A deep dive into transformational leadership theory and its impact in the workplace

Transformational leadership theory is one of the many leadership theories out there and transformational leaders are the crème de la crème of all leaders. In this article, we explore the historical roots of transformational leadership theory, its key characteristics, notable examples, pros and cons, and how you can add transformational leadership skills to your CV. Read on to find out more.

What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership is a style of leadership that inspires, motivates, and influences employees to harness their skills and drive innovation to shape the future success of the company. 

Transformational leaders set a strong example at the executive level. They are authentic and have a strong sense of corporate culture, ownership, and independence. 

They are not micromanagers. Instead, they trust employees to do their jobs and leave space for creative problem-solving and innovating for the future. However, support is there. Transformational leaders pay attention to staff needs and offer an ethical framework for decision-making to help employees fulfil their full potential. 

Employees on the path to leadership will be coached and mentored by transformational leaders, so they can become transformational leaders too.

Because transformational leaders inspire and energise employees to reach their goals, not only do staff reap the benefits, but so do their colleagues and the company.

Transformational leadership theory

Sociologist James V. Downton coined the term transformational leadership in 1973 in his book Rebel Leadership: Commitment and Charisma in the Revolutionary Process. However, it was historian-turned-leadership-expert James M. Burns who fully developed the concept in his 1978 book Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness. His book led to unprecedented growth in leadership courses across business schools, first in the US and then globally.

According to Burns, transformational leadership is a process in which "leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation." Transformational leaders build trust with their followers, which leads followers to act or support the leader through loyalty, rather than exchange. 

This is opposed to transactional leadership, which is a relationship based on the exchange of support or action by the followers for rewards like recognition, praise, pay, or status.

In 1985, scholar and researcher Bernard M. Bass took Burns' ideas on transformational leadership and further developed the theory in his book The Bass Handbook of Leadership. Bass states that transformational leadership can be defined based on the impact it has on followers and the fact that transformational leaders garner trust, respect, and admiration from their followers. 

The 4 characteristics of transformational leaders

Bass' theory considers a leader's capability and ways to contribute to change management in an organisation that motivates followers to do the same. According to Bass, four elements define what transformational leadership looks like and how to be a successful leader. These are known as the four Is of leadership. They include:

1. Individualised consideration

Individualised consideration is all about supporting and encouraging individual followers. In practice, transformational leaders coach and mentor followers on an individual level and maintain a supportive relationship by fostering open communication lines. As a result, followers feel that they have an authentic relationship with their leader, that they are genuinely cared for, and that they can freely speak their minds without judgement.

2. Intellectual stimulation

Intellectual stimulation is effectively about having an open mind. Transformational leaders promote challenging the status quo and independent thinking. They believe that there are many ways to achieve a goal and encourage followers to think outside the box when problem solving. This helps to develop rational thinking, intelligence, and more learning opportunities.

3. Inspirational motivation

Transformational leaders have a vision, motivation, and passion that is infectious. They also have high expectations and a laser focus. The result? Followers feel energised and invested in achieving lofty goals, but feel capable of doing so because the vision and expectations are clear. 

4. Idealised influence

Transformational leaders are charismatic leaders. They are a role model for followers and, because followers trust and respect their leader, they want to follow through on tasks to achieve the required outcomes in line with the leader's values and ideals.

Traits of a transformational leader

Transformational leaders are very similar to democratic leaders, in that they lead by empowering employees. As a result, they share many leadership traits. Common traits of a transformational leader include:

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Self-awareness

  • Authenticity 

  • Active listening skills

  • Willingness to provide support

  • Inspiring and motivational attitude

  • Genuine enthusiasm and passion

  • Commitment to celebrating and recognising employees

  • Ability to communicate clearly and persuasively

  • Focus on long-term success and sustainability

  • Flexibility and adaptability

  • Creativity

  • Proactive problem-solving

  • An open mind

  • Skill in empowering and delegating

  • Willingness to take calculated risks

  • Willingness to take responsibility

  • Strong ethical and moral standards

  • Courage

Examples of transformational leaders

There are plenty of recognisable transformational leaders throughout history in various fields. Here are a few you might recognise:

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela's leadership was an essential source of genuine inspiration for the people of South Africa and he was instrumental in ending apartheid and establishing democracy in the country. 

Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King used transformative leadership to fight for equality and civil rights for all Americans. His speeches and actions inspired millions. His “I Have a Dream” speech and other rhetoric continues to influence social justice movements globally.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was the famous visionary leader of Apple. He was creative, passionate, and inspired his teams to push boundaries and revolutionise products which transformed the tech industry.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani female education and rights activist and the world's youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Her authentic leadership, courage, and dedication to the cause inspired an international movement.

Barack Obama

Former US President Barack Obama is well-known for his transformational leadership and communication. He is the archetype of a charismatic, visionary, unifying, motivating, helpful, and innovative transformational leader.

The pros of transformational leadership

Transformational leaders inspire people to achieve extraordinary results because they are responsive and empower their followers. Transformational leaders in the workplace can have great effects on their employees. Some of the benefits of this leadership style include:

  • Better performance: Since transformational leaders strive for excellence and coach on an individual level, employees often grow to have higher standards and improved performance too

  • Better innovation: Transformational leaders encourage open-mindedness and creativity so employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas, believing there really is no such thing as a silly question or suggestion

  • Better engagement: As transformational leaders give employees a sense of purpose with their vision, employees often feel more enthusiasm and are more productive

  • Better well-being: Transformational leaders genuinely care for employees and want to support them and, with proactive support, staff may witness reduced stress levels and improved work-life balance

  • Better sense of empowerment: Transformational leaders trust staff and often delegate authority, creating a sense of autonomy and job satisfaction among employees

The cons of transformational leadership

Transformational leadership has its weaknesses, but they can be managed. Here are some of the problems you may encounter, and should be on the lookout for, when dealing with transformational leadership practices:

  • Employee burnout: High levels of energy and motivation may improve employee performance. However, what comes up must come down. Employees may not always be able to sustain high standards, so watch out for overworking and burnout.

  • Favouritism: Transformational leaders spend time mentoring individual team members on how to develop professionally, which can lead to favouritism and may result in uneven staff development or internal conflict.

  • Leader dependency: Some team members might become over-reliant on guidance and decisions from the leader. This can hinder independent thinking and might cause more damage in the long run, if they don't learn how to spread their wings.

  • Disruption and resistance: Not everyone possesses the skills to relate to a transformational leader and some staff may struggle to keep up with the cycle of change as a result of transformational leadership, resulting in disruption and resistance in the team or company.

  • Succession challenges: Organisations don't expect staff to stay forever, which means there should be an expectation that a transformational leader will move on. If a team becomes too reliant on their leader, it can cause dips in both performance and job satisfaction when they leave.

How to add transformational leadership skills to your CV

If you're writing a leadership CV or want to add transformational leadership skills to your CV, the best way to demonstrate your abilities is by showing achievements that were a direct result of this skill set. 

For example, if the job description required a leader who could inspire and motivate a team, you might write something like “proven track record of leading teams to achieve measurable results through transformational leadership, resulting in a 20% increase in productivity and a 25% improvement in employee engagement scores over 2 years.”

When listing your achievements in your employment history section, always remember to incorporate facts and statistics into each point to demonstrate the impact.

If there are references to specific leadership competencies in the job description that your skill set aligns with, add the required skills to the core skills section of your CV. The most common transformational leadership traits are:

  • Charisma

  • Visionary thinking

  • Inspirational communication

  • Empowerment

  • Individualised consideration

  • Intellectual stimulation

  • Adaptability

  • Passion

  • Strong communication

Always read the job description thoroughly, so that you have a decent understanding of what the prospective employer is looking for, and tailor your CV appropriately to show how you're a match for the role.

If you're looking for a leadership position, continually working to develop your transformational leadership skills and showing them on your CV is vital. If you want to make sure that you've highlighted your abilities in the best way, submit your CV for a free review.

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