Leader presenting to a team

What Is Transformational Leadership?

As baby boomers begin to retire, it is becoming clear that there is a strong need for employees who are able to step into the leadership positions these retirees are leaving open. As a result, organizations across all industry sectors are actively seeking individuals with the skills to lead at the middle, senior, and executive management levels.

While there are many different types of leadership styles, each with its pros and cons, many of today's nonprofits, corporations, government organizations, and NGOs are seeking mindful, visionary leaders with the power to enact change, an approach embodied by the concept of transformational leadership. Transformational leadership is a unique way of leading teams and organizations that can result in greater success, more engaged and motivated employees, and a more cohesive workforce.


Defining Transformational Leadership

The concept of transformational leadership was introduced by leadership expert James McGregor Burns in his 1978 book, Leadership, in which he described this style as a process by which "leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of morality and motivation." Several years later, researcher Bernard Bass expanded on this description in his classic text, Transformational Leadership, defining transformational leaders as: "those who stimulate and inspire followers to both achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their own leadership capacity. Transformational leaders help followers grow and develop into leaders by responding to individual followers' needs by empowering them and by aligning the objectives and goals of the individual followers, the leader, the group, and the larger organization."

Simply put, transformational leadership is about inspiring and enabling positive change at every level, from the personal to the organizational. Because of its emphasis on motivating individuals and setting aspirational goals to be met company-wide, transformational leadership is often considered one of the most effective leadership styles and, done well, can lead to significant success for the organization.


Qualities of Transformational Leaders

There are four key components of transformational leadership, also known as the four I's. These consist of:

  • Intellectual stimulation - a transformational leader challenges followers to be innovative and creative.

  • Individualized consideration - a transformational leader demonstrates genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers.

  • Inspirational motivation - a transformational leader has the ability to inspire and motivate followers.

  • Idealized influence - a transformational leader serves as a role model for followers and truly "walks the talk."


When a leader is able to perform each component, serving as a role model, encourager, innovator, and coach all at once, they will transform those around them into better, more productive, and more successful individuals.

Being able to achieve this can be easier said than done, and requires both the possession of innate characteristics associated with transformational leadership and commitment to the guiding principles of this leadership style. To meet these four components, a transformational leader must be someone who:

  • Empowers followers to do what is best for the organization

  • Is a strong role model with high values

  • Listens to all viewpoints to develop a spirit of cooperation

  • Creates a vision, using people in the organization

  • Acts as a change agent within the organization by setting an example of how to initiate and implement change

  • Helps the organization by helping others contribute to the organization

Why Transformational Leadership?

There are so many different leadership styles that you might be wondering why you should focus on transformational leadership instead of another style.

Research shows that groups led by transformational leaders have higher levels of performance and satisfaction than groups led by other types of leaders. This is because transformational leaders believe in their followers: they know they can do their best, which leads members of the group to feel inspired, motivated, and empowered.

Similarly, transformational leadership often leads to wider success on a business level - transformational leaders help promote the success of the organization by tapping into the strengths of others.


How to Become a Transformational Leader

If you are wondering how to become a transformational leader, there are few places you will need to focus on. If you're already in a leadership position, or if you're looking to enter one, one of the simplest places to start is by assessing your ability to embody the characteristics listed above. Strive to put them into practice whenever possible, whether it's in a brainstorming meeting with your peers, a conversation with your boss, or a one-on-one with one of your direct reports. 

If you want to take your skills to the next level and gain a credential to demonstrate your transformational leadership abilities, you should consider pursuing a degree in a leadership-related field, such as a master's in executive leadership. You will want to find a program that emphasizes the concepts behind transformational leadership, and that will teach you how to, among other things:

  • Create a personal, authentic leadership approach

  • Create and deliver a vision (and lead others in the pursuit of it)

  • Gain a clear awareness of evolving leadership styles, transformational and otherwise

  • Hone your cultural and communication skills

  • Develop a multicultural worldview, with the ability to interact with and lead a diverse team

  • Recognize and address moral challenges facing leaders in organizations

  • Expand self-knowledge and self-reflection

  • Integrate theoretical frameworks and research methodologies with hands-on experience

  • Develop both creative and critical thinking skills


Today, many there are many fully-accredited institutions offering a master's in executive leadership degree both on-campus and online, which can be a plus for students who must juggle a full-time job, family commitments, and their education.

Many of these online programs maintain some of the best qualities of an on-campus program, such as the cohort model, which allows you to start and finish your program with the same group of people. This is a great way to develop a community of peers that works alongside you from day one, acting as a support network, a resource, and an inspiration when things get challenging. For example, Champlain's intensive, one-year online MSEL program creates a mindful, reflective environment that encourages vulnerability, facilitates the growth needed for personal development, builds knowledge that is immediately applicable to your workplace, and helps you develop the skills necessary to effectively lead in an ever-changing business landscape.


About the Author

Sonya Krakoff

Senior Content Marketing Specialist

Sonya Krakoff is the Senior Content Marketing Specialist at Champlain College Online, where she is the voice behind the CCO blog and helps tell the school's story across multiple digital platforms. Sonya has extensive experience in writing, content marketing, and editing for mission-driven businesses and non-profit organizations, and holds a bachelor's degree in English (with a focus on creative writing) from St. Lawrence University.

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