A Short Primer To Transformational Leadership

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A Guide toTransformational Leadership

Transformational leadership acts as a catalyst for innovation in organizations and for change in individuals. Discover what its about and how to develop it. This page containsthe following transformational leadership topics:

  • What is transformational leadership?
  • In Everyday Life
  • Is it always a good thing?
  • Theorists
  • List of transformational leaders
  • Transformation Leadership Theories
  • Scholarly Research
  • Transformational Leadership Books
  • Transformational Leadership Websites
  • A Video

The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on transformational leadership. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develop them.

John C Maxwell (2001) The 17th Irrefutable Laws of Teamwork, page 185

A Short Primer To Transformational Leadership

By Murray Johannsen

A RAVEN saw a Swan and desired to secure for himself the same beautiful plumage. Supposing that the Swan’s splendid white color arose from his washing in the water in which he swam, the Raven left the altars in the neighborhood where he picked up his living, and took up residence in the lakes and pools. But cleansing his feathers as often as he would, he could not change their color, while through want of food he perished.

Moral of the Story: To avoid the agony of failure, one must know what one can transform and what one cannot.

What is Transformational Leadership?

“It (a word) means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” — Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

You can call Alice a transformational leader since she went through transformational journey—one of allegory and metaphor that reflect aspects of real life.

Definitions. There are quite a few different transformational leadership definitions around. If you are slightly confused—join the crowd. In fact, the term has evolved over the years. Originally, “transforming leadership” was popularized by Burns in a best selling book called Leadership (Burns, 1978). Later, Bass used the term transformational leadership, a term that had more legs than transforming leadership.

To understand what it means is another matter since there are quite a few different transformational leadership definitions around. Some of these definitions are presented below:
“Transformational leadership is defined as a leadership approach that causes change in individuals and social systems.”— Wikipedia

Transformational leadership: Motivating people by using energy, enthusiasm, and passion to sell a vision. — businesstermsdictionary.com

“Transformational leadership is a type of leadership style that leads to positive changes in those who follow.” — psychology.about.com

“A leadership style that involves generating a vision for the organization and inspiring followers to meet the challenges that it sets. Transformational leadership depends on the leader’s ability to appeal to the higher values and motives of followers and to inspire a feeling of loyalty and trust.” — Encyclopedia.com

“A style of leadership in which the leader identifies the needed change, creates a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executes the change with the commitment of the members of the group.” — BusinessDictionary.com

According to Bass, transformational leadership includes four key elements: individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence (Bass, 1994).

Common Elements of the Definition

It’s a Leadership Style. Transformational leadership is a leadership style one of many different types of leadership styles.

It Involves Change. Transformational leadership and those who follow it are change oriented. They are not creatures of the status quote. Transformational leaders are men and women of action who understand that “good enough” never is. And what works, could always be made better. That progress is not a dirty word to be resisted in the name of tradition, of order, of the routine. Sometimes they live within the status quo but their minds see what could be changed.

Elements of the Definition Lacking A Consensus

Orientation Toward The Greater Good. Certain writers assume transformational leaders are always good and that the changes they bring about is always positive. From a standpoint of teaching the young, one would want to emphasize the positive. However, this viewpoint excludes many leaders who changed things not always for the better. One example that comes to mind is Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a transformational leader, but one who did not change things for the better.

Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany. Photo taken in September, 1930.

But Hitler is not alone. Just in the last century, there seemed to be quite a few leaders such as Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin that wanted to transform people by killing or “brainwashing” them.  And if one goes back into history, there have been numerous kings and generals who conquered and destroyed the conquered.

Type of Influence Used. There is nothing wrong with those using transformational leadership to inspire others. But this is a risky style, it’s much safer to exist in the status quo. We recommend that effective transformational leadership use what works. This means that they can choose from among Nine Spheres of Influence.

Section References

Bass, B.M. & Avolio, B.J. (Eds.). (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Burns, J.M. (1978) Leadership. New York. Harper & Row.

Transformational Leadership In Everyday Life

Parents. One can argue that parents are transformational leaders within a small group called the family. They have the task of turning an extremely selfish entity called a child into a human being. I had a friend say to me once that children are animals, they must be transformed in human beings by good parents.

Coaches. The transformational task of a coach is dual in nature. First, one must install in players the skills and motivation to keep trying despite many set backs. And in some sports such as basketball and soccer, one takes selfish individuals and turns them into team players.

Religious Leaders. A tougher challenge here. They seek to turn the flawed into the moral and the selfish into the ethical.

Entrepreneurs . Almost all the writing focuses an the managerial side of being an entrepreneur. However, they must must also exhibit transformational leadership or their organizations fail to grow. It is as simple, and as complex, as that.

Most theories of leadership development stress how to be effective within the status quo—what’s called transactional leadership. A leader using this style can be very influential, but they change very little. To use a popular expression, these people are good at “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”, but they can’t keep the ship from sinking.

Unfortunately, many organizations run lean on transformational leaders, the vast majority of the leaders inside organizations being transactional. Thus we see organizations decline as there is an increasingly disconnect between “the way things should be done” and “the way we do things here.”

Is Transformational Leadership Always Good?

The first thing to understand about transformational leadership—sometimes these leaders do not always make things better—sometimes they can make things worse. Progress is not assured. (The Economist: The Idea of Progress).

Hitler was an extremely effective, charismatic leader who turned a weak democratic state into a strong totalitarian one. He remained an amazing popular leader who retained power until the very end. Few Germans questioned his decisions, goals, methods and the vision of a thousand year Reich. However, that vision brought ruin to Germany and much of Europe.

Take the example of , the First Emperor of China. One can argue the end (unifying China) was admirable. However, to achieve that end, the means used by the Emperor was war—wars which resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands. (Qin Shi Huang, Wikipedia)

For transformational leaders to always make things better, we would have to assume a set of virtues and an ability to make wise decisions. However, it is often the case that they lack an abundance of both wisdom and virtue (Capital Virtues, Second Exodus)

Often, we think of transformational leadership as as only applying to heads of great nations or hugemonous organizations. Its easy to see Great Men or Great Woman and how they succeeded in overcoming Big Problems. But these are not the only types of transformational individuals.


Transformational Leadership Theorists


Transformational leadership is about implementing new ideas; these individuals continually change themselves; they stay flexible and adaptable; and continually improve those around them. Transformational leaders has been written about for thousands of years–being both praised (Christ and Buddha) and cursed (Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan).

The two theorists most associated with its modern incarnation in America are Bass and Burns. In many articles and in his book, Improving Organizational Effectiveness Through Transformational Leadership, Bass talked about the fundamental theoretical qualities that define transformational leadership from it’s polar opposite, transactional leadership.

Burns, James MacGregor

And before him, James McGregor Burns wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book titled Leadership (see below). He eloquently described qualities transformational leaders possess in different fields of endeavors ranging from the military, to business, to politics.

Bass, Bernard

According to Bass, these individuals possess:

Charisma. This is one of those leadership qualities that is hard to define; like beauty, you know it when you experience it. I remember a quote, about a charismatic individual by the name of Oliver North. One of his men once said about him, “I would follow him to hell since he is the only man I know who could get me back.”

Vision. This involves the creation of a compelling picture of the future, a desired future state that people identify with. By creating this vision, the leader provides a means for people to develop commitment, a common goal around around which to rally, and a way for people to feel successful.

Intellectual stimulation. Transformational leaders show new ways of looking at old problems, they challenge the existing boundaries and the mental prisons people put themselves into.

Inspiration.  To inspire is difficult, requiring as as it does a decent understanding of psychology.

Johannsen, Murray

We take a different approach compared to Bass who describes what is. Transformational leadership under this apporach requires that one work on the development of Four Core Competencies. These are:

Self-Mastery. Often the greatest barrier to success in not others, not the environment, it is ourself.

The Transformational Mind-set. Action is supported by a set of beliefs or one has mindless impulses.

Influence. Mangers rely on authority, leaders rely on influence. Enough said.

Skills Development. Few know how to build a skill, so they waste countless hours in futile effort. One cannot build a skill by reading about it.

Lists of Transformational Leaders

Transformational leaders have been written about for thousands of horsebean both praised (Christ and Buddha) and cursed (Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan). In fact, some of the most famous individuals in history have been transformational in one form or another.

Transformational leaders come in many flavors and on all continents. For example, transformational leadership is a necessary ingredient to turning a small business into a large one. Below you can access a list of famous transformational leaders, some military, many political, and many who have achieved greatness in the area of business. It must be said, however, the few CEO’s are transformational. Most like the status quo and want to keep it that way.


Transformational Leadership Example: Queen Elizabeth I of England


A page of portraits of Elizabeth at various points of her reign.

Quick Overview

The Britannia one-page overview.

Elizabeth I: Life and Times

An entire site dedicated to the life and times of one of the daughters of Henry the VIII.

Speeches and Writings.

A few choice words from a long career of writing.

There are similarities between managing a corporation and running a country. The most obvious difference—countries are much harder to run.

When Elizabeth began her reign, England was, to put it mildly, a mess. Ascending to the throne at a particularly chaotic time of British history, she was beset by enemies from without and within. A betting man would have put good odds on her getting through the first two-years alive.

However, at the end of her 45 year reign, England had become the richest and most powerful nation in Europe and was well on its way to becoming one of the great powers of the modern age. Bottom line: No Elizabeth—No British Commonwealth.



Example of a Famous Transformational Leadership: Alexander The Great

King of Macedonia, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Persia and Afghanistan

The Rise and Fall of Alexander the Great

50 references to Alexander on the web.

Alexandros from Plutarch’s Lives

A chapter from the one of the great classic works of all time.

Illustrated Chronology of Events

A page listing from the start of his campaign in Asia until his death. It contains numerous hot links to more detailed information on key people, events and places during that period of history.

How can one so young accomplish so much? By the time Alexander died in 323 BC, he had not yet reached his 33rd birthday. Yet, in that short time, he had created an empire that stretched from Greece to India.

In an age where tyrants ruled by brute force and fear, he defied the conventional political wisdom of the time. Rather than cleaning out the treasury of a conquered nation and then taxing them them to the max, he built new cities (often called Alexandria’s), libraries; established mechanisms for communication and commerce; had engineers build new roads, and had scientists capture new knowledge.

Known as much for his sound strategy and tactical innovation in the military arena as his wise statesmanship in the political sphere, he was the student of Aristotle who went on to became even greater than his teacher.



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