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As the name implies, transformational leadership is a different way of thinking about leading and managing teams. The term was first coined by James Downton in the early 1970s, and the work was expanded several times: in 1978, James Macgregor Burns published a widely-cited paper on transformational leadership, channeling Thomas Jefferson at the very beginning and hoping that a transformational leadership approach could encourage leaders to push their teams into ever-more challenging projects.
By 1985, Bernard Bass was publishing an also well-cited paper that begins with the powerful question of: “Was Hitler a transformational leader?” (The short answer is “Yes, but not for any positive reasons.”)
Bass’ paper is when the core qualities of transformational leadership began to come more into focus.
This speaks to leaders best exerting their influence within a group. When a leader is practicing “idealized influence,” it means they are deeply respected by their team and provide a sense of vision and belonging long-term. Their teams tend to understand the long-term objectives of both that team and the bigger organization. These leaders are, essentially, role models.
This is about the creation of an open and diverse environment, so that employees can propose different, innovative, or even “off-the-wall” ideas that might someday represent a new best practice or revenue stream. It’s the freedom to explore and be curious under a specific leader.
Leaders practicing inspirational motivation drive true morale and accountability in their teams, but it’s not a fear-based accountability (i.e. being scared of messing up a project). It’s based on a personalized approach, meaning the leader knows what motivates each person on the team, and then the leader digs down and works directly with each direct report to motivate towards both individual and group goals.
This also speaks to a personalized approach, and those practicing transformational leadership along this continuum create diverse, supportive environments for their teams. Many leadership articles of the last few years have talked about Google’s Project Aristotle, or its quest to build the perfect team.
While they didn’t quite hit that goal, what they landed on was “psychological safety,” or the idea that differing viewpoints and individual connections back to work can all find respect in one team. A transformational leader helps teams achieve that across four elements.
Phrased in bigger picture-terms, transformational leaders:
CIO Magazine has defined a transformational leader as one who:
Psychology Today has taken all the elements of research over the past 47 years and condensed it into four big buckets:
Now that we’ve considered some of the research base and higher-order thinking on transformational leadership, the next logical question is: How does a leader “get there?” How does one practice transformational leadership? Let’s tackle this by each of Bass’ four big concepts.
This one is about being a positive role model. So, at the most basic level, your team needs to see you working hard but also having a degree of work-life balance. When there are ethical or moral decisions, i.e. some of the health vs. profit concerns that the pandemic showed us, you need to come down on the moral side.
To gain influence with your team, you can also sit them down once per month and talk about your biggest challenge, i.e. what’s being discussed at your level of the hierarchy or above. Invite their opinions on how to solve that challenge. You’re showing respect and more than just an adherence to hierarchy.
Zenger-Folkman has framed this up as “bold leadership,” where you want employees to feel a desire to “go the extra mile” for you and the overall team:
Much of “idealized influence” within transformational leadership comes down to walking the walk and talking the talk. Show employees, through your actions, how they should model their work behavior. Engage with them. Make them want to work harder for you and the team.
This can admittedly be hard for some leaders, especially those conditioned around the idea that work is predicated on achieving and completing tasks (goals, KPIs, ROI elements). It can feel to some leaders that “intellectual stimulation” would come from reading books, listening to podcasts, attending museums, etc. in your spare time. Work is about achievable results, no?
Kim Scott, who built successful teams at both Facebook and Google, has noted:
They want to work for you because they want to work with you. “Keep your top performers top of mind. Literally, top of mind — as in, in your thoughts. What you want to be is a thought partner. This is not just an abstract title, like ‘thought leader.’ It means approaching their work with curiosity and with an aim to be equals in discussing it. They know when they need to know more. You are thoughtful. And you are a partner,” says Scott. “From a reporting point of you, you may still be their manager, but, for these high-performers, you help manage their curiosity, not their work.”
You can apply this beyond just top-performers as well. Ask your employees questions. Push them on their problem-solving approach. Encourage them to partner with another silo or learn what another division does and bring back relevant best practices. Push them to think differently about problems.
Ask questions like:
Be a partner, and a sounding board, for their intellectual journeys into work and productivity.
Another factor in intellectual stimulation can be constructive criticism (which can also apply to the next tier we’re going to discuss, inspirational motivation). Offering specific criticism or adjustment of process or practice can be a great way to push forward discussions and explore new opportunities and potential ideas within a leader-employee dynamic.
We often frame this as “rah-rah” speeches and think of it in sports terms. That is certainly one approach to inspiring and motivating employees. There are bigger ways to consider it, though.
Mark Leslie is a good example. He took a company with 12 employees and $95,000 in revenue and made it a company with 6,000 employees and $1.5 billion in revenue. His advice?
“In a company, that means sharing information and decision-making with people beyond what is normally expected.” Leslie himself once initiated a thoughtful discussion with his engineers about the pros and cons of reverse-splitting the company’s stock — and then left the decision up to them. In the end, “they made exactly the right decision, for exactly the same reasons that we would have,” he recalls. “There’s no doubt that had we said, ‘We’re reverse-splitting the stock,’ and then given them exactly the same information, some of those people would have walked away feeling like somebody had picked their pocket.”
At this point, you can see how the big buckets of transformational leadership all come together. Inspiring and motivating others often means involving others, giving them the right information, being transparent, not hoarding information further up a hierarchy, and more.
Inspiring employees involves letting them take on other responsibilities, grow into new roles, evolve as professionals, and more. Everything within the idea of transformational leadership is very connected. It all begins with truly engaging with your employees and what they have to offer.
We reached out to Timothy Carroll of Carroll Consultancy when crafting this article, and he underscored the interconnectedness of transformational leadership elements.
“It’s about understanding what drives employees and leveraging that for top performance,” he said. “A transformational leader will start with themselves, being an example of what they want to see in the work and the world, and then make sure that reflects and drives through the people in the organization.”
In the age of COVID, we’ve also put together 13 unique team motivation ideas specifically geared at remote teams. Take a look. We’ve also organized some major motivation theories, which can help you understand best how to approach individual employees and the entire team in the name of transformational leadership.
Because of social and racial unrest globally right now, “belonging” has become a rallying cry in HR departments and leadership teams. Now, admittedly “belonging” without action items can feel like a buzzword, and that’s exactly where this element of transformational leadership would lie. People are social animals. They evolved in tribes.
Much has changed about that mentality in modernity, but people still gravitate towards a sense of bigger purpose or belonging, or a group they are part of. Make your employees feel like you care about them 1-on-1 but that they are also part of something bigger, as in your whole team.
A challenge for leaders here is “The Friend Zone.” Some traditional leaders are afraid of becoming friends with direct reports, for fear the relationship will go off the tracks and discipline and accountability may suffer. That is a valid concern. It is possible to get to know your employees more personally without being happy hour friends, though.
You could even make a simple chart of your employees, akin to this:
It’s more to update, sure, but it also ensures a personalized approach to leadership and team development -- and that’s going to be more successful.
A lot of personalized leadership approaches do come back to emotional intelligence within the leader, which thankfully can be developed with time and practice. And remember this above all: relationship-building will future-proof your career, and the only way to effectively build relationships at work is to give people the individual attention and focus they seek.
If you do that down a hierarchical chain, i.e. to your employees, you may find yourself in 3-5 years in a situation where they’re running a scaling company and they come find you because of that relationship. It can pay off.
We asked expert coach Tim Carroll this same question, and he came back with:
We know that transformational leadership increases engagement at work significantly. We know that it deepens organizational commitment as well. And now, above, we have some ideas how leaders and teams can arrive at truly transformational leadership as well.
There are admittedly buzzwords all around the leadership space these days, but transformational leadership does work when rooted in individual feedback, employee motivation, inspirational decision-making, trust, and more. Get to know your people and get to work on inspiring them. You deserve the outputs from transformational leadership, and your team deserves the ability to work in a place that they’ll care deeply for.