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

Transformational Leadership

Transformational Leadership


We know that leaders in the upper echelons of a corporation or an institution influence the strategic direction as well as the effectiveness of operations. They do so directly through their personal characteristics (e.g., personality traits, preferences, and values) as well as by their actions or behavioral habits. Researchers and practitioners alike have concluded that those who successfully turn their organizations around, lead through crisis as well as create a culture where the majority wants to perform beyond expectations have a way with people: They are liked, respected, and influential. In fact, they demonstrate what some have referred to as “Transformational Leadership”.

We know by reading academic scholars’ work on transformational leadership that the notion gained popularity in 1978 by McGregor Burns’ work on political leaders. He viewed leaders who inspired people to do more and achieve specific organizational outcomes to be exceptionally different (transformational) from those who motivated their followers by exchanging tangible rewards for their productivity and loyalty (transactional). However, it was Bernard Bass who further refined its characteristics. Bass did not view these two styles as being on the opposite end of the leadership spectrum. Rather, he felt that effective leaders will sometimes use tangible rewards to motivate people and other times appeal to their sentiment, values, and connection. Hence, what differentiates a leader who is transactional toward others from a leader who is transformational MOST OF THE TIME is personal desire. Whereas the transactional leader desires to get the most out of her followers for corporate profits, the transformational leader desires to move her followers beyond self-interest for the good of the group.

Before we unravel the elements that define Transformational Leadership, a caveat is in order: Leaders described as “Transformational” are neither magicians nor super human beings. They possess characteristics that we can all develop. And, they alone cannot transform organizations from bad to good or from good to great. It takes organizational structures and governance to support the decisions these leaders make and a Board of Directors willing to make space for this type of leadership.

Managing and Leading People: What’s the difference?

The word “Leadership” is often used simultaneously with the word “Management”. You do not need to be a manager to lead. In fact, leadership is not defined by a formal managerial position. Management, on the other hand, is a term used to define a formal relationship between an employee and her manager.  It implies you have a direct line of accountability for the development of others; whereas the same is not necessarily true for leading. You can be a leader, but not necessarily a manager.

As a manager, you must feel comfortable with supervising the work of others, teaching and giving information, transferring implicit knowledge, providing hands-on learning, and finding resources for your direct reports to succeed in their positions. You must also be ready to evaluate performance against expectations and business outcomes as well as engage in course correction when necessary. Management is, therefore, synonymous with action learning wherein the focus is on providing opportunities to further enhance the competencies of people in relation to expectations in their current and possible future positions. In this process, you are actively participating in the development of your direct reports.

On the other hand, being able to lead requires the consistent practice of a set of skills toward everyone (whether they happen to be your direct reports or not) that may include:

  • Encouraging them to problem-solve on their own without having to wait for your input
  • Motivating them to make decisions under ambiguous circumstances without always consulting you
  • Empowering them to organize and prioritize their work, make choices and take decisions
  • Nurturing the desire in them to take steps in their professional careers (horizontal and/or vertical)

Evidently, you are leveraging skills that motivate people to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their development, to go beyond what they perceive to be possible, and to form a personal connection with the ultimate mission and vision of the corporation even when they have fears, doubts, and concerns. Therefore, how do “Transformational Leaders” carry out their management responsibilities as well as lead people with a sense of purpose?

What is Transformational Leadership made of?

The empirical research on specific behavioral habits shared by leaders seen as transformational is unequivocal, and dates back to the 1970s. Generally speaking, they include behaviors that:

  • Stimulate intellectual curiosity as in questioning assumptions, reframing problems as opportunities, approaching recurring issues in new ways, noticing big ideas in mundane tasks.
  • Inspire confidence as in providing meaningful and challenging work assignments; including people in the creation of a common vision; accepting all ideas with no criticism, welcoming risk-taking, and forming a relationship with the unknown (see more than what is possible).
  • Personalize the learning process as in acting as a coach or mentor, creating opportunities for people to explore and discover what they like, as well as offering tangible and emotional support during rapid and/or unexpected changes.
  • Take ownership when it comes to decisions and their untoward consequences, and acknowledge the contributions of many when things materialize as planned.

Bernard Bass, one of the foremost researchers also highlighted the following four (4) distinctive behavioral dimensions:

  1. Idealized Influence has to do with the leader’s emotional impact on others, inspiring them to model similar behaviors, internalize the leader’s vision and values, as well as nurture a desire to be like the leader.
  2. Inspirational Motivation has to do with behaviors that help people find meaning in their work and commit to a common vision.
  3. Intellectual Stimulation has to do with behaviors that stimulate people to reframe problems into opportunities, push them to think broadly about their issues, as well as encouraging them to develop creative and innovative ideas/solutions to recurring problems.
  4. Individualize Consideration covers behaviors that provide a supportive climate and new learning opportunities.

Taken together, these behaviors or behavioral dimensions are referred to as Transformational Leadership Behaviors (TLBs) It would seem that personality characteristics, more specifically “Likability” can influence how followers actually experience any of these TLBs. For instance, if I like you, I am more inclined to tolerate your moments of despair as you help me find my solution. If I don’t like you, I am more inclined to see you as being pushy and inconsiderate as I notice you despairing. Evidently, we cannot consider behavioral habits as occurring in isolation of personality characteristics. Admittedly, some people have personalities that make it easier for followers to like them. In fact, personality traits do act in relation to behavioral habits, and have an additive effect on people.

So, this begs the question, are leaders born or are they made?…

Be sure to read the next article in this series – “DOES TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP WORK FOR EVERYONE AND EVERYTIME?” coming up next.

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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