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What Is Transformational Leadership?

Revised: February 12, 2024

Although individuals tend to adopt one of several leadership styles when they take on higher-level roles within their organizations, no leadership style is quite as effective or impactful as transformational leadership. Leaders who employ a transformational leadership style are adept at inspiring and motivating others to work together toward a common goal. They help their followers develop their own leadership skills while challenging and supporting them, ultimately resulting in increased employee satisfaction and improved organizational performance. But what is transformational leadership and why is it so effective?

Origin and History of Transformational Leadership

James MacGregor Burns, a historian specializing in presidential biographies, introduced the transformational leadership theory. According to Burns, transformational leadership occurs when "leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of moral and motivation." Burns believed transformational leaders were effective because of their ability to inspire their followers to work together toward a common goal.

Bernard M. Bass expanded the concept by explaining that transformational leadership occurs when followers trust, respect, and admire their leader.

What Is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership motivates change through authoritative inspiration. Transformational leaders are essential at the managerial level because they encourage creativity and innovation, create a positive workplace culture, and improve employee satisfaction ratings, all of which help boost employee retention.

Key Elements of Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership typically involves these four components:

1. Idealized Influence: The Power of Charisma

Personality plays a significant factor in an individual's ability to be a transformational leader. Transformational leaders must be confident, outgoing, and charismatic. They are approachable and genuinely interested in what their employees and colleagues have to say and contribute, helping create a positive and inclusive culture. Their general attitude and demeanor should set the example for those around them.

2. Inspirational Motivation: The Art of Encouragement

Of all the critical transformational leadership characteristics, the ability to inspire others may be the most vital. Leaders who inspire their followers can clearly communicate short- and long-term goals to their team and positively motivate them to achieve those goals. They often rely on intrinsic rewards to recognize employees or team members for their hard work and effort.

3. Intellectual Stimulation: Fostering Innovation

Transformational leaders need to enact change by encouraging innovation to elevate the company above the status quo. The best way to do this is to involve all team members in the conversation, giving weight to their words and respecting their ideas. Employees who feel that their ideas are welcomed and valued are more likely to think creatively and develop innovative solutions.

4. Individual Consideration: Tailoring to Personal Needs

While transformational leaders strive to build a common bond among the team, they also recognize the importance of connecting with each individual. By learning more about each team member, understanding their interests and strengths, and praising them when they contribute positively, transformational leaders can earn the respect of everyone who works for and with them.

Impact and Benefits of a Transformational Leader

A transformational leader serves as a powerful role model, with the benefits of this leadership style extending into many aspects of company culture and work productivity. Transformational leaders benefit the organization by:

  • Motivating employees to work toward individual and organizational goals.
  • Supporting employees in a way that makes them feel valued.
  • Creating a positive work environment where people are satisfied with their jobs.
  • Improving employee performance and increasing productivity.

Challenges and Criticisms of Transformational Leadership

While transformational leaders are praised as being effective role models, there are some limitations to this leadership style. Some common criticisms of the transformational leadership style include:

  • Lack of focus. Transformational leaders rarely delegate specific tasks to individuals on their team.
  • Risk of burnout. Employees may not immediately see any tangible reward for their efforts.
  • Potential for Alienation. Transformational leaders may inadvertently impose their morals, ethics, and beliefs on all group members, leaving some feeling isolated or alienated.

Examples of Transformational Leadership

Some of the most well-known examples of transformational leaders include:

Jeff Bezos: A Transformational Visionary

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is one of our time's most widely recognized transformational leaders. In 1994, when the internet was coming into its own, Bezos launched Amazon as an online bookseller where customers could get the books they wanted for the most affordable price.

Nearly 30 years later, Bezos has transformed Amazon into a household name. It is one of the go-to places to buy books for a great price, but also an epic online marketplace that sells nearly every type of product — many of which can be at your doorstep within a day or two. In addition, his leadership style has ushered in new inventions, such as the Kindle eReader, the Amazon Alexa, and the Amazon Echo.

Oprah Winfrey: Inspiring Global Change

Oprah Winfrey is a transformational leader who used her platform on television to launch a media empire that inspired change on a global scale. She is most well-known for her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, a staple on American television for decades. By relying on her charismatic and outgoing personality, Winfrey was able to connect with people from all walks of life and inspire them to enact change at the local, national, and global levels.

Reed Hastings: Revolutionizing Entertainment

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made watching movies easier for everyone when he introduced his subscription-based DVD service. Despite the massive success of Netflix, he knew that technology would continue to reshape and redefine the entertainment industry, and he adapted accordingly.

Today, Netflix is a content creator and streaming giant that provides millions of users with instant access to some of the best shows, documentaries, and movies, allowing people to enjoy whatever they want, whenever they want.

Is Transformational Leadership Suitable for Your Organization?

Transformational leadership may be best for your organization if you want to grow your brand, generate new ideas, and increase productivity. It's important to rely on transformational leadership to enact broad and lasting change within your organization. This leadership style can help unite your team members and encourage them to work toward the common goals that you have established.

How to Develop Transformational Leadership Skills

The most important transformational leadership skills include:

  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Active listening
  • Open-mindedness
  • Inclusiveness
  • Approachability

You can begin improving these abilities even if you aren’t already in a leadership position. Begin by evaluating your strengths, weaknesses, and values. Consider asking for feedback from your colleagues to develop a more well-rounded picture and seeking a mentor in your field to help guide you. Read books and articles about transformational leadership, then practice and demonstrate what you’ve learned at work. You don’t need to wait until you’re in a leadership role to encourage and motivate others, tell your colleagues you appreciate their efforts, and live by the values you espouse. Putting the principles of transformational leadership into practice as soon as possible will help ensure you’re well-prepared for the main event when you attain a leadership role. 

How Does Transformational Leadership Differ From Other Leadership Styles?

Transformational leadership is just one leadership style, and it differs significantly from other well-known approaches to leadership. It is often compared to transactional leadership because the two approaches are almost exact opposites. A transactional leader, for instance, relies heavily on a structured approach based on rewarding those who perform well and punishing those who do not. Transactional leaders are not typically inspirational or charismatic. While transactional leadership can increase productivity in the short term, it does not usually lead to advancements or innovations over time.

How to Become a Transformational Leader

You can become a transformational leader by being intentional about your leadership approach and style. As you pursue leadership opportunities, you should focus on seeing the positive in everyone you work alongside, recognizing them for their efforts, and encouraging them to continue to strive to improve.

Investing in yourself is one of the best ways to become a transformational leader. At Champlain College Online, we offer a one-of-a-kind master's degree in leadership that emphasizes the practical skills needed to guide others while nurturing the development of critical personality traits required of every leader. Students who graduate with a master's degree in leadership can:

  • Showcase critical leadership competencies.
  • Understand and apply the most effective leadership strategies.
  • Reflect on their leadership experiences and adapt accordingly.
  • Assess a situation to determine which leadership approach will be most effective and adapt accordingly.

While the curriculum focuses on key leadership competencies and strategies, its broad approach allows graduates to apply the skills they learn in many professional fields.

Transform Your Leadership Style at Champlain College Online

True leaders exemplify the best leadership qualities in their professional roles and apply their leadership style in every aspect of their lives. By earning an online master's degree in leadership from Champlain College Online, you can take actionable steps to become the leader you always knew you could be. The curriculum for this online program includes coursework on relevant topics, such as entrepreneurial leadership, sustainable leadership, and leading with integrity. With a flexible and adaptable approach, this master's degree can be applied in nearly any field or industry.

Request more information about this innovative graduate program today.

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