We’ve all known different types of leaders—some you want to emulate and others have taught you what not to do.
Some lead by example and encourage team members to learn and grow, while others give orders and expect perfection.
Others choose the laissez-faire approach—they don’t engage at all and manage from a distance.
Leadership is a tough job, and it takes practice and time to improve.
What kind of leader are you? As a manager of people, I strive each day to be a transformational leader.
To be a transformational leader is to inspire others to be better. This style of leadership shows your team members they can achieve greatness if they stick with you and the mission of your work.
Read on to learn more about:
- What transformational leadership is
- The history of transformational leadership
- The difference between transformational and transactional leadership
- Ten characteristics of the transformational leader
- Impacts seen by transformational leaders
What is transformational leadership?
Transformational leaders are inspirational, first and foremost.
They see a key part of their role as leaders is to motivate their team members to strive for more, to go above and beyond, and to work toward a shared vision. They trust their people (and tell them so on a regular basis) and work to know what motivates them and how to best engage with them.
Well-known transformational leaders of the past include Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein. In today’s world, transformational leadership can be seen within business models that have excelled to new heights.
Steve Jobs’ transformational leadership took Apple to a new level with his vision of innovation and changing the world with technology.
Here are some other examples:
- Reed Hastings took Netflix from DVD mail-order rentals to a new level of in-home entertainment. According to Hastings, “Incredible people don’t want to be micromanaged. We manage through setting context and letting people run.”
- Oprah Winfrey has influenced millions of people from diverse backgrounds. Known as the “media mogul,” she inspires others to reach for more and she encourages self-empowerment.
- Jeff Bezos, love or loathe him, had a dream of creating the biggest “everything store” online—now known as Amazon. He’s often referred to as a mentoring transformational leader who instills his vision and energy within those around him.
- Dr. Condoleeza Rice the current director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, believes a leader must have integrity. In her work, Dr. Rice has demonstrated empowerment of others and courage to step out of her comfort zone.
Remember, as a leader, people look to you for guidance and direction. They need a positive role model who’s willing to challenge the status quo when possible.
Some days you might struggle with motivation yourself as a leader.
In those moments, put yourself in the shoes of your staff who look up to you and remind yourself it’s your duty to show up engaged and ready to take on whatever the day may bring with positivity.
What you do makes a difference.
In my own work as an Assistant Unit Head in the public-safety sector, I’m always working to grow and improve as a leader. I’ve learned people want to be led with engagement and excitement for the work and the big-picture vision. They want to be heard, and they want clear, honest responses.
I make sure my team members and I meet regularly to discuss progress, wins, and areas of improvement. Sometimes these are difficult conversations, but learning to get comfortable being uncomfortable is part of the leader’s job. And, in the long run, these talks strengthen my relationships with colleagues.
These transformational leadership principles are game-changers today, but they took root a while back.
A brief history of transformational leadership
In 1978, leadership expert James MacGregor Burns’ book Leadership introduced the idea of Transformational Leadership Theory. He defined it as a way of working together in which “leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.”
In 1985, Bernard M. Bass took the concept of transformational leadership further. In his book, Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations, he described the transformational leader as a model of integrity and fairness, who sets clear goals and has high expectations. He believed transformational leadership was comprised of four components:
- Inspirational motivation – the ability to inspire others to know better, do better, and be better.
- Intellectual stimulation – challenging others to be innovative change-thinkers.
- Idealized influence – serving as a positive role-model and understanding others look to the leader for direction and guidance.
- Individual consideration – knowing the value of each team member and taking time to learn what motivates and energizes people on an individual basis.
In 1991, Bass and Bruce Avolio introduced the Full Range Leadership Model—a look at how transactional and transformational leadership play into a hands-off leadership approach.
In 2005, Bass and Riggio published Transformational Leadership, Second Edition, which included new examples of transformational leadership and its measurement and effectiveness.
As a transformational leader, you bring people up with you and you challenge them to reach the vision you all believe in. You aim to serve as a role-model every day you walk in the office, and you know the importance of motivating your people.
The transformational leadership model is engaging because it requires leaders to be present and willing to challenge their team members—and also themselves. It also encourages high levels of accountability with support and encouragement.
Transformational vs transactional leadership
What’s the difference?
Transactional leadership focuses on performance expectations and compliance through close monitoring.
Transactional leaders generally believe:
- Staff do their best work when the chain of command is definite and clear
- Team members are inspired and motivated by rewards and punishments
- The main goal of followers is to obey the instructions of the leader
- The leader must meticulously monitor subordinates to ensure all expectations are met.
Transactional leaders are strong in setting expectations to maximize efficiency and productivity. They give constructive feedback when it comes to performance in order to help staff improve. Transactional leadership can be effective when problems are simple or in crisis situations when clear direction is necessary.
But if you’re a transactional leader most of the time, you’re missing out. These leaders focus on maintaining the status quo and don’t consider ways to grow, change, and improve. They may stifle their own growth and don’t encourage team members to reach their full potential.
Key differences of transformational vs transactional leadership:
- Transactional leaders react to issues, transformational leaders strive to address issues before they become a bigger problem.
- Transactional leaders work within the current organizational culture—transformational leaders focus on new ideas to transform and improve the current culture.
- Transactional leaders reward and punish in traditional ways—transformational leaders keep team members motivated, inspired, and invested. This leads to an internal, high-order reward system.
- Transactional leaders appeal to the self-interest of employees—transformational leadership style appeals to the interests of the group as a whole.
While transactional leadership focuses on the extrinsic motivation of staff, a transformational leadership approach inspires employees to go beyond expectations to work toward the shared vision of the organization.
Here’s an example:
An employee isn’t submitting reports on time, and it’s impacting overall operations. The transactional leader might see the numbers and the employee’s deficiency and make a decision to discipline immediately.
On the other hand, the transformational leader is going to see the deficiency and want to know why it’s occurring—they’ll have a clear and honest conversation with the employee and ask questions to find out more. They’ll support the employee while holding them accountable to higher expectations and goals.
A healthy balance between these styles will help all members of the workplace reach their full potential. Transactional leadership has its place but, to be most effective, you should focus on improving your transformational leadership skills.
Top 10 Traits of a transformational leader:
1. You want to make a difference
As a transformational leader, you’re passionate about the work you do, and you want to make a difference through your work’s mission. You work hard to inspire those around you to buy into the vision of the agency. Excitement for your work is contagious to those around you, and your team members feel a strong sense of purpose.
Team members should know your “why,” and, as a leader, you should talk about it often. Knowing the why of what you do, and expressing it regularly, increases employee engagement and encourages others to think bigger and realize their own passion for the work.
2. You’re open to new ideas
Transformational leaders are up for hearing thoughts and ideas when it comes to new ways of doing things or improvements that could benefit the organization. You’re curious and want to know more about what others think and why they think it. You ask questions for understanding, and you genuinely listen to the responses.
Leadership development is crucial—it means you're open to being wrong, and you're open to learning. Every day. To improve and stay up-to-date on effective leadership practices, it’s a good idea to be in the habit of daily reading.
I know you don’t have much time.
I don’t either—but I’ve committed to reading just ten pages on personal development each day, and it’s helped me be a better manager of people.
Small steps add up to big accomplishments.
3. You’re responsible
Transformational leaders take responsibility for their actions and decisions. When something goes wrong, you’re the first to step up and take responsibility. You understand there’s a lot to be learned from a mistake, and you turn failure into opportunity by considering what could have been done differently.
Positive change comes from learning and growth, and so you must be willing to take a look at your own leadership behaviors.
4. You have vision
Vision is a part of the transformational leader’s being—it’s who you are. Vision is at the forefront of your thoughts, and you talk often with team members about the purpose of the work.
You talk about the “why” behind the work you do, and you’re clear about its purpose. You’re committed to the common goals created, and you serve as a guide to staff during tough times.
5. You demonstrate integrity
Bernard Bass described the transformational leader as a model of integrity and fairness. Simply put, you do what you say you’re going to do. You understand the importance of role modeling, and you behave and work in the way you want your team members to behave and work.
You hold yourself accountable, and you’re the first to admit you made a mistake or have an area to improve in.
6. You embrace change
The transformational leader rolls with the punches. Come what may, you don’t have time to complain or make excuses, and you make the best of every situation. In fact, you embrace change as an opportunity and are open to pivoting and maneuvering as needed.
The last couple of years have brought challenges we never thought we’d face, and I’ve learned to take each day as it comes and make the best of it. I’m often navigating big changes in both my work and personal life—changes in operations, vacancies, managing children at home with work deadlines looming.
It’s a lot—but you’ve got to take it all in stride and keep on pushing forward.
7. You’re a good communicator
Transformational leaders take time to hone the art of communication. This means speaking clearly so as not to confuse a situation, and you’re clear about your expectations. You’re honest, even when it’s hard, and you don’t shy away from difficult conversations.
You understand the importance of team members feeling comfortable to communicate, and you’re open to hearing the perspective of others—even if they disagree with you. You’re honest and open to give your perspective when it differs, and you’re clear when things can’t be changed.
A great time to practice communication skills is during interim evaluations or coaching meetings to discuss progress. You never want to announce work deficiencies for the first time during end-of-the-year evaluations, and these more casual meetings during the year are great opportunities to give honest feedback.
Try saying something like, “I’ve noticed you've missed several deadlines lately, and I want to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s important to me that we’re able to have open and honest communication—tell me what’s been going on so we can make a plan to address it and improve.”
8. You’re Engaging and Motivating
Transformational leaders understand the importance of giving team members time and attention, and work to understand what motivates them. Like with servant leadership (the two concepts overlap), you put the team and the overall organizational needs before yourself within the work environment. Always.
This is something I’m always working to improve on. With deadlines and obligations, it can be difficult to take time out to walk the hall to say hello to employees and check-in—but it’s imperative you do.
Getting to know your team members doesn’t have to take massive amounts of time, and those few minutes away from your desk each day will improve working relationships. You’ll motivate your staff to strive for the goals set forth when they know you care about them and the mission of the work.
9. You Inspire Others
Transformational leaders inspire those around them to do more and be more. This means you walk the walk, and you’re present—physically, mentally, and emotionally. You value your employees and their well-being, and you energize those around you.
This is an important skill during times of struggle when employees need a leader who’s able to remind them why they're there and who praises self-direction and self-motivation. In doing so, you encourage innovation, empowerment, and creativity.
10. You Show Courage
Being a transformational leader requires courage. It requires not being afraid to try new things, or shying away from tough decisions. You understand that not making a decision is still making a decision, and you’re able to choose a direction you think best based on the information you have at the time.
You’re open to learning and growth, and you’re not afraid to take a risk that might just take your agency to the next level.
The effects of transformational leadership
When you work hard to use these components of transformational leadership, you’ll see visible improvement in your office culture.
Job satisfaction will rise, and staff will be engaged and willing to work hard for the vision you set forth. They’ll be motivated by your passion for the work, and they’ll strive to reach the goals that will take your business to the next level.
Remember, you're not solely responsible for the happiness or satisfaction of employees. But you do set the stage, and your leadership has an impact on the organizational culture.
Team members want to work for an empowering leader who believes in what they do and leads from the front. Being a transformational leader shows staff you believe in them, and you know the high quality of work they’re capable of achieving.
Effective leadership is tough, and it takes practice and a willingness to learn and grow. So, take a realistic look at your leadership style, and start making tangible changes to take your team to the next level.
To learn more about transformational leadership, pick up the books noted in this article and be sure to check out Bruce Avolio's Full Range Leadership Development—a look at how different components of an organization contribute to effective leadership and its validation.
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