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What is transformational leadership?

Being a good leader requires you to wear many hats. Sometimes you need to play the role of the visionary, who motivates their team toward a united goal. Other times, you need to be the quiet observer and listen to the concerns of your employees. It can be challenging to navigate these different types of leadership and understand what’s required of you in each situation. 

To help, we’re putting together a series of articles that dive into various leadership styles. The hope is that these will familiarize you with multiple types of leadership and help you understand when and how to apply them to your own role. 

The focus of today’s article: transformational leadership. 

What is transformational leadership?

The definition

So what exactly is transformational leadership? Transformational leaders create a vision based on identified needs and guide their teams toward that unified goal through inspiration and motivation.

Transformational leadership shares many characteristics with other leadership styles. For instance, visionary leadership is frequently used interchangeably with transformational leadership. Similarly, strategic leadership is commonly viewed as the “umbrella” term for transformational and visionary leadership. All of these terms simply refer to leadership styles that use a strategic, long-term vision that’s used to guide the actions of both the leaders and their team members.

The origin story

The concept of transformational leadership was originally introduced by a sociologist named James Victor Downton. However, the person best known for further developing the concept is leadership studies expert Bernard Morris Bass. He developed what is known today as Bass’ Transformational Leadership Theory, which states that transformational leadership can be defined and measured based on the impact that it has on followers. 

The theory is based on four main components: 

  • Idealized influence. This refers to the leader’s ability to serve as a role model for its followers by demonstrating traits like honesty, enthusiasm, and trustworthiness. 
  • Inspirational motivation. This is how leaders inspire a group of people to move toward a vision or goal that they’ve put into place. It requires the leader to be charismatic, inspirational, and encouraging. 
  • Intellectual stimulation. Can the leader challenge their teams and people in a way that inspires productive growth? This is what this component focuses on. It also speaks to the leader’s ability to encourage contributions and ideas from the group.
  • Individualized consideration. Finally, a transformational leader must be able to identify the needs of its individual followers. Then they must act as a mentor, facilitator, or teacher to motivate that individual to be part of the group and contribute.

Now that we have a better understanding of the underlying theory behind transformational leadership, let’s take a look at an example of a transformational leader in practice.

What type of person is a transformational leader?

To help you build a picture of transformational leadership, let’s imagine there’s a leader at your organization named Nelle. 

Nelle is widely known at your company for having a highly successful team. Her direct reports all speak positively of Nelle, feel motivated to produce their best work, and have been loyal members of her team for several years. This is in stark contrast to other teams at your organization, where employees tend to be disengaged, have conflicts with their leader, and experience high turnover rates. 

When you take a closer look, you see that Nelle practices a transformational leadership style. She sets a vision for her team—that they’re all on board with—and makes sure everyone understands why and how they’re moving towards this goal. From there, she always takes time to have conversations with her team—both as individuals and groups—to make sure they have the resources and support they need to be successful in their roles. 

However, Nelle isn’t involved in day-to-day decisions. She knows she has a smart, competent group of people on her team and trusts them to execute on the tactics that will help them progress. And while she has high expectations of her team, she demonstrates the expected standard through her own behavior by being trustworthy, open, and hard working as their leader. 

How to become a transformational leader

While the steps to becoming a transformational leader will vary depending on your exact situation and personality, here are a few general guidelines you can follow to help you move in the right direction: 

Have a vision

Part of being a transformational leader is the ability to create a high-level vision based on current needs or existing problems. Without one, your team will be directionless – not to mention that it becomes difficult to find a sense of purpose when you don’t know what your work is contributing to. 

Just as important as having a vision is communicating it to your followers. They have to understand exactly what you’re trying to accomplish in order to get on board with the plan. Otherwise, they likely won’t be very motivated to produce their best work. While you’re communicating your vision, make sure to use the time to ask for feedback and additional ideas from the team – this will give them more stake in the business and know that the vision is only achievable through a group effort.

Care personally

Speaking to and understanding your team as a whole is important. But it’s equally important to understand the individuals that are part of the team. That’s why one of the most invaluable traits of a transformational leader is the ability to care for others and practice empathy. 

Transformational leaders take the time to learn about their individual team members – from knowing about their favorite hobbies to understanding their career goals. Not only will this give you more insight into the concerns and aspirations of your team as a whole, but it’ll also strengthen your personal relationships. Building this type of trust is critical because it’ll help you overcome challenges together and leads to more open, transparent conversations. 

Check in, but don’t get too in the weeds

It’s important to make sure the delivery of your vision is being executed. This requires you to check in regularly with the team and the managers within your teams. However, you have to be careful to not cross the fine line between checking in regularly and micromanaging. 

Transformational leaders know that, if you want your teams to produce their best work, you have to give them space and trust them to do their jobs. If you get too involved and try to control every decision, you’re signalling to your team that you don’t trust their judgment – a surefire way to harm your relationship with them. Remember: your role is to guide, not to control. Be there for your team, make sure they have what they need to succeed in their roles, and then take a step back.

Real-world examples of transformational leadership

It can be tough to know exactly when to apply transformational leadership in your role. While it’s ultimately up to you to decide, there are a few real-world examples of situations where we believe a transformational leadership style may be beneficial: 

  • Your company recently went through a challenging transition (layoffs, an acquisition, etc.) and morale is low amongst employees. Applying the transformational leadership style can help uplift your team and have them move forward into a fresh chapter and toward a new vision.
  • One of your departments is struggling, and it’s time for new management to step in. This is a great opportunity to reset and show your employees that things are changing for the better. By being a transformational leader, you can communicate the new vision for the department and inspire people to get on board with the new plan.
  • Your team is growing rapidly, which is exciting! However, you know that scaling up a team also comes with growing pains. So you want to apply a transformational leadership style and use this as an opportunity to get your new team aligned and moving in the same direction – not to mention this is the perfect leadership style to help you get to know your new members on a personal level.

Finally, if you’re in need of further ideas, there are leaders in the real world who are great examples of transformational leadership in action. Here are a few to draw inspiration from: 

Now that you understand what transformational leadership is, and when and how to apply it to your own role, you’re one step closer to becoming a more effective leader. If you feel like you need more guidance, we recommend taking a 360-degree leadership assessment to better understand your current style and identify where to make adjustments. Coaching can also be a useful tool to help shape your leadership style in the direction that you want. Remember, there are tons of leadership development and training programs out there that can provide extra support where you need it.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your own leadership style can help you better identify which approach is best for your current role. Check out our ebook, 10 Leadership Styles You Should Know, to learn more about different approaches to leadership and when and how to apply them.