Combine Transformative Learning and Leadership

By Paul R. Scheele Ph.D. | Lead

If you are in a leadership role, it will be worth your effort to become a facilitator of transformative learning with those you serve. This article explores the reasons why and helps show you where you can start.

Among business professionals engaged in global transformational activities, there is an increasing need to better understand the process of transformation within individuals and social systems. Conferences like the Transformative Learning Conference (which held its tenth annual gathering in 2012) and publications like the Journal of Transformative Education (established in 2003) are forums in which scholars and practitioners from around the world can share information.

Participants in and contributors to these conferences and journals come from a wide range of backgrounds, including education, government, the arts, and, of course, business. According to Brooks, the interest human resource professionals show in transformation is a response to today’s increasingly complex, diverse, fast-paced, and rapidly changing workplace:

Psychologically, these kinds of challenges require employees to think and perhaps re-conceptualize their identities, values, goals, core beliefs, and behaviors. In the social world, the changes may require development of different ways of communicating, new coaching and negotiation skills, and the ability to shift context, think systemically, and face the potentially crushing awareness that one may have to “not know” in order to be better learners and knowers. (2002, p. 211)

In the contexts of both human resource development (HRD) and organization development (OD), research and praxis coalesce to both foster transformation and strengthen its connection to effective leadership. Literature in the fields of transformative learning, transformational leadership, and leadership development suggest the importance of leaders becoming facilitators of transformation.

In his book Transforming Leadership, Burns used the differences between the verbs change and transform to define the role of the transformational leader:

To change is to substitute one thing for another, to give and take, to exchange places, to pass from one place to another. These are the kinds of changes I attribute to transactional leadership. But to transform something cuts much more profoundly. It is to cause a metamorphosis in form or structure, a change in the very condition or nature of a thing, a change into another substance, a radical change in outward form or inner character, as when a frog is transformed into a prince or a carriage maker into an auto factory. It is change of this breadth and depth that is fostered by transforming leadership. (2003, p. 24)

For Burns, the key is for leaders to empower others, to inspire them: “By pursuing transformational change, people can transform themselves. The word for this process is empowerment. Instead of exercising power over people, transforming leaders champion and inspire followers” (2003, p. 26).

To what ends must transformational leaders inspire their followers? Heifetz describes five strategic principles of leadership:

  1. Identify the adaptive challenge. . . .
  2. Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work. . . .
  3. Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions. . . .
  4. Give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand. . . .
  5. Protect voices of leadership without authority. (1994, p. 128)

These principles underlie what Kegan and Lahey and others recommend: the need for adaptation in the face of a disorienting dilemma.

Here is what you can do:

Create a work environment in which critical discourse can take place. Apply pressure to focus and safely address the adaptive challenges you identify. You will be setting the stage for transformative learning within individuals and transformational change within your organization.


Brooks, A. K. (2004). Transformational learning theory and implications for human resource development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 6(2), 211-225.

Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming leadership: A new pursuit of happiness. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

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