11 traits of transformational leaders and how to develop them

A woman holding a flag is acting as a transformational leader with the support of two people smiling and cheering next to her

When it comes to bosses, there are those who fuel our creative fire, pushing us to reach for the stars and then there are those who are just fine with business as usual.1 The former uses transformational leadership to ignite the passion in each individual and boost team performance.

Transformational leadership is a visionary form of leadership set at the executive level. It prepares individuals for changes, challenges, and future leadership. It stimulates internal motivation and guides through external examples.

Though 83% of businesses agree on the importance of some form of leadership development, only about 5%2 of businesses implement it at every level. This is because affordable training options are limited. Leadership development is particularly challenging in today's complex business environment.3

But you’re in luck! With F4S, you can nurture essential soft skills in leaders at all levels. Assess what energizes star employees and craft a personalized leadership development strategy.

First, let’s learn who transformational leaders are and what makes them great.

Table of contents
What are transformational leadership traits?
What are the top 11 traits of transformational leaders?
How to develop transformational leadership skills
Transformational leadership vs. other leadership styles
Challenges of transformational leadership
Transformational leadership in different sectors
The future of transformational leadership
Are you ready to adapt?

What are transformational leadership traits?

Transformational leaders are fueled by a powerful vision. They encourage creative freedom, independent problem-solving, and high standards. They cultivate a corporate environment of ownership, accountability, and workplace autonomy.

Some qualities crucial to transformational leaders are:

  • They preach through practice.
  • They’re open-minded.
  • They inspire.
  • They motivate and empower others to take action independently.

Transformational leadership theory is based on these 4 pillars.10

Intellectual stimulation to challenge the status quo and promote innovation and creativity. This promotes critical thinking and welcomes change. It also lessens the fear of failure.

Individual consideration to empower employees to take on more responsibility and work autonomously. While reducing the need for constant approvals and dependency on others.

Inspirational motivation through effectively internalizing, communicating, and exemplifying the company’s vision. Employees feel more committed to the company and their work.

Idealized influence to earn employee trust and respect. Model high professional and social behavior standards.

History of transformational leadership

Sociologist James V. Downton coined the term “Transformational Leadership”, in the 1970s.11 It has since evolved through the contributions of multiple researchers and scholars. Subsequently, James Burns expanded on it. He characterized transformational leadership as a dynamic where leaders and followers elevate one another to a higher state of “morality and motivation”.

History shows that transformational leadership can be powerful. Take Howard Schultz, the ex-CEO of Starbucks, for instance. He led Starbucks to embrace ethical sourcing, better employee benefits, and community engagement. This inspired employees and customers to engage with the company on a deeper level. Creating a corporate culture that values ethics and social responsibility over profits.

Many more examples come to mind, including Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and Richard Branson, but more on them later.

Why is transformational leadership important?

Research indicates that transformational leadership holds many benefits for organizations,12 including organizational citizenship behavior, commitment, job satisfaction, effort, and in-role performance. Now with the rise in remote work and telecommuting its significance also rises.

When employees feel inspired, motivated, and empowered, their productivity increases. Research also proves that transformational leadership boosts team performance by 78.1%4. It uses inspiration and motivation to empower employees personally. This leads to more innovation and adaptability in organizations. Which are crucial for survival in today's business world.

Consider Jeff Bezos. In the mid-2000s, he recognized the potential for Amazon to expand its offerings beyond books. Bezos backed the digital revolution and new tech, making things like the Kindle and Amazon Echo. Amazon's success is greatly influenced by his ability to inspire and challenge employees. He encourages them to think beyond traditional retail and adapt to a rapidly changing digital landscape.

The evolving expectations of employees and consumers today also demand transformational leadership. Though many view Elon Musk’s leadership style to be autocratic, his strive for achieving excellence sets high standards for his employees. His relentless dedication and hard work urges those around him to push limits, be creative, and seek innovative solutions to organizational goals.

What are the top 11 traits of transformational leaders?

By now we’ve read the theory of transformational leadership and seen some effective leaders in action. But what are the unique traits that make a transformational leader different from other leaders?13 14 15

F4S research shows that successful leaders share common traits like reflection and patience, initiation, achievement, present and future orientation, affective and neutral communication, intuitive decision-making, internal reference, and a balance of power and affiliation. Many of these traits are witnessed in transformative leaders as well.

a person with a microphone smiling with open arms showing the transformational leadership traits


1. Visionary

The ability to maintain and sustain a strong vision isn't easy. Transformational leaders have a clear and compelling vision for the future. They demonstrate this vision through behavior and effective communication with their teams.

Consider Oprah Winfrey and Elon Musk (again). Their strong visions inspire those nearby to aim for higher standards. Musk’s ability to communicate a futuristic vision inspired employees to be part of something bigger than themselves.

“The duty of a leader is to serve their people, not for the people to serve them.” Elon Musk.

Now let's turn to Oprah Winfrey. The talk show host turned business woman also sustained her exciting vision and built an empire through her leadership skills.

She excels at inspiring, connecting with, and motivating people. This has made her a globally famous television host and a standout transformational business leader. She is able to find and train excellent employees by helping them grow and staying connected with them and her audience. This demonstrates her visionary approach.

2. Charismatic and inspiring

It’s human nature to be drawn to people with charismatic personalities. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines is adored, admired, and respected by his followers. His charm, charisma, and unique leadership style draw others towards him. This is how he inspires and coaches his executives, managers, and employees to be more effective.

“I have always believed that the way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers and that people flourish when they are praised.” Richard Branson.

Charismatic leaders inspire and influence others with their persuasion skills. They bring a positive, contagious, and energetic attitude to the workplace. This boosts team morale, productivity, commitment, and engagement.

3. Not afraid of failure

In fact, they see it as an opportunity for learning and growth and consider it to be a stepping stone to future success. They pass on these values and beliefs to their followers. This creates an environment where employees feel safe to experiment, take risks, and innovate. This encourages individuals to bounce back from disappointments, overcome challenging situations, and decreases the chance of burnout.

"If you don't give people a chance to fail, you won't innovate. Most importantly, we want to create a company where every employee can bring their whole selves to work." Indra Nooyi, Former CEO of PepsiCo.

4. Adaptable and proactive

Transformative leaders understand that change is inevitable and welcome it. They embrace new opportunities and challenges with a positive attitude. If Bezos hadn't embraced evolving dynamics, Amazon wouldn't have achieved the success it enjoys today.

5. Engaging

Effective engagement involves a high level of emotional intelligence. Leaders who manage their own emotions, navigate challenges, and build supportive, strong relationships. They create an emotional connection with employees that goes beyond routine tasks, motivating them to go the extra mile.

6. Dedicated to shared goals

Transformational leaders have a strong sense of what people in the company think and how they feel. This allows them to tap into the right emotions to motivate employees to take action. They develop a clear and inspiring picture of what the organization could achieve in the future and align it with individual goals. Their vision is designed in a way so every employee can relate to, support, and work towards it. This way everyone in the organization feels involved and motivated by the shared goal.

7. Humble and active listeners

A good leader is able to put their ego aside, listen and understand employee concerns objectively and with empathy, leading to conflict resolution. Their humility allows them to acknowledge their vulnerabilities and limitations while appreciating and showing respect for the opinions, abilities, and contributions of others.

F4S founder Michelle Duval shares her own vulnerabilities and how they helped her lead better in this video.

This makes leaders more approachable and relatable. It creates an atmosphere where employees feel heard, appreciated, and understood. This contributes to greater diversity and inclusion, trust, collaboration, and open communication within a company.

8. High moral, and professional standards

Transformational leaders demonstrate high social and moral standards. They lead the way in promoting socially high standards like corporate responsibility and sustainable growth.

Former CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, inspired innovation within the organization. His leadership led to tangible changes within the company. And set a new industry benchmark for ethical and sustainable practices.

9. Open-minded and innovative

Open-minded people are receptive to new ideas and perspectives, no matter where or who they come from. They recognize that innovation and progress come from novel thinking and unconventional approaches. They enjoy taking calculated risks and experimenting with new ways of doing things.

10. Strong communicators

Being a good communicator is an indispensable transformational leadership characteristic. It inspires, builds trust and creates understanding among employees. This helps leaders convey their vision and ideas in a clear and compelling way, so employees are drawn to them and their vision.

11. Role models

Transformational leaders are the first to practice what they preach. They are secure about their own capabilities and limitations. They delegate authority to others, empowering employees to take on more responsibility with pride and accountability.

They don’t micromanage nor do they gate-keep information. They inspire and encourage employees by setting high standards of expectations and leading by example. They are committed to continuous learning and personal and professional growth for themselves and others.

How to develop transformational leadership skills

Wondering how you become a transformational leader? You’re in luck. Research shows that contrary to the old belief that leaders can’t be made,5 you can learn the skills to become a transformational leader. Better news! You can accelerate the process using F4S. Here’s where you start.

Assess your own strengths and weaknesses

Identify your core skills and competencies and reflect on your positive personal qualities. Acknowledge areas where you lack skills. Take the F4S assessment to better understand your (and your team’s) intrinsic motivations. Are you a good communicator/open-minded? Know where you stand and where you need to improve to become a transformational leader. Set a benchmark and see improvement over time with F4S.

team dashboard shows individual and team dynamics
F4S team dashboard

Understand how your work style motivations benchmark against our XFactors. Successfully develop transformational leaders in your company or become one yourself.

Set up your team in F4S and understand how to motivate them by adapting your communication to suit each team member. Our coaching programs like Multiplying your Impact, Big Picture Thinking, Personal Power, and Team Building will unlock your inner leader.

Accelerate understanding between teams

Breadth

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Motivated by macro big picture thinking, these teammates value moving quickly to connect dots between abstract ideas to 'get the gist' of things.

Chart showing rage from Average, High and Ver High.

vs

Depth

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These teammates value being concrete and specific, getting into details to understand the steps or tasks required.

Chart showing rage from Average, High and Ver High.

See the different work styles in your team

Take the free assessment & set up your team

Create and communicate a strong vision

Understand your own values, and passions, and create a solid and clear vision that resonates with your company and your team.

Clearly articulate your vision using simple and understandable language. Use stories and examples to illustrate what the future will look like. Deploy posters, screensavers, or other visual aids around the workplace to serve as reminders.

Encourage questions, feedback, and open dialogue to foster a sense of ownership among your team members.

Be a role model for your team.

Show your commitment to the vision, continuous learning, and innovation through your behavior.

Tailor your leadership approach to support their personal development and professional growth. Hold yourself and your team members accountable for actions and outcomes. Ensure they understand the consequences of their decisions and how they impact team goals.

Promote creativity

Encourage your team to embrace a growth mindset. Push them to think outside the box. Organizations where people are encouraged to challenge the status quo discover new ways of saving time and resources. They run business operations more efficiently, outperforming competitors. They also adapt successfully to changing market dynamics.

Make connections on a deeper level

For people to genuinely want to follow you, you need to win their trust and connect with them on a personal and deeper level.

Take on the role of a coach, listen, empathize and tailor your approach to best meet individual considerations.

Provide feedback and acknowledge the efforts and contributions of others. Always remember to recognize and celebrate achievements, no matter how big or small. This keeps morale and energy levels up.

Transformational leadership vs. other leadership styles

Other popular forms of leadership are “transactional leadership” and “servant leadership”.

Transactional leadership is a quid pro quo approach, which relies on a system of rewards and punishments to motivate employees. While it may come across as rigid and impersonal, it can be effective for medium to large organizations that operate under strict rules and objectives.

On the other hand, servant leadership prioritizes the well-being and development of employees serving their needs and interests. Well known servant leaders include Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

Each leadership style has a place in different organizational contexts and settings. Transformational leadership, for instance, finds its ideal fit in companies that prioritize innovation, adaptability, and a shared sense of purpose. It is highly valued in the tech industry and startups, where rapid adaptation is critical.

Challenges of transformational leadership

Transformational leadership, while valuable, has its share of challenges.

  1. Making difficult decisions on the fly can result in bad decisions.
  2. Always trying to be creative may lead to uncalculated risk-taking.
  3. High expectations may lead to increased burnout.
  4. It can be risky and impractical during early stages of company development.

To overcome these challenges, it’s important to strike a balance between visionary goals and practicality. Make effective communication and clear strategy a priority. Remain vigilant to prevent burnout and maintain the team's trust. Take calculated risks and be open to employing other leadership styles when necessary.

Transformational leadership in different sectors

The effects of transformational leadership are evident in various sectors. We’ve already seen its applications in business so let’s focus on some others.

Transformational leadership in education improves educator commitment to teaching,6 leading to better performance and job satisfaction. This helps in designing support systems that reduce inequities across various dimensions and creates a more resilient educational infrastructure capable of withstanding future changes and challenges.

During his tenure as president at Harvard, Lawrence Summers introduced transformative changes. His leadership led to Harvard's continued academic excellence and financial stability.

In health care7 transformational leadership is linked to structural empowerment. It allows for better staff retention, skill growth, and lower turnover expenses. It improves job contentment and involvement, lifting care quality and patient well-being.

The Mayo Clinic is renowned for its patient-centered care and innovative medical practices. Its success can be attributed to the visionary leadership of the Mayo brothers, Dr. William J. Mayo and Dr. Charles H. Mayo. They emphasized a collaborative and patient-focused approach.

The future of transformational leadership

Work preferences and technological changes are transforming how we work. With the gig economy, digital and hybrid work models becoming more popular, leaders must adapt. Challenges like reduced employee connection, lower engagement, and higher turnover, demand the need for a shift in how companies approach work.

We need to realize that employees have different priorities than companies. The solution lies in working towards common goals. Around 82% of businesses intend to integrate remote work to some extent,8 and research shows that an alarming 80% of employees are actively disengaged at work.9 This shows that demand for transformational leadership is set to rise.

Are you ready to adapt?

Transformational leadership can turn a stagnant team into a high-performing team. It boosts engagement, performance, morale, and creativity. Consider it a valuable long-term investment in employees' futures. To succeed in fast-paced and demanding environments, future leaders must prioritize these essential skills.

Become a transformational leader

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Show References
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  1. Gashema B, 2019, How Transformational Leadership Fuels Employee’s Creative Performance Behaviors in the Workplace?, ResearchGate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334456778_How_Transformational_Leadership_Fuels_Employee's_Creative_Performance_Behaviors_in_the_Workplace
  2. Kizer K, 2023, 35+ Powerful Leadership Statistics: Things All Aspiring Leaders Should Know, Zippia, https://www.zippia.com/advice/leadership-statistics/
  3. Beer M, Finnstrom M, Scrader D, 2016, Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2016/10/why-leadership-training-fails-and-what-to-do-about-it?registration=success
  4. Karaca H, 2010, The Effects Of Transformational Leadership On Employees' Perceived Leadership Effectiveness In Public Organizations Federal Emergency Management Agency Case, University of Central Florida Library, https://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2624&context=etd
  5. Silva AB, 2021, Are Leaders born or are they made, ResearchGate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/355475260_Are_Leaders_born_or_are_they_made
  6. Dumay X and Galand B, 2011, The multilevel impact of transformational leadership on teacher commitment: Cognitive and motivational pathways, ResearchGate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241684325_The_multilevel_impact_of_transformational_leadership_on_teacher_commitment_Cognitive_and_motivational_pathways
  7. Moving Health Care Upstream, 2018, Using Transformational Leadership to Move Health Care Upstream, Moving Health Care Upstream, https://www.movinghealthcareupstream.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/mhcu_transformationalleadership_finalrev3_32917.pdf
  8. Arlington V, 2020, Gartner Survey Reveals 82% of Company Leaders Plan to Allow Employees to Work Remotely Some of the Time, Gartner, https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-07-14-gartner-survey-reveals-82-percent-of-company-leaders-plan-to-allow-employees-to-work-remotely-some-of-the-time
  9. Gallup, 2023, State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report, Gallup, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/349484/state-of-the-global-workplace.aspx
  10. M Bass, 1998, Transformational Ledaership, Google Books, https://books.google.com.pk/books?id=2WsJSw6wa6cC&lpg=PT5&ots=I7c0jYDNDK&dq=transformational%20leadership%20book%20m%20bass&lr&pg=PT7#v=onepage&q=transformational%20leadership%20book%20m%20bass&f=false
  11. Burns J, 1978, Leadership, Amazon Books, https://www.amazon.com/Leadership-Harper-Perennial-Political-Classics/dp/006196557X
  12. Givens J, 2008, Transformational Leadership: The Impact on Organizational and Personal Outcomes, Regent University, https://www.regent.edu/journal/emerging-leadership-journeys/transformational-leadership-the-impact-on-organizational-and-personal-outcomes/
  13. A Gregory, 2007, Transformational and Transactional Leadeship: Associated with attitudes toward ecidence based practice, NCBI,  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1876730/#:~:text=Transformational%20leadership%20inspires%20and%20motivates,more%20on%20reinforcement%20and%20exchanges.
  14. Morgan B, 2019, The 10 Habits Of Transformational Leaders, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2019/02/25/the-10-habits-of-transformational-leaders/?sh=799a1911343b
  15. Khan, H., Rehmat, M., Butt, T.H. 2020, Impact of transformational leadership on work performance, burnout and social loafing: a mediation model, SpringerOpen https://doi.org/10.1186/s43093-020-00043-8

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