“Fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our FREEDOM?”
An example of transformational leadership
Even if you haven’t seen Braveheart, I’m sure you’re familiar with the above quote! In this movie scene, with his words and actions, William Wallace (Mel Gibson) demonstrates what it is to be a transformational leader. Seeing the British advancing, the Scottish army begins to retreat, having no confidence in itself or its leaders.
Along comes Wallace and he inspires his countrymen to stay and fight by sharing a compelling vision with them, leading by example, connecting through strong emotional ties, demonstrating his belief in the troops, showing them their potential that they were unable to see, thus helping them to trust both him and themselves so that they feel strong and motivated as they enter into battle.
They do not know what the outcome will be, but are prepared to take the risk and do what it takes to create a better future.
Armed with that visual, let’s look in more detail at what transformational leadership is and the positive impact this approach has on organisations and society.
What is a transformational leader?
The clue is certainly in the wording. We all know that transformation means change- in this case, it is the creation of meaningful change.
A transformational leader is a visionary.
They are on a mission to change the world for the better. These leaders dream big and are prepared to take the actions needed to make their goals a reality.
Putting their self-interest behind, transformational leaders focus on how they can elicit the greatness of individuals, teams and organisations as they work towards a common goal.
Characteristics of transformational leaders
Every leader is unique; however, it is the personality of the leader, combined with the right behaviours, strategies and actions that are key to making the transformational model work in practice.
Transformational leaders are often energetic, enthusiastic and passionate, typically demonstrating the following traits and qualities:
Coming up with a compelling vision for the future requires creativity. Transformational leaders ask themselves valuable questions, like where do they want to take the organisation? How can they work with their team to add value to society? In what way can they be useful to their communities?
Strong communication and story-telling skills
When a leader articulates the organisation’s vision to team members in a clear and passionate way, it hits them right in the emotions, getting them excited and involved. Because the vision is more than a dream, it’s vital to include a call to action when sharing it, inviting individuals to join the mission and encouraging intrinsic motivation. Once team members start engaging with and investing in the vision, they begin to reflect how their own skills and strengths can be used to support its achievement.
Transformational leaders have started the process of transformation through working on themselves. They know that it’s important to lead themselves first before they can lead others. In doing so, they know who they are and can therefore be authentic. They take time to care for themselves, get clear on what makes them happy in life, knowing that this has a positive ripple effect on those they lead. This is an ongoing process, and a lot of transformational leaders find it beneficial to work with a coach to help them to be the best they can be for themselves, those closest to them and their teams.
The decisions made by transformational leaders are for the benefit of others, rather than for personal gain. These leaders recognise that life is about continuing to learn. They keep their egos in check and purposefully surround themselves with people who think differently and who are not afraid to challenge them. The best transformational leaders are also mindful to practice servant leadership- seeing individuals as people, not producers.
Leaders who are transformational are confident in who they are and how they present themselves, yet know that confidence comes from the doing, from taking action and is a muscle to be stretched.
Knowledge of their own values
The values of the founder provide strong foundations for any organisation and this is why it is fundamental for the leader to get clear on what is important to them in life and business to help them to navigate the vision and better lead others.
Transformational leaders believe in and are committed to the cause they are pursuing. This passion and enthusiasm naturally inspires others and is infectious.
This leadership style is transformational, not tyrannical. It is about genuinely empowering others to do their best work and become better leaders themselves. Through delegating, not micromanaging, transformational leaders provide others with the opportunity to develop their skills, realise their potential and step up in a way that they may not have believed possible. They understand the business and are not afraid to muck-in themselves and do jobs that seem beneath them when called for.
Transformational leadership is about being open minded and open to new experiences. This means that these leaders welcome innovative and novel ideas. They are committed to making it work, yet also recognise when it’s not going to, and encourage other ways of doing things, unafraid to put the focus elsewhere. They look at the big picture, instead of sweating the small stuff.
At the heart of this leader, is an innate desire to do what is good. While they may break some of the “rules” and take risks, they ultimately do the right thing, both legally and morally for the greater good. They are fair-minded, listen to and consider other opinions. To move forward with the vision, it is vital for the transformational leader to earn the trust, commitment and respect of followers and this is done by being ethically strong. It is incumbent on these leaders to be mindful how they show up, bearing in mind the impact and influence they have on their followers.
To quote from another movie, in Spider-Man, Peter Parker is told by Uncle Ben:
“With great power comes great responsibility”.
It’s wonderful to be gifted with so many great characteristics, yet the onus is on the transformational leader to use them for the benefit of others.
This is outlined in the 4 “I’s” of Transformational Leadership.
What are the 4 “I’s” of transformational leadership?
The leader transforms, motivates and inspires followers using the 4 “I’s” – idealised influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individual consideration.
Let’s look at each one in more detail:
- Idealised influence: The transformational leader is a role mode, leading by example. They are the types of leaders who get things done and are consistent and authentic in their approach and behaviour. Walking the talk, the leader’s behaviours influence others and empower them to work beyond their perceived capabilities, increasing the likelihood of achieving remarkable results. Because they are being true to themselves, saying what they mean and meaning what they say, they encourage others to do the same, fostering a transparent culture in their organisations. With such alignment, it is easier to reach the vision.
- Inspirational motivation: By clearly communicating their vision to the team, transformational leaders inspire and motivate. This creates trust and once the team understands the vision, they are more likely to share the passion for it and have the motivation to work towards bringing it to fruition. Employees are excited to go to work and are prepared to go above and beyond to get exceptional results.
- Intellectual stimulation: Transformational leaders provide a safe space for their followers to be creative and challenge the status quo. They encourage failure in the pursuit of greatness. These leaders ask better questions of team members to challenge their assumptions and shake up their perspectives. In this way, the organisation becomes more and more about idea generation and creating ways to actively add value to others. Team members think for themselves and are more innovative. By showing how comfortable they are at taking necessary risks, transformational leaders Increase organisational risk-appetite, which helps it to stay competitive, evolve and grow.
- Individual consideration: Mastering empathy, transformational leaders show care for their teams’ emotions and needs, both personally and professionally. They are truly person-centred- listening carefully to their employees’ needs and tailoring their coaching and mentoring styles to reflect what works best for each team member. Transformational leaders support individuals to self-actualise, nurturing them to identify and play to their strengths. They strike a balance between showing genuine concern for others, but also challenge them to be at their best and get the work done.
Is transformational leadership the best style of leadership?
It’s little wonder that studies* have shown that transformational leadership is the most effective style of leadership.
It’s a universal form of leadership and is applicable in every industry.
Here’s why transformational leadership works:
- In addition to increasing productivity, it promotes positive change in the lives of individuals and organisations.
- Wellbeing is enhanced- working towards something bigger than themselves, on a noble cause, gives people a sense of purpose and identity, adding meaning to what they do and empowering them.
- Organisations are enabled to grow more quickly. Transformational leadership bolsters rapid innovation, while team members are encouraged to have ownership and accountability that is necessary to support growth.
- A recent survey from Gallup shows that only 23% of the global workforce is engaged. Studies show that employees prefer working for transformational leaders. They have increased morale and enthusiasm and as a result are more engaged in the workplace. Their excitement to get to work not only boosts performance, but also has a positive impact on retention levels. This has the happy effect of enhancing the reputation of the organisation from the inside-out, strengthening relationships with all stakeholders.
This is why I love working with transformational leaders- they are powerful agents for change and produce such a positive ripple effect on their teams, organisations, customers and society at large.
*For further reading on studies conducted on transformational leadership effectiveness: Connie Deng, Duygu Gulseren, Carlo Isola, Kyra Grocutt & Nick Turner (2022) Transformational leadership effectiveness: an evidence-based primer, Human Resource Development International, DOI: 10.1080/13678868.2022.2135938