Transformational leadership is still a thing

The year was 1978. The author was James McGregor Burns. The book was titled simply “Leadership”. In that book, Burns unpacked the difference between transactional leadership and transformational leadership, and why the latter was the preferred leadership strategy for the more people focused leader. 

In 2023, a CEO told me that this is an old theory, and that this person didn’t want to adopt that sort of approach because it is dated and even overdone. Which I pondered on. And I totally get how it could be seen as an outdated term.  

In saying that, it is a little like Maslow’s white paper from 1943, it just never gets old, really. I wonder if it is because it seems like a buzz word, or maybe even it seems too grandiose – ‘I will transform you’. If you did a search of scholarly articles (research) and understood how much transformational leadership is referenced in any research on how to be a strong leader, you would understand the importance of the concept. Buzz word or not. 

When you think about the word transformation, it is defined as “making a marked change in the form, nature, or appearance of something.” When it comes to leaders, is it possible to make a marked change in the form or nature of the team that they are leading? Of course, if the leader is committed to that.  

Here’s the thing for me, whether or not you call it transformational leadership or something else, the goal of every leader (every good or great leader) would be to make a marked change in their team, and their team members. And to do that, those leaders would have to (by default) demonstrate at least some of the states and traits that Burns outlined in 1978, which are listed below. 

It should also be noted that the concept of transformational leadership has been adopted far and wide since 1978, and a lot of leaders and researchers have unpacked Burn’s work. Some of that research is also referenced below. 

1. It’s all about shared values  

From an article by Colonel Mark A. Homrig, “Since Burns coined the term’s transformational and transactional leadership, it might be useful to look at his definitions. Burns wrote, “I define leadership as leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations-the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations-of both leaders and followers.” The leader is not merely wielding power but appealing to the values of the follower.  

In this sense, values mean, “A principle, standard, or quality regarded as worthwhile or desirable,” (Webster’s New Riverside University Dictionary). Burns insists that for leaders to have the greatest impact on the “led,” they must motivate followers to action by appealing to shared values and by satisfying the higher order needs of the led, such as their aspirations and expectations. He said, “… transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and the led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.”  

What Homrig is saying is that transformational leadership transforms not only the team, but also the leader. 

2. It’s about creating more leaders  

From a research report by M.S. Rao, “Transformational leaders demonstrate trust and confidence in their team members and set high ethical and moral standards. They radiate energy and enthusiasm. They are comfortable in working (with) teams. They believe in their people and their potential. They direct the energies of their people in the right directions to derive the best from them.” 

Reaching their potential are the key words here – and for transformational leaders, seeing others reach their full potential is partly about creating high performers, and it is partly about creating more leaders. 

For me, that is crux of transformational leadership. Leaders are successful, when they can identify future leaders and grow and develop them to be their successors, or even leaders in other parts of the business. 

In short, transformational leaders create more leaders. And isn’t that the goal of leadership? 

3. It’s about leadership in general  

I think some of the reasons that people get hung up on the term transformational leadership is because it is just about being a good leader and developing the leadership skills of others. It can actually seem too complex, in my opinion. It feels like a complex term that is hard to achieve and would take a massive amount of time (the biggest push back I get during leadership training programs – that this just all means more work, more conversations, and more time with people – a strange response). 

It does take time. Leadership takes time. And because time is a resource, you need to get a return on your investment. When you practice transformational leadership, you get the return on investment in spades. 

And you could base your leadership style on the methods of Burns (and other researchers) who feel that transformational leadership is the style that makes the most difference. 

As a side note, and as a researcher, I cannot avoid seeing the words transformational leadership in the many research papers I read on leadership skills and styles. 

I feel like it is a thing, and it is a worthwhile thing. What does transformational leadership mean to you? 

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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