Guest Author: Allison Gill
Transformational leadership is defined as a leadership approach that causes change in individuals and social systems. A transformational leadership style emphasizes the influence a leader can have on the continued development of each member of their team. Compared to some of the traditional leadership styles, even the name is inspirational and identifies the impact a truly transformational leader can have.
Since it was developed in the 1980s, researchers have continued to build out this leadership model to identify its key characteristics, the benefits, the challenges, and how it differs from other modern leadership styles, such as servant leadership.
Continue reading to learn the key elements of transformational leadership and how you can use these techniques to empower your team.
What Is Transformational Leadership?
You may be wondering, what is the focus of transformational leadership?Transformational leadership is a leadership style that is focused on the development of those who report to the leader. These leaders encourage their team members to continuously develop values and skills to inspire them to be good leaders themselves.
One of the key characteristics of a transformational leader is that they practice the art of active listening. In every setting, whether during meetings or one-on-ones, the leader listens to what their direct report wants to accomplish, understands their strengths, and pushes them to continue working on their weaknesses. This investment in enhancing their growth helps develop them in their career.
Transformational leaders are, in essence, mentors, but not to a few random individuals. Instead, they are investing in the transformation of every member of their team. For instance, as an Advisor and Dean of Students, my goal is to demonstrate a positive way in which a leader can impact others by showing the skills students need to develop. To do this, I routinely ask questions such as:
What do you need from me?
How can I help you accomplish your goals?
How can I support you to be successful?
By practicing active listening, I’m able to identify their strengths and their weaknesses and how they align with their future goals. Then, I’m able to help students continue building those strengths and improving their weaknesses through additional training, reading, or courses.
Who Created Transformational Leadership?
Leadership expert and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns introduced the concept of transformational leadership in his 1978 book Leadership.
Then, in the early 1980s, researcher Bernard M. Bass expanded upon Burns's original ideas as a means to bridge the gap between “group dynamics and the leadership” (Miner, 2015). He initiated a study of South African executives to document the leaders who were transformational in their lives.
The first formal means of presenting his theory was his book entitled Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations in 1985 (Miner, 2015). This book by Bass is a collection of the three chief dimensions of leadership:
Bass has continued to cultivate his theory. For example, his 1990 article focused on the ability of leaders to learn to be transformational and that organizations should invest in this training for its leadership (Miner, 2015). Additionally, the original theory has been further honed over the years through additional research.
What Are the 4 elements of Transformational Leadership?
According to Bass, transformational leadership is divided into four factors:
Bass and Riggio (2006) developed the characteristics of these dimensions to further explain how each of these different elements contribute to the success of transformational leadership.
#1: Idealized Influence
In its simplest terms, idealized influence is represented by leaders who have full confidence in themselves and their abilities. They are not arrogant, like many autocratic leaders who ensure they have complete control over every situation. Instead, they continuously show that they are dedicated to their development and the development of others.
Transformational leaders understand that a large portion of their responsibilities revolve around developing their employees to become leaders and the influence they have in helping them get there. Consequently, they look for ways to help their employees achieve long-term success by identifying their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging them to improve their weaknesses, and align their responsibilities with their strengths.
#2: Inspirational Motivation
While the typical image of a leader is a charismatic person inspiring a team to achieve great things, inspirational motivators do not need to be charismatic. Instead, transformational leaders are able to successfully encourage and enhance the success of their employees on a day-to-day basis.
This consistency is inspiring through strong communication to help the employee and/or student remain motivated. Consequently, these subordinates understand where they are, where they’re going, and the skills they need to develop in order to get there. This is inspiring because it reinforces they are on the right path and motivates them to keep going.
#3: Intellectual Stimulation
Part of being a leader is providing intellectual stimulation to enhance the work environment and to foster critical-thinking and problem solving among the team. Regardless of what autocratic leaders may believe, it should not be on the leader to make every decision or every strategy. Instead, transformational leaders understand the importance of providing the resources for their team to perform their job to the best of their ability.
To achieve this, leadership should challenge their team to expand their knowledge or pursue further education on a given topic. We’re all learning everyday. Transformational leaders understand this and push their team to do the same. Sometimes, this requires learning completely new skills, such as project management or other technical skills.
Other times, it’s making slight improvements to your current skill set to improve incrementally so you can make a better decision or perform a task more efficiently or train someone else to do it. In 2020, we all experienced this as no one was prepared for the instant ramifications and changes to our daily lives. We needed to expand our knowledge and educate ourselves to make the best decisions possible.
#4: Individualized Consideration
As mentioned earlier, transformational leaders need to operate on an individual basis so that each team member understands their own strengths and weaknesses and how to improve them. This requires operating on a much more individual level so that each team member has an understanding of how to achieve success.
Transformational leaders have such an impact on employees and team members because they listen, mentor, and foster the professional development of each individual. They do not try to create blanket plans for the entire team or the entire company. They work with the individual in front of them to encourage their gifts and help them improve their weaknesses to help them be successful.
Examples of transformational leadership
Transformational leadership is critical for organizations to be able to innovate and create change. Transformational leaders consistently empower and inspire their employees, creating job satisfaction that drives positive results. Most major organizations did not start out that way; they were taken to the next level by forward-thinking leaders. Here are some examples of the most successful transformational leaders:
Jeff Bezos always knew that a business is successful when the customer is the primary focus. Amazon is a perfect example of transformational leadership. It shows that short-term goals can turn into stretch goals, which allow the overall organization to achieve greater things.
As the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates revolutionized how we use the Internet and cloud computing. His innovative and transformational leadership made Microsoft what it is today and his leadership style still resonates within the organization, even after his departure from the company.
When Steve Jobs overhauled Apple, he used a transformational leadership model to make sure it was a success. Not only did he grow Apple into the mega-successful corporation it is today, he also made the company and its products a household name with worldwide brand recognition.
When Richard Branson established Virgin, he based it on the philosophy that leaders must motivate their employees in order for the business to be a success. He took many risks but his transformational leadership style resulted in happy employees that perform better together and as a company.
As a leader, Oprah Winfrey, places a heavy emphasis on inspiration, empowerment, and philanthropy. Her leadership style has three branches: team, vision, and values. Because of this, she was able to successfully execute her vision while maintaining mass appeal.
Benefits of Transformational Leadership
Among the many benefits we’ve already discussed, the most important one is the emphasis placed on individual development. Leaders who are considered transformational create an environment in which their employees feel inspired and are intellectually challenged under the auspice of a supportive work environment that is focused on the development of an individual (Bass, 1985).
For this reason, those using transformational leadership techniques have proven to be highly effective in helping individuals acquire new skills and continue growing.
Enhance Career Development
Helping each individual enhance their career goes back to the points we’ve already made about identifying their strengths and weaknesses and providing a plan to improve them. Recommending incremental improvements on someone’s strengths is usually received well.
Of course, to foster their development constructively, their weaknesses need to be identified in a positive manner. Then you can offer ways to improve them and ask what you can do to help them in these areas, such as providing more support or sending them additional resources.
While transformational leaders do this for each individual in the group, they do it in a one-on-one setting. This investment in individual development wouldn’t have the same impact if it was delivered in a group setting.
Performing these types of reviews and constructive criticism on an individual basis helps them understand the team’s mission or vision. Additionally, this gives each person the sense that you are there to help them achieve their goals. These communication skills are only part of the interpersonal skills needed in the modern workplace.
Challenges of Transformational Leadership
While there haven’t been many downsides to transformational leadership identified, there have been some critiques. For example, Yukl (1999) argues that there are “conceptual weaknesses” in the model.
He specifically states that the premise is vague and overlooks some important observations of leadership that should be included. He also states that transformational leadership theory focuses primarily on the one-to-one relationship between two people and does not concentrate on a group, which is an important factor for any organization to consider.
While making these criticisms, he did specifically mention that he agrees with the theories. However, he believes the model can be strengthened by adding specific characteristics that can be grasped and that more attention should be given to the leadership effectiveness at the group level.
Added Pressure on the Leader
Another challenge that many leaders run into is that to truly be a transformational leader, there is added pressure to enhance the staff. This requires that you dedicate enough time to each individual to help them improve.
This is additional responsibility. However, good leaders who embrace this challenge can enhance each person’s development to help them take on additional duties and continue growing in their career.
How is Transformational Leadership Different from Servant Leadership?
Servant leadership and transformational leadership share many similarities. Additionally, they stem from the same research that suggests it is important for leaders to guide their followers and staff to achieve more. However, there are some distinct differences between the two styles.
For example, transformational leadership is more about giving space to let the individual grow and perform. Additionally, while transformational leadership is focused on helping the people below them, it still provides a clear hierarchy that servant leadership doesn’t. For instance, servant leaders are more likely to say ‘we’re equals and in this together’ whereas transformational leaders are still distinctly leaders who are taking an active approach in helping their team improve.
That being said, many of the same philosophies apply. For instance, transformational leaders are there to serve students, employees, staff, or other direct reports so they can improve upon their weaknesses and enhance their strengths. The onus is on the leader to identify those areas and recommend ways to improve.
Develop Your Leadership Skills
Transformational leadership has proven to be one of the most effective leadership styles because of the emphasis it places on helping each member of the team continue to develop. As many organizations move away from the traditional leadership models that focus on wealth, title, and hierarchy, more modern theories such as transformational leadership and servant leadership, provide examples of how leaders can help each member of their team improve.
Avolio, B. J., & Bass, B. (2004). Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (3rd ed.). Redwood City,
CA: Mind Garden.
Bass, B.M. (1982). Intensity of relation, dydadic-group considerations, cognitive
categorization, and transformational leadership. In James G. Hunt, Uma Sekaran, and Chester A. Schrieshiem (Eds.), Leadership-Beyond Establishment Views. Carbondale: IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 142-150.
Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectation. New York, NY: Free Press.
Bass, B.M. (1990). From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: Learning to Share the
Vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19-31.
Bass, B.M., & Riggio, R.E. (2006). Transformational Leadership (2nd ed.), Mahwah, New
Bodla, M. A., & Nawaz, M. M. (2010). Comparative study of full-range leadership model among
faculty members in public and private sector higher education institutes and universities. International Journal of Business and Management, 5(4), 208-214.
Miner, J. B. (2015). Organizational behavior 1: Essential theories of motivation and leadership.
Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Yukl, G. (2002). Leadership in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
Allison Gill Bio:
Allison Gill is the Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. She is ABD in her Higher Education Administration doctoral program at Northeastern University and transformational leadership is one of the theoretical frameworks that will shape her study. Allison obtained her undergraduate degree from Fairfield University in Connecticut and her M.Ed from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She has worked at Merrimack College for the last 12 years in Student Affairs and prior to that worked at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston and Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. Allison has three children and lives with her husband north of Boston.