dr mark gonxalez

What True Leaders Do

Becoming A Better Leader

By Dr. Mark Gonzalez

In business, in school, or in life, a transformational leader is one who can identify necessary change and create a vision to enact it. Then they inspire and motivate a team to work together to achieve the goals that have been set. It’s considered a contrasting style to what’s known as the transactional approach. A transactional leader adopts a “telling” style, rather than a “selling” style. Transactional leaders favor a managerial role and tend to focus on short-term, operational goals. Their job is to delegate tasks and ask that they be performed according to a protocol in “exchange” (transaction) for rewards (paycheck) or consequences based on their performance. 

Both of these leadership styles can be useful. However, transformational leadership is critical in the non-profit world. People drawn to this type of work are almost always motivated by something other than money. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and to feel like they are making a difference in the world. A transformational leadership style can attract the right kind of staff, volunteers and stakeholders who are energized and motivated by the mission and enable everyone to achieve the goal.

As I close out my first 30 days as the new CEO here, the phrase “transformational relationships” has been on my mind a lot. Operation Exodus incorporated this term into its mission statement years ago, and rightly so. This organization is unique in that everyone I have encountered here has the ability to build meaningful, caring relationships with others. And, not just within their realm of influence, but across the board. For example, while you would expect our team of tutors to build meaningful relationships with their students, they also build caring relationships with parents, volunteers, our community partners, and each other.

I have come to see this as the organization’s greatest strength.


We owe it to our young people to bring them to a place where they believe in their own potential, creativity and ability.

I have heard story after story of young people who, despite growing up in extremely challenging circumstances, have gone on to discover lives of promise and purpose. They would tell you that without being enrolled in this program, they wouldn’t have made it to where they are today. Dig a bit deeper, and you would also find that while math games and spelling lessons played a part, it was the transformational relationships they built with the folks here at Exodus that changed their lives and gave them hope. And that’s really what we’re in the business of providing to families in Washington Heights…hope.

The principles of transformational leadership are simple, and can be practiced to benefit any kind of relationship; supervisor to a team, employee to employee, teacher to student, pastor to congregant, spouse to spouse, there’s no limit.  

A Transforming Power

In youth development, it’s important to cast a vision for student achievement and growth, and communicate that in a way that everyone involved understands it, and becomes invested in it. There needs to be a continuous cycle of assessment, encouragement, and improvement. Does the team have all the necessary information? Tools? From executives and senior staff, to volunteer mentors and teachers, a transformational approach is the cornerstone of success.

Here are some traits that would define transformational leadership, concepts that can be incorporated into any organization, no matter what your role might be: 

  1. You create a vision within your realm of influence and establish the goals needed to make that vision a reality.
  2. You are someone that builds an inspirational and productive culture.
  3. You look for opportunities to learn more about your team members, their gifts and passions. You encourage “team” members in ways that are meaningful to them.
  4. You offer individualized support and any necessary tools, systems or training that’s needed to meet the high standards you have set.
  5. You always practice what you preach. If you expect certain behaviors, you model them. Never expect anyone to do anything you haven’t tried yourself.

In practical terms, this philosophy of transformational change will be the foundation of our Reaching New Heights: 2021 strategic plan. I, along with Matt Mahoney, and the board of directors will be completing this new vision document and signing off on it in early June. There are several reasons why formalizing an organizational culture based on transformational relationships will be the first step outlined in this new strategic plan.


Playing To People’s Strengths

For one, it happens to be our top organizational strength. Second, a large body of research shows that transformational relationships are a critical component of academic and organizational growth. We must work alongside of, and learn from, each other especially our young people. This is not a top-down transformation where some supervise and effect change only in others. It’s more of a collaborative relationship where we all learn and grow together. That’s truly powerful!

We also believe it will be a strong foundation for building an organization that will have even more impact on our students, families and the community.

Our Reaching New Heights:2021 strategic plan will define clearly what success looks like. How it will be measured, the infrastructure needed, and how we leverage the talents and resources each person brings to the effort. We must commit to inspiring, training and empowering everyone involved to work together to advance the mission.



Are You An Agent of Change or Status Quo?

In learning more about the principles of transformational leadership, I realize that this kind of culture sets the bar high, and requires hard work. However, there is no way it can fail to have incredible impact, as we all become agents of change together. This will include me, my team, volunteers, our community, and most important, you. If you have read this far then you must be an agent of change for education for our most vulnerable, underserved youth.

In the end our mission is simple, and will remain very much the same. We owe it to our young people to bring them to a place where they believe in their own potential, creativity, and ability. An Operation Exodus student is one who graduates high school and has their sights set on a purpose-driven life and a set of social emotional strengths that will help them achieve their goals.

Our Reaching New Heights: 2021 strategic plan will be the blueprint that outlines how we can all work together diligently, until they cross that finish line, hopefully in a university cap and gown.

We all crave evidence that we have value in the big scheme of things, especially our young people growing up in underserved communities. They deserve to know their worth and have their voices heard. Douglas Reeves, who studies systems thinking in school leadership puts it even more eloquently,

“…each star in a firmament holds and essential place, and without it, the constellation would be diminished.”

Operation Exodus is making it our mission to ensure that our uptown youth come to understand how bright their light is, and much the world needs to see it shine.


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