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Does Transformational Leadership Work for Everyone and Every Time?

transformational leadership - stand tall

transformational leadership - stand tall


How do people become Transformational Leaders (TLs)? Do they possess innate characteristics that make them more prone to lead in a transformational way rather than transactional? The narrative stories we read focus on what leaders were able to accomplish at the helm of their organizations or institutions through the eyes of their followers. It turns out that they possess the paradoxical combination of humility and unrelenting will-power. While the main body of research by Jim Collins points to “strong-willed” and humility among TLs, independent literature also references these traits:

  • Good listeners
  • Warm and compassionate
  • Enthusiastic about work and life in general (having a positive attitude)
  • Enjoying the learning process
  • Good communicators
  • Adaptable and flexible in times of crisis
  • Risk-takers
  • Persistent
  • Courageous
  • Emotionally stable
  • Growth-minded (see opportunities when others see only risks)
  • Resilient in the face of challenges and failures (they spring right back into action)


If we were to switch our view of TL as influencing organizational outcomes to “IT” being the OUTCOME that is influenced, we may begin to understand what makes it possible for some people to engage in Transformational Leadership Behaviors (TLBs) more easily than others. The research from this perspective has focused on which personality traits are more likely to be linked to specific TLBs, and what environmental conditions make it easier for people in positions of authority to demonstrate TLBs. Although this body of work does not establish causality (we would need to follow people day 1 in their positions over a long period of time), it does suggest strong associations. Indeed, research has examined the strength of associations between TLBs and specific personality characteristics, commonly referred to as the “BIG 5 personality traits”:

  1. Agreeableness: Reflects the tendency to be trustworthy of others, warm, generous, empathic to others, eager to help them. Its opposite pole is being more argumentative, holding to one’s opinions tightly, skeptical of others’ intentions, competitive rather than collaborative, and less demonstrative with warmth and generosity.
  2. Neuroticism: Reflects the tendency to be emotionally unstable, to experience negative affect such as fear, sadness, anger, embarrassment, and prone to irrational ideas, less able to control their impulses. Its opposite pole is being calm, even-tempered, relaxed, and able to face stressful situations without becoming upset or rattled.
  3. Extroversion: Reflects the tendency to be outgoing, active, talkative, overly optimistic, enthusiastic, and assertive. Its opposite pole is being reserved, independent, even-paced, as well as being less talkative, private with personal feelings, and realistic about outcomes.
  4. Openness to experience: Reflects the tendency to be creative, autonomous, unconventional, flexible, and proactive in approaching learning opportunities. Its opposite pole is being more pensive, conventional in behavior and conservative in outlook, as well as having a preference for familiarity.
  5. Conscientiousness: Reflects the tendency to be reliable, thorough, purposeful,
    strong-willed, and determined when it comes to planning, organizing, and carrying out tasks. Its opposite pole is being less disciplined and organized, less exacting in applying moral principles, and more laidback in working toward set goals.


We all have varying degrees of these personality traits. The question is how do we come across most of the time? Indeed, studies reviewed by Deinert and colleagues (2015) show just how personality traits can influence how we interact with people. For instance, leaders who are open to experiences and prefer to take in the full context of circumstances are more inclined to display TLBs, whereas extraverted leaders who are more focused on themselves are less likely to be consistent in TLBs. Those who are more extraverted may be great at motiving people and challenging them intellectually, but may come across dominant as well as slightly more controlling than necessary.

A similar finding is noted for agreeableness. A leader who prefers to show kindness, warmth, and generosity is more likely to engage in TLBs, which followers perceive to be inspirational and personal. However, they may struggle when it comes to challenging thinking and provoking arguments for the sake of pushing people to think beyond their current circumstances. Highly agreeable leaders may also have difficulties leaning in during difficult conversations and conflict, and may avoid these all together. They may be concerned about offending or hurting people’s feelings.

Other interesting work focusing on the impact of the context on TLBs indicates that the “role-modeling” effect is quite present in organizations, and explains whether TLs succeed in bringing about important changes in the workplace. In fact, Boomer and colleagues (2004) suggests that leaders modeling TLBs tend to encourage followers to do the same. It turns out that a favorable context where TLBs are encouraged, developed, and supported cancels out the impact of cynicism in the workplace.The importance of context on leaders was also underscored in Collins’ research: The best leaders (identified as being Level 5) worked in organizations where the right talent was in the right positions, people wanted to go the extra mile, they shared in the values of innovation and improvement, and there were processes and structures in place (including a Board of Directors) that supported what the Level 5 leader wanted to achieve.

It seems that the making of a TL requires both the combination of antecedent personality characteristics and a context (people and structures) conducive to their development and sustainability. Hence, it is plausible to assume the following:

  • Leaders with a strong desire to help people succeed in their roles along with a propensity to be creative may struggle to demonstrate TLBs in a highly competitive environment where people are more interested in exchanging their knowledge on the basis of tangible rewards.
  • Leaders more inclined to be cynical and dominant in relationships will struggle in an environment where people are mostly collaborative, share joint responsibility for projects, and shoulder failures; thereby, demonstrating TLBs.


This leads to the next question: Does Transformational Leadership work for everyone and in every context?

When Transformational Leadership may not Work:

The old adage of “too much of a good thing may be a bad thing” may apply when it comes to TL. Although the research is scant, there is some indication that TL may not have additional impact on individual performance in people who are already motivated and positive. It would seem that TLBs are more impactful and carry significant effects when people need direction, inspiration, and guidance. In fact, it seems reasonable to suggest that when people are already motivated, enthusiastic and driven, TL may simply be experienced as a good thing, but not necessarily as the best thing.

Along the same lines, TL may not carry its positive effect when people are afraid to engage in activities outside of their comfort zone. They may experience too much pressure, feel judged, and misunderstood if they decide not to engage in new challenges. Finally, there is some preliminary research (Jung et al., 2008), suggesting that people who prefer being told what to do may feel frustrated by a TL who feels strongly about empowerment through delegation. In fact, with increased globalization of economic activities there may be a need for TLs to maintain a balance between demonstrating TLBs and those which are more transactional in nature such as providing structure and control when defining goals as well as engaging in course correction. Having this balance should prove to be relatively easy for TLs who show a higher degree of flexibility and adaptiveness to different populations.

Stay tuned for our next installment of this series – “STAYING STRONG AS A TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADER: WHAT DOES IT TAKE?”


So what’s the “thing” about Transformational Leadership?

References for the Transformational Leadership Series

  • Bass, B. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: The Free Press.
  • Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1990). Transformational leadership development: Manual for the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. Menlo Park, CA: Mind Garden.
  • Bass, B. M. (1999). Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 8(1), 9–32.
  • Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1990). The implications of transactional and transformational leadership for individual, team, and organizational development. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 4, 231–272.
  • Bommer, W,. Rubin, R. S., Baldwin, T. T. (2004). Setting the stage for effective leadership: Antecedents of transformational leadership behavior. The Leadership Quarterly, 15; 195-210.
  • Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Collins, J. (February, 2001). Level 5 leadership: The triumph of humility and fierce resolve. Harvard Business Review 79(1):66-76, 175
  • Deinert, A., Homan, A. C., Boer, D., Voelpel, S. C., & Gutermann, D. (2015). The Leadership Quarterly, 26; 1095-1120.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

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