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Transformational leadership: what is it?

Published 4th August 2017 by Investors in People
Chess pieces reflecting leadership

Transformational leadership is a popular leadership style, particularly in organisations where culture is considered key to employee satisfaction, productivity and success. It’s similar to servant leadership, another ethical leadership style, but with key differences. We’ll look at transformational leadership, its origins, main features and more.

Transformational leadership definition

Bernard M. Bass, an early theorist of transformational leadership, said that it occurs when “leaders broaden and elevate the interests of their employees, when they generate awareness and acceptance of the purposes and mission of the group, and when they stir their employees to look beyond their own self-interest for the good of the group [PDF]."

Transformational leadership, therefore, focuses on the needs of others, rather than the needs of the leader. In this way it’s similar to servant leadership, but differs because in each style the leader has a different focus.

Stone, Russell and Patterson (2004) argue the transformational leader’s focus is “directed towards the organisation, and his or her behavior builds follower commitment toward organisational objectives, while the servant leader’s focus is on the followers, and the achievement of organisational objectives is a subordinate outcome [PDF].”

Transformational leadership also differs markedly from one of its predecessors, transactional leadership, because it focuses on culture. Transactional leaders do not try and change the culture - they work within the existing status quo - while transformational leaders strive for culture change to drive improvement and performance.

Transformational leadership history: where did it come from?

Broadly speaking, it has its roots in the idea of charisma. Charisma is, of course, an old concept. However, there has been renewed interest in charisma in the past 40 years, underpinned by the idea that employees have been “overmanaged but underled.” (Bennis & Nanus, 1985).

This makes sense: transactional leadership emphasises management techniques around compliance, structure, hierarchy, job tasks, reward and punishment, in contrast to more modern leadership techniques like empowerment and inspiration.

Transformational leadership has a much greater focus on leading, rather than managing. It was originally conceptualised by sociologist James Downton Jr and built upon by political scientist James MacGregor Burns, who popularised it in his 1978 book Leadership.

The work by Burns was then further developed by Bernard M Bass, who studied the underlying psychological attributes that make a transformational leader.

Transformational leadership: features and traits of transformational leaders

These are the four dimensions of transformational leadership identified by Bass in 1997:

  1. Charisma/idealised influence: to what extent does the leader role model behaviours consistent with the overall vision they have set out and does this role modelling engage employees to move towards the leader and the vision?
  2. Inspirational motivation: building a compelling vision for the future, setting clear goals that stretch employees and recognise potential, as well as being positive about employee development.
  3. Intellectual stimulation: enabling and compelling employees to look outside their self-interest to the needs of the team and organisation, challenging their mindsets, ideas and beliefs to drive growth and performance, encouraging creativity, collaboration and the pursuit of excellence.
  4. Individualised consideration: the transformational leader focuses on the needs, dreams and fears of the individual, knowing that these are key to understanding how to create an environment that empowers employees to perform.

Yukl (1994) offers some practical tips [PDF] for leaders wanting to develop a strong base for their transformational leadership journey:

  1. Develop a challenging and attractive vision, together with the employees
  2. Tie the vision to a strategy for its achievement
  3. Develop the vision, specify and translate it to actions
  4. Express confidence, decisiveness and optimism about the vision and its implementation
  5. Realise the vision through small planned steps and small successes in the path for its full implementation

Transformational leadership: what are the positive effects?

Generally research is positive on the role of transformational leadership in achieving results. Limsili & Ogunlana (2008), for example, found that transformational leadership helped facilitate both organisational commitment and employee productivity.

Zwingmann et al (2014) found that employees led by a transformational leader have better health than those led by a laissez-faire (apathetic, hands-off) leader. They added that having a clear, shared vision that gives meaning to work is a “health-promoting phenomena” in the workplace.

In terms of specific workplaces, a study looked at transformational leadership in schools and found strong and significant positive effects of transformational leadership on organisational conditions, as well as moderate effects on student engagement.

In terms of relative value, Choudhary et al (2013) found that transformational leadership has a greater effect on organisational learning than servant leadership, which may be explained by transformational leadership’s greater focus on goal-oriented behaviour. However, it’s hard to say that one leadership style has more value as many commentators accept the dynamic and diverse nature of today’s workplaces requires different styles at different times.

What do you think of transformational leadership? A lot of people think it’s a progressive, forward-thinking style, but there’s some evidence it can lead to a ‘dependency’ on leaders. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments below!