation is taking place. When addressing their philosophies, students may be asked to view them in different ways and from others’ perspectives. According to King (as cited in Boyd, 2009), through the process of intellectual stimulation the “students’ prior beliefs, values and assumptions are tested and substantial changes in the way they make sense of their world occurs” (p. 52). During individualized consideration, instructors establish a classroom atmosphere in which students feel supported and in which their needs are met. Faculty become role models and, in some cases, heroes to students who feel the instructor will exercise integrity and always have the students’ best interest in mind.

Training Community College Faculty in Transformational Leadership

According to Werner and DeSimone (2006), training faculty to incorporate transformational leadership into the college experience can be done in four stages:

  1. Needs Assessment: Assessments are used to detect opportunities for improvement within the faculty population. Student questionnaires, conversations with faculty chairs, and trained observers from outside the institutions are possible methods of gaining information regarding instructors’ teaching styles and conduct.
  2. Program Design: Data collected from the needs analysis can be used to formulate an effective training program or discover if such a program is needed. If a program is determined necessary, learning outcomes should be designated based upon transformational leadership behaviors described as lacking among faculty.
  3. Implementation: Training methods can include role modeling to display proper leadership attributes and rectify ineffective instructional behaviors, learning modules to promote convenience without overwhelming the instructors’ frantic schedules, and group discussions to allow feedback from those involved.
  4. Program Evaluation: Evaluation of the program is essential to determine if learning outcomes were met and behaviors modified, and what results were achieved.


As research points to student-faculty relationships as one of the most dominant factors in student success, instructional behavior that offers support, stimulates the mind, inspires, and is truly respected is a definite asset in today’s community college classrooms. By using transformational leadership, faculty can empower students to think creatively, commit to achievement, and express their needs and concerns. This leadership style has resulted in positive student outcomes in areas of student satisfaction, academic performance, motivation, and student learning, which could lead to improved retention and completion rates on college campuses.

With institutional buy-in, a comprehensive process can be developed at community colleges to (1) identify existing leadership qualities and (2) implement training programs that positively reinforce transformational behaviors. Well-planned and strategic training programs can be an invaluable tool to combat potential barriers that threaten student success.


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John L. Neal is an admissions advisor and adjunct instructor at Delta College in University Center, Michigan, and a student in Ferris State University’s Doctorate in Community College Leadership program.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.