What do the innovative manager and the charismatic activist have in common? Transformational leadership, for one thing.
When a leader uses core values like responsibility, justice, and transparency to motivate people to work together under a common cause, they may be applying an approach called transformational leadership.
It’s a leadership style identified by James MacGregor Burns, a political scientist from the 20th century.
You can find transformational leaders in almost any industry from education to politics, but many people focus on how transformational leadership can improve mental health in the workplace.
Burns outlined four key elements of transformational leadership:
1. Idealized influence
This refers to charisma, which involves living your values in a way that motivates others to follow your example.
A transformational leader might also demonstrate qualities of the workplace culture they want to promote, like creativity and resourcefulness.
One sign of transformational leadership is putting the group’s needs ahead of the leader’s. Because a transformational leader probably won’t ask others to do something they wouldn’t do themselves, their followers may feel a greater sense of loyalty to the group’s mission.
2. Individual consideration
If you work with a transformational leader, you might notice that they take time to get to know you as a person.
Transformational leaders can also be great coaches. They tend to be just as passionate about helping their followers develop and grow as they are about bringing their vision to life.
3. Intellectual stimulation
A transformational leader promotes curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking. When solving a problem, they’ll likely want to hear ideas from multiple people with different backgrounds and perspectives.
They may also encourage learning opportunities like training or seminars to help the people around them keep learning and challenging their own assumptions.
4. Inspirational motivation
Transformational leaders are truly passionate about their current projects or vision. They often have the ability not only to spark motivation in each person to fulfill their role, but to create the feeling that their goals are achievable.
They’re also solid communicators. A transformational leader excels at sharing ideas with others clearly.
Real-world transformational leaders
You can find transformational leaders in business, government, art, and activism. Some famous transformational leaders include:
- Hayao Miyazaki, animator and director
- Winston Churchill, former English prime minister
- Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives
- Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragette
- Thai Lee, CEO of SHI International
Transactional leadership is the opposite of transformational leadership, according to Burns.
Each leadership style has its own way of distributing power and maintaining motivation.
|Transformational leadership||Transactional leadership|
|emphasizes processes and the big picture||emphasizes results and short-term goals|
|each person has a sense of ownership||the group leader is the project owner|
|uses back-and-forth communication||uses top-down communication|
|motivated by personal growth||motivated by rewards and penalties|
|creativity is encouraged||rule following is encouraged|
|people work toward a common goal||people work for personal gain|
While transformational leadership can benefit many fast-paced workplaces, there’s a time and place for each style. Both approaches come with pros and cons:
Transformational leadership: Pros vs. cons
- supports open and honest communication
- empowers people to reach new levels of personal development
- fosters a sense of responsibility and loyalty in participants
- allows for innovation
- builds a culture of mutual trust
- isn’t likely to be effective if each participant isn’t willing to take personal responsibility
- may not deliver instant, short-term results
- could set back high-stake projects that don’t have room for error or risk
Transactional leadership: Pros vs. cons
- provides a high level of structure
- each person’s role comes with clear expectations
- workers can spend more time completing tasks rather than getting bogged down by too much uncertainty
- may cause burnout if workers feel they aren’t allowed a sense of ownership in their role
- could stifle long-term growth and innovation since the status quo is prioritized over new ideas
- may create a culture of competition that undermines the organization’s goals if people work against rather than with each other
Research highlights how transformational leadership helps employees not only keep up, but thrive in increasingly diverse and fast-paced workplaces.
Some benefits of transformational leadership in the workplace include:
1. Psychological safety
Sharing knowledge at work can feel threatening if it means telling others about a mistake you made in the past or that you no longer have the know-how that keeps your job secure.
Since transformational leadership emphasizes teamwork and praises both risk-taking and learning from mistakes, it creates a culture where employees feel safer sharing victories and mistakes with each other.
2. More creativity
A 2016 study found that three aspects of transformational leadership — inspirational motivation, individual consideration, and idealized influence — supported creativity in the workplace.
Psychological safety may be one reason why. Employees are more likely to take risks or think differently in an environment that encourages rather than punishes creativity.
3. Less interpersonal stress
Transformational leaders emphasize communication between employees, no matter their status or job title. This helps create a sense of cooperation rather than competition.
A 2020 study found that transformational leadership and interpersonal communication in education helped reduce workplace conflict and boost teachers’ effectiveness.
4. Higher achievement
Leaders with a transformational approach motivate and empower others to push past self-imposed limits.
For example, teachers used transformational leadership to build better relationships with students in a 2016 study. As a result, the students became more engaged in their studies and were able to reach greater academic achievement.
5. Job satisfaction
A 2017 study measured how each aspect of transformational leadership increased employees’ effectiveness in their roles. It highlighted a transformational leader’s ability to inspire others as a key factor in boosting an employee’s satisfaction with their job, increasing their motivation to put in more effort.
Transformational leadership promotes a culture that both recognizes each person’s unique strengths and encourages them to put the group’s goals above personal interests. These leaders create a positive spiral of trust and inspiration that keeps people motivated.
Although you can apply this style in any leadership setting, managers can use it in the workplace to support both employee mental health and their potential to grow professionally.