What is Transformational Leadership?

Written by Haley Boyce


Remember when you first applied for the job you have now – the roller coaster high of landing an interview, then again when they shook your hand and offered you the job? The blissful freefall of being welcomed onto a team, asserting your ideas for company-wide advancement that probably meant a promotion for you. Such a great experience, right? 

And now here you are all this time later, leading a team – in charge of others who need to feel that same inspired sense of exhilaration because the success of your job and your company depends on it. How do you instill that sense of joy in the employees that look to you for inspiration and a way forward? 

The answer is literal transformation.

Whether you’re currently in a position of leadership or expect to be soon, learning the tenets of transformational leadership will turn you into the kind of boss you always wanted to have.

Transformational Leadership Definition – Understanding the Transformational Leadership Style

Bernard Bass, credited as the founder of organizational psychology, identified four components of transformational leadership. Known as the Four I’s, transformational leadership is most successful when it incorporates these components of leadership:

Idealized Influence

Precisely as it sounds, a leader with an ability to transform a team, project experience, or outcome is the ideal boss – the type of leader someone imagines working for and with. This type of leader can be trusted to make decisions that have everyone’s best interest at heart. 

Individualized Consideration

This aspect of transformational leadership focuses on the positive influence a leader has on each individual team member. By investing in every single team member’s unique ability to contribute to the success of the organization, goals are more readily achieved. 

Inspirational Motivation

Before a person can change anything in their life, whether personal or work-related, there has to be a source of inspiration. Sometimes it’s intrinsic, and other times it comes from an extrinsic source, like a team lead. 

Intellectual Stimulation

When team members feel inspired and empowered to pursue growth through challenging work, it can be attributed, in part, to having a strong transformational leader. Here, employees are encouraged to think beyond their comfort zone to develop creative solutions. 

When looking for examples of what it means to transform an organization from the inside out, we must also consider what it looks like when we allow ourselves to evolve. Transformation doesn’t happen in an instant, but it does begin with a spark of ingenuity. This idea becomes a hope, a plan, it is shared, and soon becomes something that changes not only your life but those who are in your sphere.

steve jobs book on the nightstandTransformational Leadership Examples

Steve Jobs
Undoubtedly one of the world’s most renowned innovators, Jobs exemplifies transformational leadership like none other. His focus on introducing new technology products capable of enhancing life combined with his eye for design esthetic previously unheard of in technology circles are just some of the distinctions that mark Jobs as a transformational leader.

Oprah Winfrey
She’s influential and she knows it. This is why she works to make lives better – whether it’s gifting cars to audience members, buying 8% of Weight Watchers and then encouraging others to join her on the journey to health, or building two boarding schools for girls in South Africa. These are remarkable feats for anyone – it isn’t that she accomplished them that makes her an example of transformational leadership, but that she did these things with the goal of running her brand and her business in the most socially impactful way possible. 

Barack Obama
As a former president who managed to make the first steps towards meaningful healthcare reform, Obama continues to have a lasting impact on American life. He was known for leading his administration with the qualities of a transformational leader, bringing a compassionate spirit to the White House and a sense of hope to the nation. 

Nelson Mandela 
As an antiapartheid activist who eventually became the most beloved president of South Africa, Mandela embodied the qualities of a transformational leader. With an unwavering loyalty to the vision of justice who encouraged open communication between all people and parties of SA, Mandela inspired right action and real change. He was a man who lived with integrity, and eventually realized the better future he envisioned for the people of his country. 

Walt Disney
“It all started with a mouse,” Disney claims. But what came from the magic spark that occurred between his imagination and the pencil in his hand eventually led to a production studio and the most visited theme parks around the globe. Though he passed away in 1966, Disney’s legacy as a transformational leader lives on in the lives of generations of Disney employees and fans. 

Transformational Leadership Theory

transformational leadership theoryPutting transformational leadership theory into practice involves striking the right balance between strategy and the individuals who will be tasked with executing that strategy. It represents the modern leadership paradigm in which compassionate and magnanimous leaders collaborate with team members to build a shared vision, foster the talents of individuals, and keep the mission on track. 

Transformational leaders understand that investing time in getting to know each team member’s personality, strengths, and work habits is the best way to get the most from the people who make things happen within the organization. They’re more concerned with real results for the organization than individual glory. To that end, they foster the talents and confidence of staff, giving them a chance to shine and bask in the recognition of what they’ve achieved.

Transformational leaders inspire team members to work toward a shared vision and deliver at a level beyond minimum expectations. 

Transformational Leadership Characteristics 

innovation gearsIt takes a certain type of personality to inspire change. There are certain characteristics that a leader possesses, some learned, but most are naturally woven into the tapestry of a person’s character and then built upon. Whether innate or learned, transformational leaders demonstrate the following characteristics:

They are Charismatic – A charismatic leader is one who is well-liked. A person with charisma is confident, has an effervescent disposition, is optimistic, has expressive body language, and speaks with a voice that communicates enthusiasm. 

They are inspirational – An inspiring leader is someone who thinks positively about reaching goals. Stakeholders typically apply the term “inspiring” to a leader who speaks with conviction, is forward-thinking, and acts with integrity and courage.

They are Intellectually stimulating – Critical thinking is arguably one of the greatest tools for transformation. Once a person learns something new it is impossible to go back to who they were before. Thinking deeply – critically – challenges a person to see situations in ways that either they or an entire group of people hadn’t previously considered. The inevitable outcome is transformation. A transformational leader will create opportunities for team members to delve deep into the critical thinking process with the desired result of a transformed approach to how they approach their work.

They are considerate – Akin the philosophy of servant leadership, transformational leadership is done with a great sense of humanity, seeing team members and other stakeholders for the people they are. A transformational leader will feel and display a real sense of compassion when they consider a person’s situation in life and in the workplace.  

They are self-aware – Strong transformational leaders are able to believe in others because they first believe in themselves. They possess a great sense of self and are keenly aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Practices in meditation, journaling, or any other form of self-reflection is likely part of their daily routine. They never stop learning and improving their personal and work-related goals. This doesn’t make them perfect, but it does make them easier to trust. 

They keep an open mind – Transformational leaders are at their best when they don’t limit themselves to a fixed perspective. They refrain from making assumptions, instead choosing to consider all sides of a situation while remaining actively open to perspectives they hadn’t yet considered. 

They are intellectually flexible – A good leader knows that keeping a business fresh and at the top of the leaderboard means remaining adaptable. Business is a dynamic game with ever changing criteria.

They think ahead – The same rule applies to business as it does in life beyond the office – if you want something to happen, you’ve got to make it happen. Transformational leaders don’t only follow changes in the industry, they attempt to see around the corner to see what’s coming next, and in the best cases, even lead change and set trends themselves. 

Staying ahead of the curve means seeking the type of change that will transform a service or product, and the experience customers have. 

They remain humble – It’s okay for a leader to admit when they don’t have the answer to a quandary or conundrum. In fact, this humility keeps a leader striving for success because even though they might not have the answer, they will undoubtedly seek those answers out. Being humble enough to say, “Hey, I don’t know, but I’ll find out” inspires team members to embrace the freedom of taking a risk that could very well lead to success.  

They anticipate change – Getting the buy-in from team members is not the simplest task on a leader’s to-do list. For a project to be successful, the efforts of each stakeholder should be put forth whole-heartedly. Part of the leader’s job is to know the background of each team member, as it plays a monumental role in how they think about and approach assignments.

A transformational leader should go into conversations anticipating what will need to shift in order to get the best results for the project and the organization. 

They communicate – Leaders who get results are those who listen to ideas from all sources and refrain from responding with snap judgements or reactions. Instead, they make themselves open to the talents on their team, knowing that they can come from anyone and anywhere. As importantly, they remain aware of how to make their team members feel heard and how often.

They are loyal – In leadership, loyalty is synonymous with buy-in. For a plan to be successful, a leader and all stakeholders have to believe in the future of the project at hand. This doesn’t mean blind fidelity.

Rather, a leader should always remain open to adjustments that may need to occur if a plan goes off course, while remaining loyal to the goal and respectful of the journey it takes to get there. 

They can see the forest for the trees – It’s easy to become so caught up thinking about the end-point of a project that we forget the role it plays in the grand scheme of things. Organizations achieve optimal success when they create opportunities for clients to improve their own lives by way of the products and services they offer. Apple, for example, not only introduces new products on a frequent basis, but offers products designed to inspire consumers to become more creative, better informed, and more healthy. A client wants to know 1) is the product good quality, and 2) will it help me to become and do my best? A transformational leader will keep this at the forefront of their mind.

They have integrity – Integrity means doing the right thing even if nobody is looking. Similar to an ethical leader, a transformational one will inspire others by the way they live. A genuine heart leads to trustworthy character – the kind of person employees can believe in and will work hard for.

They believe – The way a leader carries themself plays a significant role in how comfortable team members are in their presence, which affects the quality of the work they deliver.

Like anyone, team members thrive when they feel seen as valuable contributors.

When a leader approaches team members with a posture of appreciation and respect, team members feel seen. They understand that their leader believes in the work being done, and that they are welcome to bring their best efforts to the job at hand.

What is transformational leadership in nursing

nurse leadershipIn nursing – there’s a need that must be met, the goal is clear, and all medical staff know what part they play in reaching the goal.

The purpose of transformational leadership in nursing is to assure every individual on the team believes in the significance of their work and feels appreciated for the role they play. This creates an environment where every employee is able to work to their full potential.

The benefits of transformational leadership in nursing are:

  • Improved patient care
    Stellar patient care is accomplished when two things coexist: clinical experience and clear communication. Transformational leadership can refine the way healthcare teams communicate. Improved communication in healthcare equals less frequent misunderstandings, greater synchronicity, and much better patient care.
  • Higher employee satisfaction
    Employees are motivated and inspired when healthcare and nursing leaders empower their teams to take charge and make decisions. Giving them charge allows them to take responsibility for team-achieved success. Like in all fields, job satisfaction increases when employees are trusted, and team leads emphasize each team member’s value.
  • Increased retention
    Employees who feel that their work is appreciated are more likely to stay. Increasing retention rates empowers team leaders to form a team that is dedicated to the organization’s success.
  • Lowered costs
    When it comes to paying for healthcare, transformational leadership can directly affect the decisions made. Improved care leads to a reduced likelihood of lawsuits and mistakes that could cost the company money. Increased retention means more money saved that would otherwise be spent training new employees or fixing errors.

Transactional VS Transformational Leadership

Where transformational leadership seeks to inspire, transactional leadership is dependent upon team members who are self-motivated. 

When you think of transactional leadership, your mind likely focuses on what you already know to be true – that a transaction is an action taken to reach a goal. Transactional leadership is the same.

Transactional leadership isn’t something that can be applied to every single team or project. Remember that a good leader will know which leadership style will best suit each individual team member. To know if transactional style is your dominant trait as a leader, or to see if this is the style that a particular project will benefit from, evaluate the presence and use of these characteristics associated with the transactional leadership style:

Bill Gates – Gates was known to visit new teams in the early years of Microsoft. He would grill them with difficult questions until he was convinced they understood his vision and company goals enough to deliver to his exacting specifications.

Howard Schultz – Many believe Shultz to be the founder of Starbucks, but he actually started off as an employee long before anybody outside of the Seattle area had ever heard of the company. He actually clashed with the founders and never quite aligned with the company’s original vision. But with the help of investors, Schultz later bought the company and turned it into the caffeinated powerhouse that it is today.

Vince Lombardi – Transactional leadership is often associated with athletics, and it’s with good reason. In nearly a decade as coach for the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi repeatedly drilled his players with the same plays. He knew what worked, and as a transactional leader, he wasn’t willing to change course just to throw off their opponents. He knew how to get the ball into the endzone, and that’s what he believe counted.