What Is a Transformational Leadership Style?

The Transformational leadership style empowers team members to take more autonomy in innovating and driving change for the future success of an organization. Transformational leaders achieve this by prioritizing areas of the employee and team member’s experience, including empowerment, flexibility, trust, and experimentation. 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.

What Are the 5 Characteristics of a Transformational Leader?

At their core, transformational leaders are:

1. Motivators: They encourage their team to commit to the organization’s vision, values, and objectives. This may involve helping team members identify how their roles connect to the bigger picture and how their performance impacts colleagues, other departments, or the customer. By being motivators, transformational leaders help team members across the business develop an internalized sense of purpose.

2. Demonstrators: Transformational leaders demonstrate principle-based standards in their behaviors and encourage others to follow suit. Their code of conduct illustrates clear values and priorities. They understand the impact of their behaviors, so they consistently demonstrate integrity in order to be aligned with values and standards.

3. Communicators: These leaders understand how to communicate with their team members effectively. They are aware that good communication encompasses clearly articulating concepts, asking questions, and engaging in the two-way dialogue of being a truly good listener. These qualities enable leaders to foster consistent trust in their workplace and team.

4. Coach and Mentor: These leaders do not only manage others. They teach, guide, and inspire their team members to develop and reach their full potential. Rather than taking credit for themselves, they want to see others acknowledged and recognized for their contributions. Mentoring allows transformational leaders to provide a sense of connection as well as transfer knowledge to those individuals who have less experience or knowledge in certain areas.

5. Advocators of Autonomy: Transformational leaders provide team members with a certain level of autonomy, allowing them to try or discover new, different, or better ways of doing things. Rooted in creativity and innovation, these leaders provide a level of independence for their people to pursue projects, voice their opinions and concerns, and make decisions. Transformational leaders believe every team member has something to offer.

What Are the Benefits of Transformational Leadership?

The benefits of transformational leadership include—but are certainly not limited to—the following outcomes:

Psychological safety: Transformational leadership values open and honest communication, which helps build psychological safety—something only 26% of leaders create for their teams. Psychological safety is the most important component for building a successful team.

Sense of ownership: When individuals are inspired to transform and innovate rather than only engaging in transactional tasks and focus on productivity, they are more likely to take ownership of their role and their responsibilities as well as find a sense of purpose. More than two-thirds of employees say they need to find purpose in their work. This change of internal motivation reduces or eliminates the need for micromanagement on the part of the leader as well as improves the levels of personal accountability.

Improved productivity: Organizations that communicate strategically and effectively are two times more likely to outperform competitors. They are also more likely to improve organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and productivity. Thus, transformational leaders help businesses elevate their competitive advantage and workforce engagement.

What Circumstances Merit Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership works well in environments where innovation and empowerment are necessary to develop talent and bolster an organization’s competitive advantage. This leadership style also aligns with initiatives that are connected to long-term business objectives.

For Example:

If a business is looking to expand their product/service offerings in the next three years, they will employ transformational leadership to encourage team members to step outside their comfort zones, help lead the effort, and actively contribute ideas. The transformational leader will clearly communicate the organizational objective and work with team members to help them ideate and discuss how they can support the organizational objective. It also may involve giving team members opportunities to stretch beyond their current capacities in lower risk environments so that they have opportunities to learn from stretch experiences that may challenge, but further develop team members. This provides a broader range and higher quality of ideas to contribute to the expansion of product offerings or other identified objectives.

What Circumstances Do Not Merit Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership may not be ideal in a situation where set standards are placed and expected to be fulfilled without question (e.g., a highly regulated process or work that involves strict compliance). Also, circumstances where time is of the essence, and there is no room for error are likely to not be the time or place to use a transformational leadership style.


There was an error with a product shipment to a key client, and a second replacement shipment needs to be dispatched quickly. Instead of investing time in the immediate identification of the root cause of the problem, a leader may apply a more directive leadership approach. With this, they tell team members what to do and exactly how to do it. For example, first address the customer complaint, dispatch the second corrected shipment, recall the first shipment, then begin to solve for the root cause of the problem. This way, the urgent customer needs and deadlines are met, and the business is able to maintain customer satisfaction.

How Do You Become a Transformational Leader?

Leaders can develop transformational leadership traits through three key actions:

1. Communicate Strategically and Proactively

As indicated earlier, transformational leaders are good communicators. Communicating strategically and proactively requires:

  • Listening actively to needs, concerns, and questions
  • Asking follow-up questions to ensure you understand their perspective accurately
  • Understanding how a given situation impacts a team member
  • Knowing what type of action the team member should take to fulfill priority expectations and goals

It helps to assess the different communication styles among your team members as well. This may require having one-on-one conversations or handing out surveys to identify those styles. Use this data to tailor your communication to influence others better.

2. Create Empowerment

Transformational leaders are experts at establishing and growing a sense of empowerment across their teams. This empowerment guides team members to drive transformational change in their roles and organization from their intrinsic motivation.

Creating empowerment involves:

Describing a clear purpose to your team: Provide background and context for how this task or project connects to the overall vision and goal of the organization. Encourage your team members to discuss the purpose and make adjustments as necessary; each individual carries unique experiences in the workplace, so it’s important to invite their thoughts to the table.

Invest in your team’s development: Learn how your team members want to grow in their career. Expanding their capabilities and expertise empowers them. It isn’t necessarily about increasing their responsibility—rather, it’s about identifying methods that increase their knowledge and satisfaction in their role and the organization. Investing in your team’s development may also include leveling up their skills or knowledge in a particular area to support in doing their existing functions with more effective tools.

Provide autonomy: Express trust in team members to make decisions, both big and small. This will not only elevate purpose and development but also provide them with the opportunity to create a positive impact at the organization.

3. Build Emotional Intelligence

As human connectivity and empowerment are at the heart of transformational leadership, high emotional intelligence is essential to supporting those components.

Emotional intelligence is a set of skills that identifies, understands, and influences emotion in yourself and others. It consists of five areas:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Internal motivation
  3. Empathy
  4. Social skills and social awareness
  5. Self-regulation

Improving in each area over time will help you approach your team with intention, stay attuned to emotions, and take appropriate action to inspire authentic transformation in the workplace.

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.

Transform Your Team with CMOE’s Leadership Development Solutions

For more information and insights, look to CMOE’s leadership development solutions. Offering a diverse array of workshops to meet your needs, our team is here to help leaders master leadership competencies and reach their full potential.

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