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Anne Feeney

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What is transformational leadership?


Why is transformational leadership so important? Anne Feeney tell us how you can make that change.

Leadership is about followership – investing in those who get the work done...Leaders inspire people to reach beyond themselves.’ General Colin Powell, Former US Secretary of State

The challenge for many organisations today is how do you engage people to want to deliver to their potential and beyond? Often those OK performers in the office are high achievers in their home lives - chairman of the local school board of governors or hang-gliding champions - but they’re not fully engaged at work. Yes, they’re doing enough to meet their short term goals and measures but it’s not enough. Organisations these days need to find that competitive advantage that comes from extraordinary performance, good corporate citizenship and innovation.

The latest research thinking is it’s all about the leader’s style. Leadership theory has evolved through many incarnations - behavioural leadership, situational leadership, the great man theory (what about the great woman theory!) etc to get where it is today. It is now commonly thought that there are two types of leadership; transactional and transformational with the former being the most common and the latter being the one that Colin Powell talks about above.

Transactional leaders

Transactional leaders do not focus on the individual needs of their staff or focus on their personal development. Transactional leaders offer incentives to staff to secure their own and the organisation’s agendas. Their influence stems from their staff’s desire to do what the leader wants. Consequently employee behaviour is characteristically one of compliance rather than an internal accepting and owning of the required change in behaviour. One could easily say that employees are not engaged or motivated.

This is also the most traditional type of leadership. For example, in sales it's known as 'performance management' with the motivational ‘carrot’ of bonuses and public recognition. This is combined with the ‘stick’ of negative feedback and potentially the ultimate punitive measure of job loss.

Transformational leaders

Transformational leadership, on the other hand, involves fundamentally affecting the values, goals and aspirations of followers so that they perform their work because it is consistent with their values, as opposed to the expectation that they will be rewarded for their efforts.

Although it was found that there was a place for transactional leadership to set boundaries, manage expectations and handle poor performance it was found on its own to have significant downsides. Namely it stifles creativity and free will. The over-reliance on extrinsic rewards, maintaining the status quo and motivating people through contractual agreement can lead to a climate of control that inhibits initiative and experimentation and is ultimately demotivating.

Transformational leadership was found to be the key to role over-performance. In their paper on the effects of transformational CEOs, Jung et al identified that there was a direct positive relationship between a CEO’s transformational leadership style and their organisation’s level of innovation. Transformational leadership was found to deliver higher job satisfaction, motivation and autonomous behaviour in followers. Their roles had more meaning for them and the supportive, positive climate encouraged them to be more challenging of existing assumptions leading to more creativity and innovation. It was also found that transformational leadership had a strong positive impact on corporate citizenship behaviours. These are the behaviours outside an individual’s set of objectives that have been found to lead to healthy, high-functioning organisations – like the oil that lubricates the machine, behaviours such as being a team player, going ‘the extra mile’, putting the organisations needs before your own.

How can L&D support and develop transformational leaders?

But how can L&D support and develop transformational leaders? First we need to understand the key characteristics of these types of leaders; according to Kouzes & Posner they achieve their extraordinary results through a combination of the following:

  • Being a role model

  • Creating and sharing an inspiring vision

  • Challenging the status quo

  • Enabling others to act

  • Encouraging and showing genuine appreciation of their followers’ achievements as well as fostering team spirit.

I would also add one more taken from transformative learning theory; the need for the leaders to challenge their own thinking and that of their followers. To challenge fixed assumptions and broaden their perspective opening up the possibility of new thinking and innovation to move beyond groupthink. 

The process of developing transformational leaders is one of:

  • Awareness raising

  • Supporting the individual to understand their current leadership style compared with the transformational style

  • Identifying the gap

  • Designing ‘safe’ experiments to put the new behaviours into practice to bridge the gap

  • Learning from these experiments and practicing until the new behaviours become part of their DNA.

There are many ways in which this process can be put into practice and one way to do this is through workplace learning projects. A quote from one of my students illustrates this in practice. “The participation of my sales team in gathering case studies has been striking in 2013 (compared to the rest of the country) and now our global management wants to know why it works in our region and what incentive we proposed to make it happen. They were surprised to learn that no bonus was attached to our success and that I had found a way via my personal management (style) to get my people’s focus for ‘free.”

That is certainly transformational leadership in practice!

Anne Feeney is programme director of the Consalia Masters Programme

Further reading regarding the research that informed this article:

  • Jung D. W. A. & Chow C.W., (2008) "Towards understanding the direct and indirect effects of CEOs' transformational leadership on firm innovation", The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 5, pp. 582-594
  • Kitchenham A. (2008), The Evolution of John Mezirow's Transformative Learning Theory, Journal of Transformative Education, April 2008 vol. 6 no. 2 104-123
  • Kouzes J.M. & Posner B.Z., (2011) The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, 2nd Edn, Pfeiffer, San Francisco, CA
  • MacKenzie, S.B., Podsakoff, P.M. & Rich, G.A. (2001) "Transformational and transactional leadership and salesperson performance", Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 115-134
  • Northouse P. G., Leadership Theory and Practice, 6th Edn, SAGE, 2013, Los Angeles

Have you seen our free guide to leadership? Download it here.


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