Transformational Leadership – What is it? Pros/Cons? Examples?


Transformational leadership can be thought of as a caterpillar evolving into a butterfly. It takes time. It takes motivation. It takes hard work. In the end, it is all worth it since the end result is fantastic.

During my international career in business I have met several true transformational leaders, and I have implemented the style myself a couple of times. As a leader, performing a transformation can be one of the most rewarding things there is. After all, you get a clear before and after comparison opportunity which makes it easier to also understand the impact you made as a leader together with your  team.

In this article, I will explain the concept of transformational leadership and the basics of using it. You can read about pros and cons of transformational leadership, some famous examples of transformational leadership and a few stories about transformational leadership during my career. Let us start with explaining the basic concept to set the stage properly.

What is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership creates substantial change for team members as well as organizations. Expectations, aspirations, perceptions and values are transformed into something better. Transformational leadership develops the team members and motivates and inspires them to reach extraordinary success.

This change improvement journey, or transformation, is facilitated by an ideal embodied by the transformational leader who is a strong moral example in working towards the benefit of the team and a positive change in organizational culture. The transformational leader actively promotes challenge of the status quo and opportunities for change and improvement in team members and in general.

Team members are very loyal to their transformational leader who they trust, admire and respect. This belief in the leader coupled with the leaders aim towards improvement for the team result in very motivated team members that are willing to perform out of the ordinary.

According to the initial theory of transformational leadership, it is one side of a coin. The other side, i.e. the opposite, being transactional leadership.

What Are the Elements of Transformational Leadership?

The Full Range Leadership Model identifies four components of transformational leadership.

  1. Individual Consideration (IC)
  2. Intellectual Stimulation (IS)
  3. Inspirational Motivation (IM)
  4. Idealized Influence (II)

1.      Individualized Consideration (IC) – Caring

Each team member has unique needs and experiences a wide range of emotions. A transformational leader understands this and demonstrates genuine concern. When team members feel like their leader genuinely cares about them, they are more likely to perform at their best. This requires the transformational leader to have highly developed emotional skills and lots of empathy.

Individual Consideration also includes personalized feedback and praise, as well as recurring two way communication between the leader and each member.
The leader also acts as a mentor as well as a coach to the team members to challenge them and help them to develop themselves further.

2.     Intellectual Stimulation (IS) – Thinking

Respondents to a survey[1] conducted by Cangrade revealed that intellectual stimulation matters more than money to employees. According to the survey, intellectual stimulation accounts for 18.5 percent of job satisfaction while money contributes to 5.4 percent to job satisfaction.

Intellectual stimulation involves challenging the team to question the status quo, stimulating creative thinking and encouraging risk taking. This is a big step towards finding new and improved ways of doing things – a core part of transformational leadership. A transformational leader taps into the ideas among team members and learns from them.

3.     Inspirational Motivation (IM)

To reach higher performance, the transformational need to provide the followers with an inspiring vision. The transformational leader communicates convincingly and with optimism about the vision and puts the short term activities into a larger context. A strong sense of purpose and great inspiration is a big part of obtaining the increased performance of transformational leadership. Everyone feels like they are a part of the vision and that their contributions are essential to fulfil it. Some similarities with Visionary Leadership, refer to our in depth article on that topic for inspiration.

4.     Idealized Influence (IF) – Influencing

The team admires who the leader is and what he or she stands for. There are no double standards and the leader acts as an ethical role model; team members won’t be asked to do something that is wrong or that the leader wouldn’t do him or herself. Trust is the thread that binds the organization.

These four components of transformational leadership all need attention and focus if you want to become a good transformational leader. It will not work if you push three out of four components and leave the last one unattended. I suggest you reflect every now and then over which components you use the most and how you can improve further. It might even be a good idea to discuss the four components with your team and seek their feedback on the current state as well as their wished state for each of them. Transformational leadership involves everybody learning and improving, including the leader him or herself.

There is one thing that runs like a red thread through the above: Charisma. The ability to influence, inspire, stimulate and being perceived as caring are all charismatic traits to some degree. The charismatic streams in transformational leadership are so strong in fact that it is often compared with charismatic leadership. There are indeed many similarities but there are also some very key differentiators between these styles. (Refer to our article here: Charismatic Leadership and a separate one comparing the two styles: Charismatic vs Transformational Leadership.)

What are the Characteristics of Transformational Leaders?

There are quite a few characteristics that enable successful implementation of transformational leadership. A successful transformational leader needs to have as many of the characteristics and skills of the below as possible. It is quite a list. Being a transformational leader is not easy and it is not for people without ambition.

1.   Communication Skills

You need to be a good communicator, perhaps by using metaphors and stories as part of communicating. This also includes two way communication where skills as active listening, body language and others are useful. You need to make people understand you and you need to be good at understanding them as well. What drives people? Knowing this helps you to inspire and motivate them for instance. Listening to people make them feel part of the team and contributors to the overall transformation.
Versatility in communication means you can handle difficult one on one conversations as well as inspiring a larger audience from a stage.

2.   Role model

You need to be a role model when it comes to setting high targets and expectations and delivering on them. People will look to you for strong values, courage and a sense of ethics. You need to be stable and emotionally mature – not blowing off steam or having different attitudes on a weekly basis.

3.   Persistence and Passion

You need to be persistent and passionate about what you do. Show enthusiasm, optimism and consider failure an impossibility. Why would people believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself?

4.   Visionary and strategic

A big portion of success with transformational leadership rests on the vision of the future and understanding how to get there. The vision needs to be strong enough to inspire, and it need to be realistic enough so people believe it can be achieved. This is a balancing act for any leader. The only way a good vision will become reality is if it is communicated properly of course, so remember that this skill set needs to be combined with communication skills – not just to sell people on it, but also to have them contribute in shaping the vision.

5.   Self-awareness

As a transformational leader, you need to know yourself and understand how you affect others. This is probably true for most, if not all, leadership styles of course. Know your weaknesses, know your strengths. Never stop developing yourself.

6.   Coaching and ever learning

Transforming people is done through coaching amongst other processes, so you need to be effective in coaching and mentoring others. (Have a look at our article on coaching leadership for inspiration.) This applies to yourself as well by the way since transformational leaders should never stop learning. Learn from your own mistakes and others so you know what not to do. Learn from successes and repeat what you did in the future.

7.   Emotionally Intelligent

It is difficult to be good at communication, at inspiring others, coaching, being a role model and knowing yourself if you aren’t emotionally intelligent. This part is essential for so many other things in this list. We can all learn how to be better at empathy and how to treat others. Transformational leaders need to be very emotionally intelligent to complete their visions, that’s for sure. (For insights on empathy, read our article on the importance of empathy in leadership.)

If you lack some of the things outlined above, then why not start with transforming yourself into the person you need to be by addressing any gaps you might have. We all need to start somewhere and continue to develop ourselves towards realizing our vision. After all, this is what transformational leadership is all about.

What are the Pros and Cons of Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership, like all leadership styles, has a set of advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Transformational Leadership

Here are four examples of strong advantages of the transformational leadership style. They are centered around vision, loyalty, change and communication.

1.  Shared vision

Everyone in the organization believes and supports the leader’s vision. A transformational leader has an uncanny ability to see the problems within an organization and create a vision for growth. The team understands the purpose of the vision and are willing to do what it takes to make it reality.

2.  Employee loyalty

Transformational leaders help each team member feel like a valuable part of the organization. They are more engaged, empowered and committed to helping the organization excel. All these aspects contribute to a strong sense of loyalty between the team members and their leader. All this combined results in low employee turnover in teams with good transformational leadership.

3.  Change management is a strength

Change management is the process of preparing, equipping and supporting a team to successfully respond to internal and external change. Furthermore, change is a requirement for an organization to grow. People normally fear change and will, therefore, resist it. All the four elements mentioned above, i.e. Individualized Consideration, Intellectual Stimulation, Inspirational Motivation and Idealized Influence work together to enable change in a good, motivational and well communicated way.

4.  There is strong communication

Strong communication is necessary for change to occur. Transformational leaders provide clear, consistent messages to their teams and major portions of the leadership style is resting on a foundation of communication. These leaders also listen to and value the input of each team member.

Disadvantages of Transformational Leadership

The disadvantages of this style are centered around the importance of influence, overlooking details, high pressure on team members, risk and time requirements for the leadership style.

1.    Influence is lost if the team disagrees with the vision

Transformational leadership depends heavily on the team being intrinsically motivated to achieve the vision. However, it is possible for the team to lose faith in the vision along the way. There are no extrinsic rewards to keep them going so they can simply stop performing. Transformational leadership relies too heavily on the acceptance of a common vision with little else to motivate people to work.

2.    Minute details can be overlooked

Moving towards a common vision is like seeing a light at the end of a long tunnel.  This can result in tunnel vision, where everyone is so fixated on getting to that light that they neglect the small steps and details necessary to get there. It won’t be an obstacle-free journey. A transformational leader may overlook the minute details necessary for operational efficiency because of the strong focus on the long term vision.

3.    Puts added pressure on employees

There is a lot of pressure to do more than what is considered normal under the guidance of a transformational leader. A team member may believe that he or she is exerting maximum effort, but the leader may think otherwise. The added pressure of performance expectation may ultimately result in a demotivated employee.

4.    May result in unnecessary risk

Some transformational leaders do not adequately assess whether the recommended change is right for the organization in its current stage of development. Therefore, they take on risks that may lead the organization to its demise.

5.    Frequent communication is time consuming

Everyone should be kept in the loop for transformational leadership to be effective. This requires several weekly meetings, progress reports and other time consuming communication. A breakdown in communication causes an employee to feel left out of the loop with loss in motivation which can cause things to spiral downward thereafter.

6.    Change is almost a prerequisite

The act of transformation is such a core part of transformational leadership that it is difficult to use when there is no need for change. This is nothing strange really. A leadership style which is conceptually meant for change is unlikely to be the best fit when the change element is lacking.
This could for instance be in the very early days of an organization’s existence. Setting structures and systems up and getting organized is the key need here, and there is no existing structure to change.
Another example would be strictly transactional or bureaucratical organizations where efficiency and productivity comes from setting standards and regulations and actually avoiding change on purpose. (See transactional leadership and bureaucratic leadership for reference.)

How to Be an Effective Transformational Leader?

There are some golden rules to follow to effectively deploy and implement transformational leadership. These rules are very focused on the team, passion, communication and having situational awareness.

1.   Take the time to understand your team

Each team member has a life outside of the job and the team. Get to know all your team members on a personal level. Learn more about their values, interests, hobbies, skills and unique traits. They want to feel valued and want to believe that you genuinely care about them. Furthermore, learning more about their skills and interests can help you assign tasks that they will execute and complete well.

2.   Effectively communicate with and listen to your team    

Effective communication is time consuming. However, it helps prevent dissonance within the team. Communication isn’t restricted to keeping team members up-to-date with what’s happening in the organization. It also involves listening to and acting on their concerns as well as providing them with constructive feedback about their performance. Open and honest communication is important for creating a thriving business.

3.   Develop situational awareness

Consider the circumstances of each situation you get involved in and what you should do as part of that interaction. Situation awareness is a mindset that you should develop so that change can be effectively implemented to propel the organization towards growth. Essentially, let the situation at hand influence your actions and how you lead.

4.   Improve your change management skills

Study the process of change and the known pitfalls with implementing changes. This will give you knowledge of potential problems so you can mitigate those beforehand, and it will help you with understanding how communication can be used in conjunction with change. The overall idea is to transform the company or organization into something else – why would you want to embark on that journey without essential skills in change management?

5.   Be passionate

Passion is contagious. However, too much passion can lead to an overwhelmed workforce. You should learn to balance your passion and how you communicate it, so you avoid overwhelming your team. Passion can also cause you to overlook the minor details that will help you achieve those long term stellar results that you are aiming for. If you are planning on changing the world, all the operational things might seem important in comparison, right? Organize your team in a way that ensures that those minor tasks are completed, and everyone is clear about their roles, while still retaining the long term focus and the passion in getting there.

What Are the Situations in Which Transformational Leadership Works Best?

There are two types of organizations that usually need a transformational leader. The first is an organization that is outdated and needs change before it becomes completely obsolete. The second type is an organization that needs restructuring or improvement to produce good results, such as a company turnaround. Essentially, a transformational leader is often needed in organizations where radical change is necessary.

Transformational leadership vs transactional leadership

According to the original theory, transactional and transformational leadership were opposites.

These two leadership styles are very different in general as well as in depth. Otherwise they would not be suggested as a set of two styles being polar opposite of each other.

The table below shows some big topic areas with a comparison between the two styles. Please read our separate article on transactional leadership if you are interested.

Aspect Transactional leadership Transformational leadership
View on people As performing tasks An important resource to grow
View on future Short-term, goal and result focus Long-term strategic, visionary
Involving others Little involvement, very directive Lots of involvement, very participative
Time to implement Fast Slow
How to motivate Incentive focused Inspirational and engaging

Transformational leadership, my experience

Transformational leadership has a lot of similarities with other leadership styles. It has long term aspirations in common with Visionary Leadership, personality traits similar to charismatic leadership and focus on people reminding one of servant leadership and coaching leadership. Hence, some of the transformational leaders I have met during my career can be tricky to distinguish from the other styles. In my examples below, I focus on one aspect that is less like the aforementioned styles, namely change.

Company turnaround through Transformational Leadership

I was personally involved in a company turn around situation a few years back. The company was suffering from quality problems and poor performance. The company culture and its people had suffered a couple of bad blows and were beaten down and had lost their creativity, sense of urgency, ambition and hope. This culture made the problem a systematic one instead of a temporary one. Furthermore, the culture made it extremely difficult to get out of the negative spiral as well.

Although I didn’t know it back then, but transformational leadership is what we used.

My personal part in this consisted of being a highly engaged leader focused on turning things completely around. Let me explain how this was done by separating the story into the four components of transformational leadership.

Transformational component: Individual Consideration (IC)

Me and my colleagues interviewed lots of people in the organization. Not “just” the managers, but people of different levels and different departments. They were asked what the biggest assets and the biggest problems of the company were. Interviewees were asked about what they would fix first if they were calling the shots. I was in the middle of being a transformational leader without really knowing it.

Besides resulting in a lot of input and information about the company, people and the problems, it also achieved the following:

  • Important people in the organization felt they were important and were listened to
  • These people felt that the leader really cared about the company and the people
  • They were influential horizontally in the organization, and I am completely sure that the people around them were made aware of this interview and the interaction with top executives, spreading the perception of individual consideration to a wider group

Once improvements were deployed, everybody got an understanding of our progress through information sessions online, townhall meetings, intranet updates, recurring newsletters etc. People perceived that the management felt they were important enough to inform and gradual solution delivery increased their belief in the transformation.

Transformational component: Intellectual Stimulation (IS)

As described above, people were part of describing the problems. Besides interviews, workshops were arranged to identify problems and find solutions to them. Besides getting close to solving the problems, this unleashed creativity and challenged people. They started to understand that their problems were theirs to solve, and there was no use waiting for someone else to solve the problems for them. This step was crucial in stopping the widespread blame games in the organization where “most problems are caused by department X” was a common phrase, the X shifting a lot depending on who you talked to.

All the improvement plans were put together in and rolled out. Who participated in the solution implementation projects? Cross functional teams that had experienced the problems and often had to change their ways to stop the problems from recurring. Transformational leadership has a strong since of continuous improvement, and we deployed it as a permanent mechanism rather than a one time project.

Transformational component: Inspirational Motivation (IM)

In the beginning, we spent time on communicating a story of what state the company was in and how it could and should be instead. Everybody kind of knew how bad things were, but you didn’t say it out loud. Once the leadership stated the obvious and “embraced” the problems to their core, people felt change already. This was the before picture in our vision as transformational leaders.
The forward looking vision was turning our company into what it had the potential to be. None of us should accept the current situation since we knew we were capable of something much better than this! We want to feel proud again, and not always have to apologize for our errors!

It worked. Finally, the problems which had been around for years were going to be addressed. As the transformation moved forward, people saw what they were capable of which generated a winning spirit, making the next improvement step easier to take.

Idealized Influence (II)

I was one of a few new transformational leaders that were injected into this organization. We came in without the feeling of defeat and skepticism. We worked hard like never before, we cared like never before, we challenged like never before.
The attitude started spreading to a few more people, who in turn also started showing signs of transformational leadership.

After a while, people started to see that we kept our promises and kept listening to them. We had strong morals and ethics and we were not acting as the top-down autocratic leaders they had been used to previously. This built trust, belief, loyalty and willingness to transform the company together.

The result? A few years later, this company set new sales and profit records. The profit had almost tripled compared to the year before the transformation.

Let me give you an example of a change done in the opposite way as well, lacking transformational leadership.

Huge change lacking Transformational leadership

Many years ago, I had personal insight in a company where a major change was planned. The idea was to transform a rather wide array of companies that were stand alone and decentralized to a degree and turn them all into functions. All factories, regarding of legacy, which products they made etc. were now to belong to the Supply function. Similar approaches for sales functions, service, research and development etc. This is a big deal in a company manufacturing a spectrum of vehicles. The old organization meant functions organized around vehicle X, where as the sister company was focused on vehicle Y to simplify this example. After the change, salespeople who had always sold only vehicle X were now expected to sell vehicle X, Y and many others. Same thing for the factories, where the staff should go from manufacturing ”their” vehicle to “any” vehicle. A core change impacting so many aspects of the company.

All be it that I did not have full access to the top decision makers at this time, so I do not know how they approached this and how they viewed risks etc. However, I did see this from below, and it wasn’t pretty..

Connecting back to the four components of transformational leadership:

Transformational component: Individual Consideration (IC)

Very little consideration was taken to the people involved. If the top leaders were transformational leaders, then there was definitely a gap on the way downwards in the hierarchy since little to no consideration was experienced at lower levels.
Limited communication, limited explanations, limited motivation were the tell tale signs of this change. People were even told that if they weren’t on board with this change then they should simply leave the company.

Transformational component: Intellectual Stimulation (IS)

Everything was top down resulting in no tapping into the creativity of others or inviting for participation. People were directed and told what to do and when to do it.

Transformational component: Inspirational Motivation (IM)

There was an overall vision but it was not appealing. A big portion of it was to simplify the structure and improve statutory reporting and functional focus. If people felt forgotten or had concerns about losing customer focus and business focus, there weren’t any good answers. At least none of them reached me.

Transformational component: Idealized Influence (II)

There was no sense of relationship between people and the top leader. Period.

I am not assigning blame here and I know hindsight is 20/20, but at least I see this as a learning opportunity. The outcome was a procrastinating organization who did anything they could to find loopholes in stalling the directives. Everything moved at different speeds, so one division was done when another one had barely started etc. A lot of people fought back with the feeling that they were protecting organizational identity and the business itself from this endeavor. After a little more than a year, the organization was completed. On paper at least. It was dysfunctional, ruled in local sub structures or informal fiefdoms. The higher levels of leadership thought they were in charge, but that was only the case on paper. This was not transformational leadership, it might have been a mix of pacesetting and directive leadership with autocratic behavior in general, who knows?

Sales dropped, employee engagement dropped, a lot of talented individuals left the company. Roughly two years later, the organizational change was rolled back almost entirely and focus on business and customers reemerged. As far as I know, to this day, that company is still organized in its separate parts and it seem to work well.

This story is of course simplified. I am sure that a lot of changes actually took place and were kept. It is not black or white. A lot of the improvements stayed, but the bigger strokes of the change were absolutely removed.

So, what could have been done differently if transformational leadership had been applied properly? To begin with, if that had been the case, I do not think the change would have happened. On the other hand, with transformational leadership and the right Inspirational Motivation, a good vision could have been marketed. This in turn could have triggered Intellectual Stimulation and the ideas generated from that would have strengthened the concept. Listening to people in such a way could have improved things from the Individual Consideration component view. Had the top couple of layers of management been involved in transformational leadership this way, then in turn, some of them might have emerged as transformational leaders in their areas and acted along the fourth component: Idealized Influence. If the top leader didn’t have a relationship with people, the lower level leaders certainly had.


Would implementation of transformational leadership have given a different result? I don’t know. I do know that this approach would have increased the knowledge of potential consequences of the change before hand. I do know that a lot of the procrastination could have been removed and that people very likely would have bought into the change to a higher degree. Thus, increasing the chance of success substantially.

Who Are Famous Examples of Transformational Leaders?

Sir Richard Branson  (1950 to present) – Founder of the Virgin Group

Branson epitomizes a transformational leader. He fervently believes[2] that “If you can motivate your people, use their creative potential, you can get through the bad times and enjoy the good times together … if your employees are happy and smiling and enjoying their work, they will perform well.” This philosophy is part of the reason he formed the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship with locations in several countries.  Furthermore, each of his companies depend heavily on innovation and supporting creativity.

Lee Iacocca (1924 – 2019) CEO of Chrysler in the 80s

Lee Iacocca is known for developing the Mustang and Pinto cars while employed at Ford during the 1960s ending up as the president of the company in 1970. At the end of the decade, he went on to Chrysler and served as its CEO until 1992.

Iacocca made an astonishing success as he transformed Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy to a highly profitable company. He created a vision and mobilized employees to reaching it while he let go of 60 000 employees at the same time. Iacocca challenged status quo, trimmed the costs of the company and instilled a culture of innovation and efficiency.[3]

History of Transformational Leadership

Our explanation of Transformational leadership is a mix of the original theories of Burns and the additional adaptations by Bass and Avolio.

It started when James MacGregor Burns conceptualized transforming leadership as a part of his Full Range Leadership Model (FRLM) in 1978. He believed that there are two mutually exclusive types of leadership – transactional and transforming. According to Burns[4], transforming leadership occurs when “leaders develop their followers and motivate and/or inspire them to achieve extraordinary levels of success.”

Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio developed the FRLM framework further. They delineated three leadership styles – transactional, transformational and laissez-faire. In fact, Bass was the first to use the term “transformational” to describe this leadership style. They disregarded that transformational and transactional leadership is mutually exclusive, i.e. they believed both styles could be used by the same leader[5]. Bass and Avolio believed that transformational leadership is the most desirable form of leadership.

It turns out that they were right. Beckett Frith cites[6] a study conducted by Freshminds revealing that 40.2 percent of respondents agree that transformational leadership positively impacts the motivation of junior employees. These 247 respondents ranged from entry-level and middle management to senior executives and C-suite executives. Democratic leadership followed closely behind in popularity with 36.5 percent of the respondents believing it motivated junior employees. Autocratic leadership, however, was deemed least effective for motivating employees with only 9.5 percent of the votes. 

References

https://online.stu.edu/articles/education/what-is-transformational-leadership.aspx#benefits
https://www.langston.edu/sites/default/files/basic-content-files/TransformationalLeadership.pdf


[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/employee-happiness-intellectual-stimulation-money_n_3948466
[2] https://sites.psu.edu/leadership/2017/03/27/famous-transformational-leaders/
[3] https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-leadership-challenge-a-call-for-the-transformational-leader/
[4] https://www3.nd.edu/~jthomp19/AS300/1_Fall%20Semester/27%20Sep/Full_Range_Leadership_V1.pdf
[5] https://www.langston.edu/sites/default/files/basic-content-files/TransformationalLeadership.pdf
[6] https://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/millennial-workers-prefer-transformational-leaders

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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