Can there be some big ideas that underpin the emergence of others? That’s a question that James McGregor Burns tackled in much of his writing. And the answer he gives us is ‘yes’. That big idea is Transformational Leadership.
It’s not surprising that leadership is a common topic for us, here at the Management Pocketblog. There must be a dozen different models to choose from among our articles. But Transformational Leadership is one we have returned to a number of times.
We do so, because it repays careful study. It is an idea that changed my thinking and has huge value for any manager or leader in business or public or community service.
The Origins of the Transformational Leadership Idea?
Mary Parker Follett (as is often the case) got there first. That’s why we described her as a ‘Management Visionary’. Edith Rusch spotted the similarities between James McGregor Burns’ ideas and Follett’s. In a paper called ‘The social construction of leadership: From theory to praxis’, Rusch offers a compelling argument both that:
- Follett anticipated the ideas of transformational leadership, and
- she was the first to put them forward and even used the term
But, sadly, Follett’s work is much neglected. She may have been a visionary, but she was, arguably, ahead of her time.
James McGregor Burns
In that book, he set out a distinction between two forms of leadership:
- Transactional Leadership
Everyday leadership is based on reciprocal behaviours. You’ll do what I ask you to, if I provide you with something you value: guidance, support, patronage, reward… In more coercive forms of leadership, that reward could be as simple as withholding sanctions.
- Transformational Leadership
Leaders who have the drive to create deep change are more inspirational and motivate by appealing to a vision and a set of values that underpin it. That drive may equally be motivated by a will to power or a desire to see a positive transformation.
But one person’s transformative change is another’s fascism. Burns was an assiduous documenter of historical transformations and the leaders who led them. His 2003 book, ‘Transforming Leadership’ (US|UK) offers a wealth of case studies, from Cleopatra to Mandela.
It’s worth mentioning that, from first to last, Burns preferred the term ‘transforming leadership’. This was not about a process of transforming the way we lead, but leadership that is transforming in character. However, it’s the term ‘transformational leadership’ that stuck. Partly because it’s linguistically easier for us, but mostly because of the third person in our story…
In 1978, Industrial Psychology academic Bernard Bass read and reviewed Burns’ ‘Leadership’. He liked it. A lot.
Bass put Burns’ ideas together with his own, and started the work on transformational leadership that would dominate his diverse academic reputation. Bass was a formidable thinker with a forensic academic approach. While Burns took a historical view and assessed the moral dimension of leadership, Bass was interested in a model for effective managerial leadership.
In 1985, he published his ideas in ‘Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations’ (US|UK). He followed this with a string of further books on the topic of leadership. His book, ‘The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications’ (US|UK) is still one of the most valuable references on leadership.
It is the Bass model of Transformational Leadership that is most widely referenced today. You can read more about Bass in our article.
What is Transformational Leadership?
Transformational leaders influence through trust, charisma, and vision. Bass explored how they do that.
He also argued that transactional and transformational leadership can work alongside one another. Their domains overlap. So, to complement the transactional leadership roles of getting things done, and keeping the team focused on shared goals, Bass saw the transformational leadership role as appealing to people’s higher-order needs.
He took the view that they must do two things:
- Act as a role model
- Challenge the existing order
What Kind of Change?
Too many people misunderstand the distinction between transactional and transformational leadership as being about change:
- Transformational leaders create change
- Transactional leaders work within the status quo
But, the true difference lies in the type of change. Transactional change is incremental: transformational change is revolutionary and structural. It is driven by values, rather than by pragmatism. That said, while Burns had a moral vision of leadership and the transformations it can deliver, Bass took a morally neutral approach.
How to be a Transformational Leader
Bass developed a model of transformational leadership, with four roles:
1. Inspirational Motivation
Acting as a visionary, to make people feel like a part of something big and worthwhile. This role is concerned with purpose and meaning. It motivates people to participate in creating a fuure they desire.
2. Individualised Attention
Leaders need to celebrate diversity and build relationships. Each team member needs to feel connected to their leader and have a sense that their leader knows, respects, and is invested in them.
3. Intellectual Stimulation
Transformational leaders invest their time and energy to help their followers to learn, grow and perform to their highest levels. They value intellect, and creative thinking, and are adept at seeing and harnessing different points of view.
4. Idealised Influence
This is the leader as a role model. They inspire personal respect, so that team members want to follow them because of their personal integrity. So, transformational leaders need to set and display high ethical standards. They must walk the talk, be honest, open, fair, and principled, and set strong values that they can demonstrate in their work.
What is Your experience of Transformational Leadership?
We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.