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What is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational Leadership is a style which involves working alongside team members in order to identify the need for change, create an inspiring and motivational vision, and execute the necessary steps required for change in tandem with team members.

Transformational Leadership is a style first described by American historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns in his 1978 book Leadership and expanded on during the 1980s by fellow scholar Bernard M. Bass. Burns studied various political leaders, including both Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and it is during this period he developed his leadership theories, including Transformational and Transactional Leadership.

  • It is a style which is utilised by leaders possessing specific traits, who look to work alongside their team members to identify change and develop the next action steps. 
  • But most importantly, they transform others - developing and empowering their individual followers to become leaders in and of themselves. 

Transformational Leadership was utilised by notable historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and is thus also often associated with the Servant Leadership philosophy. 

It is also particularly used in Change Management and Strategic Planning to develop and deliver a specific vision for the team or the organisation, or to change the culture of the company. 

Traits of a Transformational Leader

These types of leaders are often referred to as role models and mentors due to the empowering position they hold in creating a diverse environment, open to ideas and innovations. Their followers hold a level of trust in them, and they are quick to recognise the achievements of others to build confidence. Though they are open to new concepts and ideas, they encourage a culture of thinking which matches thoughts with the goals, values and beliefs of the organisation.

According to Bernard M. Bass in his 1985 book Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations, transformational leaders:

  1. Act with integrity and fairness
  2. Set clear goals for individuals and the team
  3. Encourage others
  4. Provide individual support and recognition
  5. Raise the morale and motivation of others
  6. Steers individuals away from their self-interest and towards selflessness
  7. Inspire others to strive for the improbable

Though these are important traits and actions of a transformational leader, there is a simple pathway by which everyone can integrate the style into their leadership, or change management techniques.

How to Become a Transformational Leader

As mentioned, Transformational Leadership is often associated with the Servant Leadership philosophy. This is because they both involve working closely alongside members of the team, inspiring and motivating them, using others to help identify the need for change, creating a specific vision to drive change, and executing it as a cohesive team. 

Like all leadership styles, one of the key aims is to drive motivation amongst team members. Transformational Leadership does this by operating a number of mechanisms, including:

  • Connecting the follower's sense of identity to that of the task and the organisation as a whole
  • Acting as a role model and setting the standards for the project, allowing followers greater independence and responsibility for tasks, and assigning tasks which are suited to specific followers' strengths and weaknesses. 

We have broken down MacGregor and Bass' thoughts into 5 simple steps to follow when you are trying to become a transformational leader. These are outlined below.

1. Identify the Strengths and Weaknesses of Team Members

Alike Hersey and Blanchard's Situational Leadership, or Tannenbaum and Schmidt's Behavioural Continuum, it is crucial to this style that you are fully understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each and every individual team member. 

  • It is often the case that this is only something which can be developed over time, and as the relationship between you and your team members develops, it is important to be proactive and openly get to know everyone who you are responsible for. 
  • Tasks and visions can only be correctly implemented if individual team members are operating in roles which are suited to their experience and capabilities, and this will also allow them to remain motivated and develop a sense of trust.

2. Develop an Inspiring and Motivational Vision for the Future 

It is important you involve your team, and together you should develop a vision for the future which instils a sense of optimism and motivates all members of the team. 

  • This vision should integrate the culture of the team and organisation, and the values that you wish to pride yourself on. 
  • This will always be dependent on the resources and individuals you have available so it is crucial that you are fully understanding of the team and organisation.

3. Motivate each Individual and get them to Buy into the Vision

When developing the vision for the future, you should consider the values and beliefs of your team members; including what they see for their personal future and the future of the organisation. 

  • For this stage, you can utilise business storytelling as a way to make it clear what your vision is, and how it is going to help the organisation and its consumers, as well as the team themselves. 
  • It is important that you understand the various motivational models and techniques in order to encourage employee buy-in. 

4. Manage and Involve Yourself in the Delivery of the Vision

It is important for transformational leaders that they involve and integrate themselves in the delivery of the vision. 

  • Transformational leaders will be able to combine appropriate project management techniques with superb change management skills to ensure successful delivery. 
  • Roles will be communicated well and in accordance with all of the strengths and weaknesses of team members. Any individuals who require support will be offered help with their progress throughout the process. 
  • When allocating roles, make sure it is clear how these fit in with the plans, and with the overall organisational objectives - everyone needs to buy into their position within the team. 
  • Any individual goals set should be set using a carefully thought-out model such as SMART (Specific, Measurable, Accurate, Realistic, Timely). 
It is important that you remain focused and motivational during the entire process - it is easy for effort levels to drop off. Always ensure that your presence is felt, and you are open to questions, discussion or offering help to those who need it.

5. Continue to Develop Stronger Relationships with Your Team Members

A leader is only as strong as their team. It is crucial that any leader looks to develop and retain the trust and attention of all individuals amongst them. 

  • Leadership is a long-term process: it requires constant attention to facilitate the continual development of yourself, your team, and the relationship between the two. 
  • Construct regular meetings to get a grasp of individual developmental needs, and how they are finding any ongoing tasks or projects. Ask what they would like to achieve over the next year or years, and try to figure out how you can help them to achieve it. 
  • Perhaps look to offer coaching sessions if that is something that would help them to improve personally or professionally. 
  • However, the most important is, to be honest with everyone. Nothing develops trust more quickly and effectively than honesty.

4 I's of Transformational Leadership

In Bass' interpretation, he identified four separate elements that make up a Transformational Leader, which became known as the 4 I's. You can read about these in more detail here. They are:

  1. Idealised Influence
  2. Intellectual Stimulation
  3. Inspirational Motivation
  4. Individualised Consideration

These 4 elements, in Bass' view, were crucial if a leader wished to inspire, nurture and develop their followers. They would use these to create an open, communicative and diverse culture, allowing followers to freely share ideas and therefore to empower them on an individual level. 

Transformational leaders are often described as mentors and role models as they lead by example, encouraging an environment where innovative thinking is aligned with the values, beliefs and objectives of the organisation, and individuals are openly recognised for their contributions, and for going above-and-beyond the norm expected of them.


As you should now understand, Transformational Leadership is an important style for driving change within an organisation or group. Though it favours individuals of specific personality traits or experiences, it can be utilised by anyone who understands when and how. 

Key action points to becoming a Transformational Leader:

  1. Identify strengths and weaknesses
  2. Develop an inspiring vision for the future
  3. Motivate everyone to buy into the vision
  4. Manage and involve yourself in delivery
  5. Reinforce your relationships with the team