What Is a Transformational Leadership Style?

A transformational leader inspires and motivates others to reach for new levels of performance and achieve higher goals while helping team members develop the ability to lead themselves and others. Leaders using this style seek to transform the way people perceive their work, the organization, what motivates them, and what they expect of themselves and others. They also seek to:

  • Influence others through reason and logic.
  • Satisfy the important basic needs of people.
  • Tap into the internal motivation of others.
  • Help team members aspire to higher values and behaviors.
  • Encourage work on beneficial common goals above and beyond self-interest.
  • Emphasize autonomy and independent thinking.
  • Help each team member grow and succeed.
  • Inspire others through a positive example.
  • Be consistent and respectful toward others.
  • Increase collaboration between people and groups.
  • Provide a vision, direction and clear priorities people should focus on.
  • Coach individuals and give constructive feedback when things are going well and when they are not.
  • Promote better values across the organization.

Transformational leaders are ideal for change management initiatives because they naturally lead by reshaping perceptions, motivations, and expectations of others when change is required. They help team members think differently when a shift in direction is needed. Ultimately this leads to changes in the way people work as well as changes in the organization’s culture.

Transformational leaders don’t initiate changes for the sake of making change. Rather, they initiate changes to ensure the long term sustained success of the enterprise. This means helping everyone to understand how they fit in with changes and how they can make a difference.

Transformational Leadership vs. Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership is a concept that people think of when it comes to traditional “old school” management techniques. It uses a more disciplinary approach with punitive measures and rewards to get the behaviors that traditional leaders want from people. It includes ways of organizing people, supervising them, and forcing groups to work together. This style of leadership endorses certain (often hidden) assumptions about human nature and about management:

  • Obedience to a leader’s commands is the main thing workers should focus on.
  • Employees are motivated by incentives or negative consequences.
  • People must be closely supervised or they won’t comply with rules and work standards.
  • Employees work best when they know exactly where they fit into a rigid “chain of command”.

The transactional leadership style usually focuses on maintaining the status quo, not on transforming the organization or team members in order to achieve a better future. Transactional leaders don’t try to inspire workers to believe in a vision or help people grow and discover their own natural motivation.

A transactional leadership style may not be as effective as a transformational leadership for the purposes of promoting change and superior performance. If proposed rewards are not large enough or punishments not severe enough, people may be resistant to change. In contrast, transformational leaders are able to inspire change by tapping into the internal needs, aspirations, and motivations of team members.

Who Came Up with the Concept of Transformational Leadership?

The sociologist James V. Downton first used the term in 1973. Later, James MacGregor Burns, a presidential biographer and expert on leadership, explained transformational leadership further as a leadership style that works on transforming the goals, thoughts, and practices of others for the purposes of improving organizations and outcomes, along with satisfying basic human needs.

Finally, the leadership scholar Bernard M. Bass further codified the theory of transformational leadership. He stated that outstanding leadership is defined primarily through the effects it has on others. Generally speaking, transformational leaders gain admiration, respect and trust of team members which leads to better results for all stakeholders.

What Are the 4 Elements of Transformational Leadership?

Professor Bernard Bass wrote that the transformational leadership style could be thought about within four different categories of action and ideas:

  1. Individualized Consideration: Transformational leaders do not simply spend their time inspiring the work group as a whole; instead, they also help and encourage each individual team member. They maintain consistent communication with others, encourage people to bring them ideas, and then recognize others to implement good ideas whenever possible. Transformational leaders become acquainted with the strengths of each person and they build an emotional connection with people.
  2. Idealized Influence: This style of leader uses their personality and character to engage people. Transformational leaders seek to set an example for others, inspiring respect and trust. In part because of this positive role model, others become comfortable following a leader who is consistent in ethics and behavior—and are more likely to adopt that leader’s ideas and vision for the future.
  3. Inspirational Motivation: These leaders motivate others with a tangible vision of a better future. They are skilled at explaining it and even helping others develop a passion and excitement about achieving it.
  4. Intellectual Stimulation: They help other people tap into their creativity. They challenge old ways of thinking, encouraging others to re-think assumptions about work processes and relationships. They talk about difficult problems and explore new ideas and concepts. Transformational leaders keep an open mind and don’t criticize new ideas, they manage disagreements, and help others grow from mistakes. They constructively coach others and they are willing to consider new approaches to work.

How Do Transformational Leaders Motivate Employees?

So how do you apply transformational leadership in a business setting, and how do you develop transformational leadership skills? Transformational leadership depends on role models who inspire others to live up to mutually established expectations, responsibilities and standards. If you are interested in motivating others through this leadership style, you must be consistent in your ethics, values, and individualized support for others. You must also show consistent enthusiasm for your work in general and for the project or change you are leading. Plus, you need to show courage and adaptability during moments of adversity or times of change.

Finally, as you foster new ideas or develop others, you must connect these ideas to their identity and evolving definitions of who they are, to their work, and to the organization as a whole. Transforming others will produce better outcomes when leaders inspire more creative, energetic, and goal-focused work.

It is essential that inspirational leaders take time to get to know team members, including their goals, abilities and problems. This will help you put team members in responsibilities that will best use their strengths and motivate them to work with enthusiasm and take “ownership” for their work.

You need to believe in a compelling vision of the future of the organization, consistently follow it yourself, and share it with others in a way that inspires them. Help others see and feel the vision in a way that inspires them to make a difference.

Can Transformational Leadership Be Learned?

An aspiring leader can internalize the four elements of transformational leadership (listed above) by systematically practicing them. In addition, there are many transformational leaders who are prominent in our current world and in history. By studying some famous examples, we can see how these principles can be practiced:

  • Nelson Mandela: The revolutionary and former president of South Africa showed both individual and collective care for the well-being of South Africans. He inspired others through his personal example and struggles. He connected individuals’ thoughts and feelings to the good of their whole country, even using rugby as a way to inspire reconciliation.
  • Steve Jobs: The CEO of Apple transformed the company’s focus from computers alone to music and mobile devices, along with extreme brand loyalty. He inspired creativity to create new products and think of old products in new ways.
  • Condoleezza Rice: The former US Secretary of State sought to work twice as hard as everyone else, which gave her understandable confidence in her strengths. This inspired others to try to live up to her consistently high standards.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Transformational Leadership?

Although many features of transformational leadership sound positive, not every leader has a passion to use this style all the time. Here are some positive and negative aspects to consider:

  • Pro: It can help create large organizational changes by helping people change their own behaviors, goals, values, and ideas.
  • Pro: It inspires progress by focusing on the future.
  • Pro: Leaders don’t need to use external punishments, rewards, or authority.
  • Con: Research has found it may be most effective only in smaller organizations.
  • Con: It may not work if the leader doesn’t have the right mix of personality, character, or the ability to inspire through a vision.
  • Con: It may be unnecessary in workplace settings where a leader simply needs to maintain minimal levels of performance, work is simple, or you just need to maintain the status quo.

When is transformational leadership not effective? With all the positive things that are written about it, it may seem like the only choice of leadership styles. But it may not always work well in large organizations. If you need change leadership in smaller workplace settings, transformational leadership may be effective. But if you need quick results with many employees, you may need to stick with basic transactional leadership.

Rather than only relying on one form of leadership, take CMOE’s Flexible Leadership course. This course will give you a toolkit of leadership techniques and styles. You’ll be able to recognize the situation you are in and choose the appropriate style for a variety of circumstances.