Transformational Leadership

Mary Gormandy White
Women at the office

If you have spent time working with a leader who is focused on bringing about positive change in other people and/or their organization, then you have seen the power of transformational leadership in action. According to VeryWell.com, "transformational leadership is a type of leadership style that can inspire positive changes" in people and organizations. It is an inspirational approach to leadership that can be effective in any business environment.

Understanding This Leadership Style

According to ChangingMinds.org, "working for a transformational leader can be a wonderful and uplifting experience." People who subscribe to this approach to leadership tend to be very energetic and passionate, and it's obvious that they really care about other people and want to see others succeed.

Historical Perspective

The history can be traced to James MacGregor Burns' 1978 book Leadership. He introduced the concept as an approach to political leadership, superior to transactional leadership.

  • According to a 1987 Academy of Management Review article, Burns favored transformational leadership, which focuses on inspiring "shifts in the beliefs, the needs, and the values of followers" over transactional leadership, which focuses on a compliance-oriented exchange between leaders and followers.
  • As introduced by Burns, this form of leadership has a moral component, according to a ChangingMinds.org article, with the leader exhibiting charisma and appealing to the values and ideals of followers. The idea is to foster commitment, inspiring people to want to do what is right and to motivate them to act in a collaborative way.
  • With a transactional approach, by contrast, the leader appeals "to more selfish concerns" of followers. Here, people comply with the leader to get personal rewards or to avoid negative consequences. The focus is on compliance.

A few years later in 1985, Bernard M. Bass applied the concept of transformational leadership to organizational settings. Since that time, as Psychology Today points out, transformational leadership has become one of the most popular leadership theories in the business world and beyond.

Key Components

According to LeadingToday.org and Psychology Today, there are four key components involved in transformational leadership, sometimes referred to as "the 4 I's." To be a transformational leader, one must consistently exhibit:

  • Idealized Influence: Be a positive role models for others, setting an appropriate and ethical example through words, behavior and attitude
  • Inspirational Motivation: Serve as a source of motivation and inspiration for others
  • Individualized Consideration: Demonstrate sincere concern for the feelings and well-being of others
  • Intellectual Stimulation: Challenge others to to innovate and excel

Key Traits of Transformational Leaders

Of course, a leader is only transformational if other people view him or her in that way. Those who want to be viewed as this type of leader must go beyond consistently exhibiting the 4 I's and cultivate key traits associated with this style too. According to TransformLeaders.tv and CustomerThink.com, key traits of transformational leaders include:

  • Having a strong sense of purpose and vision
  • Being internally motivated
  • Being people-oriented
  • Serving as a source of inspiration to others
  • Keeping ego to a minimum
  • Willing to listen to others
  • Encouraging dialogue and debate of ideas
  • Knowing what motivates other people
  • Showing support and empathy for others
  • Having a high degree of emotional intelligence
  • Being proactive (rather than reactive)
  • Being an agent for positive change
  • Demonstrating adaptability
  • Providing support for learning and innovation
  • Willing to take risks (and to allow others to do so as well)
  • Being willing to make decisions
  • Setting an appropriate ethical example
  • Inspiring the trust of others

Pros and Cons of Transformational Leadership

As one of many leadership styles, it's only natural that there are both pros and cons to transformational leadership. AdviseAmerica.org and FutureOfWorking.com cite several examples.

Key Benefits

Transformational leadership can lead to many positive impacts, including:

  • Positive work environment
  • Improved efficiency
  • Greater productivity
  • Competitive advantage through creativity and innovation
  • Nurtures future leaders
  • Cultivates a culture of employee engagement
  • Fosters commitment to the team and overall organization

Possible Drawbacks

Of course, there are also important drawbacks to consider.

  • Not everyone in a leadership position has the ability or desire to lead in this manner.
  • While some skills required for this type of leadership can be taught, some (such as character) are not training issues.
  • This leadership approach is relationship-based, which means it takes time and effort to cultivate.
  • There is a risk of people following a transformational leader whose plans may not be appropriate, leading to undesirable consequences.
  • Details can sometimes get overlooked in a culture characterized by this type of leadership.
  • This approach may not be effective in every organization or situation, or with every employee.

Growing as a Transformational Leader

If you want to grow as a transformational leader, it's important for you to make a commitment to continually cultivating the key traits associated with this leadership style within yourself. You can do this through a variety of leadership development strategies, including formal training, seeking feedback from others and self-reflection.

A leadership self-assessment can be beneficial, though it's important to keep in mind that what matters is not how you see yourself, but rather whether other people view you as a transformational leader. Getting feedback from others is critical. You can do this informally, through open and honest conversation, or more formally, such as through a 360-degree leadership assessment with input from various stakeholder groups. Additionally, take advantage of any available professional development opportunities that can help you become a more effective leader, such as classes and workshops, and reflect regularly on what your team and your organization need from you.

Commit to making any adjustments needed to ensure that you are setting a positive example and serving as a source of inspiration for others. By doing this, you will grow as a leader and be a catalyst for positive change in your organization and in the lives of your team.

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Transformational Leadership