Transformational leadership theory is the most widely studied of all ideas of effective leadership. A single sentence definition would be - transformational leaders work with their employees to implement change. However, there is more to it.
What is transformational leadership?
Transformational leadership is a leadership model used across the spectrum of politics, education, entertainment, finance, technology, and other industries.
Initially focused on leaders who "transform" groups or organizations, transformational leaders focus on followers, motivating them to high levels of performance, and in the process, help followers develop their leadership potential. They transform organizations and transform individuals.
Leaders who possess these qualities look to work alongside their team members to identify change and develop the next action steps.
More importantly, they transform others - developing and empowering their followers to become leaders in and of themselves.
Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their workforce without micromanaging — they trust trained employees to take authority over decisions in their assigned jobs. It’s a management style designed to give employees more room to be creative, look to the future, and find new solutions to old problems.
Employees on the leadership track will also be prepared to become transformational leaders themselves through mentorship and training.
A bit of history
In the 1970s and 1980s, the business world became very dynamic, competitive, and less stable. Fast technological changes, great international competition, commercial deregulation, too much capacity in capital-intensive industries, instability of oil cartels, demographic labor changes, etc., are factors that contributed to such a state.
As a result, transformational leadership emerged as a new style of guiding others instead of traditional, transactional leadership, dividing people into leaders and followers. A transformational leader engages with others and creates a connection that raises both the leader and the follower’s motivation level.
Transformational Leadership is a style first described by American historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns in his 1978 book Leadership and expanded on during the 1980s by fellow scholar Bernard M. Bass.
According to Bass, these are the hallmarks of a transformational leader that sets them apart from other leadership styles. A transformational leader is someone who:
Encourages the motivation and positive development of followers
Exemplifies moral standards within the organization and encourages the same of others
Maintains an ethical work environment with exact values, priorities, and standards.
Builds company culture by encouraging employees to move from an attitude of self-interest to a mindset where they are working for the common good
Holds an emphasis on authenticity, cooperation, and open communication
Provides coaching and mentoring but allowing employees to make decisions and take ownership of tasks
Well-known transformational leaders include Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Four elements of transformational leadership
There are four factors to transformational leadership (also known as the “four I’s”): idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration.
Idealized Influence - transformational leaders act as role models. Their followers seek to emulate their behavior. Ideally, the three attributes demonstrated through Idealized Influence are a willingness to take risks, consistent, non-arbitrary behavior, and high integrity and ethics levels.
Inspirational Motivation - transformational leaders inspire and motivate their employees through their excellent communication skills, honesty, and integrity. They lead by example and focus on the other person and the task at hand. They are confident and optimistic about the future and talk enthusiastically with their employees. They connect with everyone emotionally and share their vision confidently.
Intellectual Stimulation - the leader supports his followers by involving them in the decision-making process and stimulating their efforts to be as creative and innovative as possible to identify solutions.
Individualized Consideration - leaders must demonstrate genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers. Personal attention to each follower is a critical element of bringing out their very best efforts and developing their leadership potential.
Benefits of transformational leadership
To sum it up, good leaders engage with their team members rather than taking an authoritative approach. Their mindset is closer to a mentor or a coach who knows their team members personally and knows how to challenge them to grow and achieve their own and organizational goals.
Since transformational leaders never lose sight of employees who work under them, they are aware of their strengths and efforts to follow their progress and advocate for them. A corporate culture that nurtures such an atmosphere is based on acknowledgment and trust, resulting in much higher employee engagement and satisfaction.
Transformational leaders hold positive expectations for followers, believing that they can do their best. As a result, they inspire, empower, and stimulate followers to exceed normal levels of performance. They also focus on and care about followers and their personal needs and development.
Transformational leadership and you
Because transformational leadership covers a wide range of aspects within leadership, there are no specific steps for a manager to follow. Becoming an effective transformational leader is an iterative process. This means that conscious effort must be made to adopt a transformational style. Understanding the basics of transformational leadership and the four I’s can help a manager apply this approach. A good leader is someone who:
empowers followers to do what is best for the organization
is a robust role model with high values
listens to all viewpoints to develop a spirit of cooperation
creates a vision, using people in the organization
acts as a change agent within the organization by setting an example of how to initiate and implement change
helps the organization by assisting others to contribute to the organization
Successful transformational leaders are empathetic, charismatic, and inspirational.
This is why you should work on your empathy - take the time to sit down and get to know the people you work with on an individual level and in a context that’s broader than just their role in your organization.
Also, try to work on your charisma by being present in every situation, neutralizing negative thoughts, dressing to impress, mirroring body language, and more.
Finally, focus on inspiring others. Approach every situation with the greater good of the organization in mind. Leaders who conquer this skill create a level of trust and accountability among their team.