What is transformational leadership in business? | HR blog

Published on November 29, 2021 by Gemma Dale
What is transformational leadership

What is transformational leadership and how can it help businesses achieve goals? HR and business consultant Gemma Dale explains the theory behind transformational leadership and how this style can improve employee engagement and business productivity.

Leadership is generally considered to be the process through which, usually, senior individuals influence and motivate others to achieve goals. There are many different leadership styles, approaches, and models. A simple Google search or walk around your local bookshop will show you that thousands of books have been written about leadership, so it might be difficult for managers to know to which particular form of leadership they should be aspiring or would be most suitable for their specific context.

Numerous leadership theories have been developed to explain the different forms of leadership, and in particular why some people become successful leaders. These theories consider the various personality traits and characteristics held by leaders, as well as their different leadership behaviours. Transformational leadership is one of these particular theories.

What is transformational leadership?

What is transformational leadership

The idea of transformational leadership dates back to the late 1970s and was initially developed by leadership expert James MacGregor Burn. In their work, transformational leaders go beyond merely operational and transactional activities. Alongside those basic components, they aim to inspire positive change, motivating and influencing their teams to perform at their best.

Transformational leaders seek to influence, to be good role models, and to create a compelling vision for people in their organisation. Through the demonstration of these characteristics and behaviours, transformational leaders are said to improve the job satisfaction of their team members, as well as increase their loyalty and commitment to their role and organisation.

Some people believe that transformational leadership is the best leadership style of all, although it is difficult to say with certainty that any one form of leadership is best in every single situation. Research does suggest, however, that transformational leadership is associated with organisational effectiveness and financial performance.

Transformational leadership is said to have four core elements:

  • Individualised consideration: Treating every team member as an individual. Developing employees, especially through coaching, delegation, and empowerment.
  • Intellectual stimulation: Encouraging free thinking, challenging the intellect of team members, and encouraging ideas.
  • Inspirational motivation: Articulating a clear and attainable vision for the future that encourages employees to raise their expectations, providing motivation.
  • Idealised influence: A charismatic personality, with great personal determination and high personal standards. To be a transformational leader is to be an ethical role model.

Above all, transformational leaders focus on the human aspects of work. Compare this approach to traditional and more task focused forms of leadership, where leaders rely on rules and procedures, along with different forms of “carrot and stick” to manage their people.

Being a transformational leader

Being a transformational leader

Can anyone be a transformational leader? In many respects, transformational leadership is personality based, and therefore may depend on some natural characteristics of the individual leader.

Not everyone agrees that transformational leadership is an appropriate approach in every situation: for example, where the focus revolves around one highly influential individual, what happens if they fail or leave? There may be times when leaders need to be transactional or directive too, especially during challenging periods.

However, there are some aspects of transformational leadership that any manager or leader can aspire to include in their day to day work, including:

Coaching, empowering, and delegating

We know that the majority of employees react positively to autonomy. It is good for job satisfaction and motivation. The opposite - a high degree of manager control - can result in work related stress. So, taking an approach of helping employees to create their own solutions and take ownership for their work is good for everyone.

Inspiring people to be at their best

We also know that many people are motivated by the ability to develop, or, as Dan Pink refers to it in his book Drive, achieve “mastery”. This can support employee engagement and help to build talent for the future.

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Encouraging ideas and free thinking

No single leader, no matter how experienced or skilled, can have all the answers or all of the ideas all of the time. Encouraging employees to be creative, to innovate and to contribute their perspectives increases employee voice and engagement.

Focusing on the future

Creating a compelling long term vision can help to motivate employees and provide a sense of direction and purpose.

No one form of leadership style is necessarily better than others as leadership is highly contextual, and what is required will depend on the specific circumstances and the organisation itself. However, striving for a transformational leadership approach can certainly lead to positive business outcomes. How could you incorporate aspects of transformational leadership into your personal leadership practice?

Read more from the myhrtoolkit blog

How to develop leadership skills in employees

Why owner-managers experience burnout

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Written by Gemma Dale

Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics. Gemma is the co-author of the book 'Flexible Working' published by Kogan Page in 2020. She is also a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University and runs her own business, The Work Consultancy.

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