Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership

A leader has the ability to create or even, the exact opposite, to destroy a team. It is no secret that the current work environment has moved on and that the traditional, autocratic leadership methods are no longer effective. Transformational leadership is possibly one of the most desirable of the various leadership approaches. In this article, there will be a detailed examination of transformational leadership, its main principles, its pluses and minuses, as well as some real examples.

Much more than ever before, employees are nowadays focused on growth and development. It is important for them to see the point of their work, which is why a real leader, who can identify each individual's potential and help them to realize it, is also required.

What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership is a leadership style which is focused mainly on creating changes in a team or organization, which is why the discussion is about "transformations". This is a type of leadership where leaders encourage, inspire and motivate their employees to exceed their boundaries, introduce innovations and implement changes, so that an organization can reach a higher goal. These types of leaders create an environment which is characterized by trust and innovation. Transformative leaders concentrate on the empowering and independence of their employees and encourage them to use a variety of (better) ways of achieving goals. In turn, employees who are given the right to assume responsibility for their work, are more involved and more productive.

Principles of transformational leadership  

In 1978, John Burns unveiled a new leadership theory. According to his perspective, transformational leadership is a type of leadership, which transforms the values systems of people and organisations, their standards, goals, needs and ethics. In 1985, Bernard Bass added to transformational leadership theory, providing for the identification of leaders by the impact which they leave on their followers. Bernard Bass considered that transformational leadership was a process in which leaders and followers push each other towards higher levels of motivation and morality.

Bernard Bass identified four main principles of transformational leadership.

Idealized influence or charisma

Personal charisma or engagement which influences subordinates. A leader uses his/her charisma and social skills to address his/her subordinates and to strengthen their loyalty. Employees respect and rely on them. The leader displays perseverance in achieving goals, assumes responsibility for their actions and demonstrates confidence and a belief in their vision for the future. The leader is an example for his/her employees, influencing the group with their vision and high work standards.

Inspirational motivation

Attributable to leaders who motivate and inspire their subordinates with a powerful imagination, convincing language and optimistic enthusiasm. They use slogans and examples to stimulate their subordinates to look at a problem from a different aspect and to distinguish new visions. Employees take this on and want to change to reach a new, captivating goal and work unselfishly for the good of the organization.

Intellectual stimulation

Is expressed through the leader questioning the assumptions of subordinates, encouraging them to think creatively and in an alternative way. Intellectually motivational leaders reveal a new way of thinking to their employees, helping them to find rational solutions and to introduce innovations. For example, a leader could invite employees to think about incontestable, strictly defined processes. This develops critical thinking skills in subordinates, encouraging them to develop ideas for the solution of complex problems.

Individual consideration

This is attention and respect for the needs of subordinates. Transformative leaders use an individual approach, respecting an employee’s personality and uniqueness, and providing advice if assistance is required. They offer to diversify work and delegate authority to development a person’s skills, and in this way, improve the self-esteem of their subordinates. For example, if an employee has difficulties in adapting to a new system of work at an organization, the leader listens to the doubts and needs of the subordinate and provides support for the acquisition of new skills.

What is definitely not transformational leadership?

Leaders who work according to the " carrot and whip" approach, using rewards and penalties to facilitate the behaviour they would need or like, belong to the opposite spectrum of transformational leadership. These types of leaders divide up tasks, showing precisely what has to be done by each person, strictly controlling the performance of the work and concentrating power in their own hands. In addition, they tend to preserve an organization’s status quo and can be passive towards, or oppose, any changes. If a leader operates according to the principle “You do this to me ― I will do this to you”, introducing strict order, restricting an employee's authority to make decisions and willingly reprimanding them, it is doubtful whether we could then call this transformational leadership. This type of leadership does not provide opportunities for employees to exhibit their best results, to reveal and put their creative potential into practice, because a low level of trust suppresses ideas, creativity and initiative.

For example, I had an interesting experience ― the management of a particular bank were very perturbed that employees were not displaying initiative. But in evaluating the leadership style of the higher level of management, I witnessed an arrogant and critical attitude towards employee ideas and sometimes even an aggressive reaction to the differing view of a subordinate. Of course, when encountering this type of behaviour, it was much simpler and more convenient for employees to keep their ideas to themselves and to comply with the higher level of management’s needs in a mechanical way.

What do transformative leaders do?

Even though there is no tried and true recipe for how to become a transformative leader, there are seven common features which characterize leaders who use this style of leadership.

1. Transformative leaders inspire

Inspiration ― a term which characterizes this style. These types of leaders motivate employees to work diligently, not because they are forced to do this, but rather because they help their teams in recognizing a higher goal, benefit or positive influence in the wider context, and involve themselves, heart and soul, in what they are doing.

2. Transformative leaders are able see in the long term

As transformative leaders are involved in facilitating change at the organizational level, they have a clear vision about where they are going and are also able to clearly and effectively express this vision to the team.

3. Transformative leaders trust

Micro-management is a swear word in the world of transformational leadership. Instead of putting forward strict and detailed demands for the performance of work, leaders give their team members the freedom to be innovative, to come up with new ideas and encourage them to take on full responsibility for their tasks. And of course, there is no penalty for experimenting or for failure.

There is mutual trust at the workplace. If an employee is unable, for example, to complete a project as promised, he/she will most likely discuss their problems in a timely manner, without fear of penalty or reprisal. This provides the opportunity for leaders to provide mentoring and support which leads to success in the future.

4. Transformative leaders are open and objective

A desire for change is at the essence of transformational leadership, which means that leaders are open to new ideas, methods and ways of work. They not only perceive these suggestions in a positive and calm way, but also work in a focused way to obtain ideas from their team and to facilitate a culture which supports creativity.

5. Transformative leaders demonstrate high ethical standards

Even though transformative leaders try to develop and transform companies, they always act honestly and observe high ethical standards. They are aware of the fact that they are providing an example to others and know that their followers are observing them and treat this responsibility seriously.

6. Transformative leaders value achievements

They try to recognize good results and celebrate achievement. Leaders understand that recognition is a powerful motivator and that their team members are even more inspired to do great work if they feel valued and receive applause for their achievements.

7. Transformative leaders are ambitious

To become a transformative leader, certain ambitions and the courage to work on challenging goals are required. Often it is much easier to go along with average standards at work, but these leaders do things differently. They work to introduce changes, and this requires a higher level of determination and effort.

The positive and negative aspects of transformational leadership

It may look as if transformational leadership is the best approach in introducing changes and in working with employees, and that it is a panacea or measure against any kinds of problems at an organization, but nothing is ideal. A leadership style may be successful in a specific situation and organization but may not be suitable in other circumstances.


  • A positive correlation with employee’s satisfaction with work. The active participation of subordinates and a more satisfied team achieves better results at work.
  • Employees are motivated and identify themselves with the organization's goals. This ensures a greater level of efficiency and productivity.
  • Employees can sense if a manager believes in them ― it makes them feel more confident in themselves and more loyal towards the organization.
  • Easier conflict resolution through cooperation and a good understanding of relationships.
  • Long-term working relationships are created due to the knowledge that the manager has invested in employees, as subordinates feel valued and respected.
  • An atmosphere of trust and positive collaboration is created. Therefore, employees are not afraid of failing and have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. This freedom to experiment or fail makes the company an innovative thinking centre.


  • Transformative leaders can “lose” the detail, as they concentrate on the joint vision a little too much. Therefore, it is important that there are people in the team who think critically and concentrate on details.
  • Often transformative leaders can set their employees rather high or unsuitable demands which can lead to burnout. There could also be too much pressure to maintain consistently high productivity and to achieve everything within short timelines which can lead to exhaustion.
  • Transformational leadership may also have negative consequences which can leave an undesirable impact on an organization, if the leader is carried away with ideas for change which are not always ethical.

Inspirational stories

Transformational leaders are catalysts for positive changes. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Netflix founder Reed Hastings are the world’s most prominent transformative leaders.

Richard Branson ― Virgin Group

Richard Branson is known for his cheerful and friendly entrepreneurial spirit. He sees himself as a "rule breaker" and favours healthy relationships between leaders and team members. Moreover, he believes in the freedom to make decisions as well as carefully selecting his employees.

He has successfully created 400 Virgin companies, using his team and a focused approach. Branson’s leadership style differs greatly from the traditional. He does not see money as the criterion for success.  For the entrepreneur and his followers, the challenge is what creates the excitement. This is also the specific reason why Virgin employees are still willing to work for this company, even though their pay is a little below than the market rate.

Jeff Bezos ― Amazon

The company has experienced rapid growth mainly due to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO. Jeff Bezos had a clear vision for how he saw Amazon, and he inspired his team for it to happen.

Reed Hastings ― Netflix

The concept of television prior to Netflix was fairly standardized. Reed Hastings was not constrained by traditional ideas of the TV industry, which is why he wanted to breach boundaries and create something new. Bearing in mind his ambitions to disrupt the whole sector, Hastings also placed trust in his employee, for example, giving them as much free time as required. He considered that his subordinates were highly qualified and independent people and would do the best that is needed by the organization. 

Olga Dzene - leadership development expert, consultant, presenter and coach

Republished from iBusiness