Transformational Leadership: What You Need to Know

Transformational Leadership: What You Need to Know


You don’t need to run a business to benefit from transformational leadership. Learn more about how to improve team growth and performance in any setting with this classic, yet competitive, approach.

Transformational leadership has been a hot topic ever since James V. Downton officially introduced the concept in 1973. James MacGregor Burns, who studied the potential of said leadership skills, felt that positive leader-follower interactions help the team “advance to a higher level of morality and motivation.”

In other words, transformational leaders believe in cumulative reciprocity. You do one for the team, I’ll reward that. When done right, transformational leadership is a win-win scenario.

Yet, recent opinion has gone back and forth on the benefits of transforming leadership.

Perhaps you’ve grown tired of sifting through article after article to understand the various leadership styles. Maybe you’ve seen incompetent leaders fail to motivate their followers and want to change that, or want to know what leadership style is right for you.

Of course, you can become a transformational leader and be the inspiration of many!

If you want to better understand what makes a great leader, you need to know the key characteristics of a transformational leader and how they enhance team behavior and performance.

Tranformational Leadership set up

What Makes Up a Transformational Leader

In order to be a leader, you need to see yourself as one. You need to convey your leadership skills and your vision to your followers. You need to take the first step.

A transformational leader is, after all, a visionary: they see the future of a business or organization in a way that the average person may not. They seek to meet the core needs of their followers in order to facilitate change and growth.

They are not afraid to take something “good” and make it “great” to succeed. In fact, they don’t see something as successful until it’s great! That’s why they are so good at constantly finding and fixing problems.

The Four I’s of Transformational Leadership

According to Psychology Today, there are four main actions that consistently occur in transformational leadership, known as the four I’s. These are:

  • Idealized Influence (walking the walk)
  • Inspirational Motivation (sharing the vision)
  • Individualized Consideration (seeing all working parts)
  • Intellectual Stimulation (working environment encourages “light-bulb” moments)

If these leadership skills are emphasized, studies show higher group performance and innovation as a direct result. Where there is higher performance, there is more potential for success.

Take a moment to think about your current leadership model: is it transformational? Innovative? Do you use your need for change to build careers and futures, or get by with whatever meets your bottom line?

If you aren’t sure how much you already use transformational leadership, try this Psychology Today quiz.

If you find that you could improve your approach to transformational leadership, it’s time to reexamine what this kind of leader looks like. Who you are translates directly to how well you can inspire and lead others.

Core qualities of a transformational leader

  • Respects others’ creativity and autonomy
  • Can maintain strong relationships with others
  • Balances their responsibilities
  • Sees opportunities to innovate that others might miss

These qualities allow your team to excel; after all, they focus on group success, not just success for the leader or profits.

Take John D. Rockefeller, for example. He’s one of the biggest names in oil (and the business world) because of his transformative leadership abilities.

With just one oil refinery in the beginning, Rockefeller saw big growth for his company. When they did start growing, he then furthered that growth by streamlining current processes and ongoing quality checks. Essentially, his inclusive vision held himself and his followers accountable. His ability to inspire spread through his growing team.

He said it best: “Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.”

What if I’m not a business owner

Not everyone is leading a business, and leadership shouldn’t be limited to any one profession. FDR may have inspired many, but not just through his presidential influence. Rockefeller may have led his team to greatness, but oil isn’t the only industry in need of change.

In fact, you’d be surprised at how many settings transformational leadership works well in.

Transactionl leadership business

Transforming through activism

A great example of transforming through leadership is activism.

Activists are independent, free-thinking people who often blend their personal and professional goals. They can inspire friends, family, neighborhoods, even entire cities or countries to overthrow or improve a broken system.

Nelson Mandela was an activist, lawyer, and revolutionist before he took on his leadership role as president of South Africa. He saw politics as flawed because of racial segregation and advocated for social justice.

Mandela’s views and tactics may have been controversial, but he convinced people time and time again of his strong leadership.

Another activist whose personal work goes hand in hand with her career is Lily Tomlin. She is an American actress who touts feminism and fights ageism by questioning Hollywood taboos.

She came out within the past decade as queer and then, shortly after, helped produce ‘Grace and Frankie,’ a show about an “odd couple” of older women who want to thrive post-marriage.

In one controversial episode, the two leads start a company that distributes adult toys for people with arthritis, back pain, etc. The episode turned heads, but Lily rolls with it. According to her, “the road to success is always under construction.”

Transforming through community growth

If acting or politics is too large-scale for you, that’s okay. People rarely think about community leadership as needing transformation, but it happens every day. Your community is a system that thrives on change and individual attention. The profits may not be apparent to business leaders, but everyone wins in a growing, adaptive community. Consider the following:

  • Working with kids (they are future leaders, after all)
  • Fundraising (friends, family, local cause, etc.)
  • Supporting local businesses
  • Addressing “invisible” community issues such as segregation, homelessness, gentrification, etc. (get talking with neighbors and make something happen)

Transforming through personal growth

Last, but not least, your life is what you have the most impact on. If you need to change your lifestyle, that openness and goal-oriented action will make you a better leader all around.

If your personal practice is that of a follower, how can you be a leader professionally?

An often forgotten example of this is the founding fathers of the states. They didn’t start out as politicians. They largely were average British citizens who felt abused by their government and took the opportunity to create leadership positions for themselves. Their personal drive became an inspiration for an entire country, simply because of their commitment to bettering their lives.

In fact, many leaders talk about the importance of combining personal and professional growth. Check out this article about the foundation of leadership for more on that.

Simply put, they go hand in hand.

What if transformational leadership isn’t for me

Keep in mind your personal limitations. Transformational leadership may not be right for everyone, especially if one is preceded by a transformational leader.

There are definitely cons to this leadership style, including neuroticism and dissatisfaction. Many impactful leaders are, at times, incredibly difficult to work with. Many successful people don’t start out successfully honing transformational leadership, and others do, but at the wrong cost.

Change is only effective if your heart is in the right place.

There is also value in the “telling” method of leadership, as well as maintaining patterns and organization. Perhaps you will one day become your own kind of leader and create a whole new form of leadership… who knows?

Written by
Matt Coates