Transformational Leadership Theory and Characteristics

business team meeting illustrating transformational leadership

Learn all there is to know about transformational leadership and how it inspires people to become better.  See how the great transformational leaders accomplished this and the character traits that are important for those hoping to become one.

Being a good leader is a desirable quality in just about every industry, government, military or organization that values progress. Leadership is the driving force behind human development. Ideas shape progress, but it requires the will to implement those ideas and encourage others to do the same to affect real change.

Getting someone to follow seems like a simple enough concept, but there are in fact many different kinds of leadership.

Arguably the most effective and desired form of leadership is transformational leadership. Perhaps more than any other kind of ethos, transformational leadership breeds not only successful projects but successful people as well.

Instead of simply encouraging and instructing their followers to achieve, transformational leaders create followers capable of achieving on their own.

More importantly, perhaps, is that these followers have not only the ability but also the desire to see their leader's goals accomplished.

To understand the theories behind and characteristics of transformational leadership, one must understand the history of the concept, the techniques used, the kind of people suited to it and the stark contrasts it has to transactional leadership.

 

The Origins of Transformational Leadership

While transformational leadership as a concept has only been around for about 50 years, it is clear that great leaders have been practicing it for centuries if not millennia. It was first described in the 1960s by James V. Downton.

Transformational leadership concept

Then the concept was later popularized by presidential biographer James Macgregor Burns. Burns famously used the term to describe great leaders of the past in his book Leadership.

Since then, the psychologists and historians use the term to help understand the processes by which leaders achieve results. We know transformational leaders as great leaders of the past such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Napoleon, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela.

Today, this leadership style is highly sought after and emulated as one that is the most effective and beneficial.

The Methods of Transformational Leadership

As the name suggests, transformational leadership changes those affected by it. The leader who employs this style transforms their followers into loyal and trustworthy cohorts who work harder for success than they would have without the leader's influence.

The transformational leader inspires and encourages their followers to become better to meet the goals of the organization faster and more completely.

The transformational leader also instills in their cohorts vision and direction. While some leadership styles rely on blind obedience and compartmentalization, the transformational style brings goals into perspective to make them the goals of the team, and not just the leader.

Ideally, this creates an identity around which the team can bond. That way, team members will work harder not out of fear of personal failure, but rather a desire to not fail the group and the vision.

In this way, success becomes its own reward. No longer are team members concerned with personal gain as a priority. Now, they put the vision and desires of the leader and the group above their own. 

The result is an energized workforce with a vested interest in the success and more meaningful reasons to achieve success.

Because of the sharing of identity, vision, and exchange of trust within a team headed by a transformational leader, the leader is often made into a symbol.

As one who lives for the group, the leader is even idolized at times, and there can be a danger of a cult of personality. However, the transformational leader does not strive to engender faith and belief in themselves, but rather their cause or ideas.

Accomplishing Transformational Leadership

There are a variety of ways that a transformational leader achieves cohesion, identity and ultimately, success. There is a high emphasis on the areas of morality, freedom and cooperation.

  • Morality

Successful transformational leaders first and foremost create “ethical climates.” They make it clear that what they are doing is right, and to fail would be allowing the “wrong” things to happen.

By convincing the team that their cause is just one, their goals are best for the greater good and so on, the leader can motivate without resorting to rewards or punishment.

Followers will strive for success out of a desire to be right and just. This “internal” desire often trumps “external” desires like money.

To further achieve this, the transformational leader also fosters emotional and moral maturity in their followers. By elevating them to put more importance on moral correctness and the greater good, they become motivated by the ethical climate.

The leader can then appeal to their ideals more reliably. To facilitate this further, the effective leader makes awareness of moral standards a top priority.

  • Freedom
Effective transformational leaders use a very "light touch" when it comes to command and instruction. They put a lot of emphasis on freedom of choice and flexibility of their followers. In this way, the leader shows that they trust their followers.

Additionally, by solving problems in their own ways, the followers are more personally connected to the success of the team. Since they solved the problems their way, it now feels more like their problem and not the team's or the leader's problem.

The transformational leader gives choice and freedom, but they also guide and mentor personally. This guided freedom fosters personal growth within followers and makes them more motivated and effective workers.

It is vital that the leader make a personal connection with these followers to make it clear that the leader both facilitates and desires the follower’s growth.

  • Cooperation

This may seem like an obvious thing to emphasize as a leader but, some leadership styles discourage cooperation and focus instead on individual and compartmentalized problem solving as a way to maintain focus.

Transformational leaders, however, promote harmony as a means to be more flexible and encourage group identity.

As team members aid each other and help solve each others problems, the trust will develop as will mutual respect. This respect solidifies group identity and creates more internal motivations. We can include the leader in this identity and see them as the embodiment of a group.

The transformational leader makes priorities abundantly clear to all members of the team. This is to maintain focus while allowing so much freedom and cooperation

They also use reason to appeal to their followers, so that the followers will come to agree with the leader’s conclusions on their own instead of having them forced upon them.

Characteristics of a Transformational Leader

woman presenting in a business meeting illustrating transformational leadership
As transformational leadership has become a topic of discussion for psychologists, they studied and identified the personality traits that are conducive to it. These qualities are by no means required to become a transformational leader, which one can find in the most successful leaders.
  • Agreeableness

Those who are more agreeable in nature are generally more charismatic than those who are not. Charisma, also known as idealized influence, is vital for influencing others.

  • Extraversion

An extrovert has high agency which can be inspirational and engenders a sense of belonging with followers.

  • Conscientiousness

Attention to detail and vigilance are traits of leaders with strong direction and clear goals. These, in turn, are important for transformational leaders.

  • Openness

Being open to new ideas and methods is important for transformational leaders to be able to trust their followers. It also allows them to see the big picture and better craft a vision for others to follow.

These traits are often found in transformational leaders, but the trait of Neuroticism is most often not present. It is difficult if not impossible for a person with high neuroticism to become a transformational leader because anxiety prevents productivity and makes leadership seem unappealing.

Transformational vs. Transactional vs. Laissez-faire

Another way to understand transformational leadership is to compare it to an opposing style of leadership. Transactional leadership is in many ways antithetical to transformational leadership.

Transactional leadership is a give and take system; i.e., quid pro quo. Transactional leaders offer rewards or punishment to their followers for succeeding or failing. It often discourages independence, as this can derail focus or even undermine the leader.

Divergent thinking is not supported because it causes too much change, which is not a goal for transactional leaders as it is to transformational leaders.

Comparing the three styles

Transformational leaders, by definition, encourage change and development of both their followers and the future to inspire.

Transactional leadership, on the other hand, focuses on maintaining the status quo. The fruits of success (money, power, etc.) are held in higher esteem than what success might cause (progress, growth, etc.).

Laissez-faire leadership is the lack of direction and guidance. Followers have complete freedom to accomplish tasks and solve problems. 

When the leader has no hand in deciding policies and methods, negative outcomes almost always follow. Finally, both transactional and transformational leadership are superior to Laissez-faire leadership.

Author: Jon Stahl

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