What is transformational leadership and what does it look like?


Strong leaders are vital to success in today’s team-based world of work. They need to be able to get the best out their people, help them develop and encourage collaboration – even when hybrid working means they aren’t always in the same place at the same time. This calls for transformational leadership, where managers inspire their staff to perform effectively by focusing on their needs and supporting them to improve. Consequently, transformational models are being adopted by more and more organizations as senior managers lead transformational change.

What is transformational leadership?

The transformational leadership philosophy was first coined by leadership expert James MacGregor Burns in 1978. He used the term transformational leadership to describe a process where “leaders and their followers help each other to advance to higher levels of morale and motivation.” Essentially through the strength of their vision and personality traits, transformational leaders are able to inspire followers to change expectations, perceptions, and motivations to work towards common goals.

When it comes to types of leader transformational leadership is often seen as the opposite of transactional leadership, which relies on a system of rewards and punishments to drive employee performance. Transactional leaders focus on ‘give and take’ relationship with followers. Instead, the transformational leadership style is based on charisma, not compliance, focusing on the needs of employees and changing cultures to deliver results, making it similar in some ways to servant leadership. However, often the two styles of leadership can co-exist within a leader – for example, with a transactional focus on getting the basics of a job done, and a transformational approach to drive inspirational motivation and develop creativity.

Burns’ work on transformational leadership theories has been extended over the last forty years, notably by Bass and Riggio, who state that “Transformational leaders help followers grow and develop into leaders by responding to individual followers’ needs by empowering them and by aligning the objectives and goals of the individual followers, the leader, the group, and the larger organization.” Many people follow the 4 i’s of transformational leadership, as described in this blog.

What are the benefits of transformational leadership?

Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their workforce without micromanaging, increasing engagement by giving employees more room to be creative and providing them with greater control over their work. They act as an idealised influence over their team. Consequently, research shows that authentic transformational leadership benefits employees and organisations in seven ways:

  1. It delivers greater career satisfaction as employees feel in control over their working lives and are continually developing their skills
  2. It increases retention as employees are engaged and inspired by their leaders
  3. It inspires the next generation of leaders from amongst team members
  4. Employees display greater discretionary effort as they are motivated to go above and beyond average performance
  5. Employees have higher levels of mental and physical well-being
  6. Employees have a greater commitment to their organisation, acting as ambassadors for the brand
  7. Employees have greater trust in leadership as they see them displaying clear standards and ethical behaviours

Essentially transformational leaders inspire people, thus increasing engagement, performance, and retention – exactly the outcomes that every business is looking for.

How do you develop transformational leaders?

Some people are natural transformational leaders, displaying the mix of charisma, understanding and inspiration required to motivate staff. However, the good news is that the transformational leadership qualities have been analysed and they broadly fit with six behaviours:

  1. Ability to identify and articulate a vision

Transformational leaders have to develop and inspire others by articulating their vision of the future. This has to be compelling, coherent and well-communicated to ensure it engages team members. Additionally, transformational leaders are able to identify new opportunities for their team and motivate employees to work to achieve them.

  1. Provide an appropriate model

Through their behaviour, transformational leaders set a clear, ethical example to the rest of their team. They act as a role model, displaying a strong sense of right and wrong that they stick to and encourage in their team, leading to a positive effect on others.

  1. Foster the acceptance of group goals

Transformational leaders treat everyone equally and are focused on building an effective team. They promote cooperation amongst employees and mediate to get the entire team to work together toward a common goal and objectives.

  1. An expectation of high performance

Transformational leaders are committed to excellence, quality, and high performance, both personally and within their teams. They set clear expectations around performance, while encouraging employees to take ownership of how work is actually carried out.

  1. Provide individualised support to staff

Transformational leaders display high levels of empathy and interest in the wellbeing and development of everyone within their team. They always show respect and concern for their feelings, taking the time to understand and respond to individual needs. This “individualized consideration” translates into regular one-to-ones with every team member, building trust and providing coaching to help them develop.

  1. Focused on continual intellectual stimulation

A transformational leader focuses on continual learning. They expect and encourage team members to do the same by exploring new ways of working and completing tasks.

These behaviours can be measured through 360 degree leadership assessments, using feedback from team members, managers, and peers to identify any areas for improvement in transformational leadership skills. This ongoing process helps build and improve skills through transformational leadership coaching and ensures that leaders are continually learning and growing.

Getting started with transformational leadership

Alongside encouraging individual managers to become transformational leaders, organisations can build an overarching culture that encourages and supports transformational leadership across the company.

This begins with developing a challenging and attractive vision for the entire company. What is the organisation aiming to achieve? Involve employees in the process to gain buy-in to the results.

Then turn this vision into a long-term strategy for its achievement, defining transformation. Explain timescales and what will need to change at a high-level for it to succeed. Focus on the benefits of transformation for all and how everyone is involved. This strategy can then be turned into concrete actions that support cultural change, such as transformational leadership training for managers and re-organizing structures so that they best align with company needs.

Finally, measure progress, both through assessing the performance of transformational leaders and by collecting more general feedback on areas for improvement from all employees.

Organisations today operate in a fast-moving, ever-changing world. They need to be agile to respond quickly and effectively as well as being innovative and creative. This requires inspirational leaders at all levels who can motivate and get the best from their people. Adopting a focus on transformational leadership is therefore an essential part of engaging employees and gaining competitive advantage moving forward.

Build transformational leaders across your organisation with Tivian Leadership 360. Based on rigorous, validated academic models it delivers the real data and context leaders require in order to change behaviours, drive improvement and increase their engagement. It delivers critical insights via personalised dashboards that identify such things as hidden strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly blind spots on the path to transformational leadership. Leadership 360 then promotes change by providing personalized recommendations for improvement to drive immediate, measurable results. Find out more – speak to our team here.

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