What is transformational leadership?

How can organisations build resilient, dedicated teams that feel engaged and connected to the business? One leadership style has built a long standing following for reaching just that goal. 

Transformational leaders build a shared purpose and consistently dedicate themselves to bringing out the best from their team members. 

In this guide, we explore how this concept started and grew over time. We will also look at how you can determine whether transformational leadership is the right path for your organisation.

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What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership is a leadership style that seeks to motivate followers through clear communication, inspiration and positive reinforcement. This leadership style is characterised by leaders who create a vision for the future, foster a sense of purpose and commitment among their followers, and encourage innovation and change.

The theory of transformational leadership

The concept of transformational leadership was first introduced by James MacGregor Burns. Burns was a leadership expert and author of the 1978 book, Leadership. In his book he defined transformational leadership as a relationship between leaders and followers where both raise the other to “higher levels of morality and motivation”.

Transformational leadership theory was expanded by Bernard M. Bass in his 1985 book, Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations. Bass sought to develop ways to measure transformational leadership and assigned traits of a transformational leader, such as:

  • Models desired characteristics like integrity and fairness

  • Encourages those around them

  • Establishes clear goals

  • Offers assistance and recognition

  • Sets expectations that others feel compelled to strive for

  • Promotes a broad perspective that is not self-centred

  • Inspires those around them to innovate

The four elements of transformational leadership

Bernard M. Bass expanded on the theory of transformational leadership and broke the concept into four key elements, sometimes called the “4 I’s”. These four elements collectively define transformational leadership and highlight the leader's role in inspiring and guiding followers. The four elements are:

  • Idealised Influence (II). Also known as charismatic leadership, this element involves the leader serving as a role model and exemplifying strong values, ethics, and morals. The leader's actions and behaviour should inspire admiration, trust, and respect among followers. 

  • Inspirational Motivation (IM). Transformational leaders are able to communicate a compelling vision of the future. They motivate their followers by articulating a clear vision, fostering a sense of purpose, and instilling enthusiasm for the vision. Transformational leaders help their followers understand the significance of their work and how it contributes to the organisation's success.

  • Intellectual Stimulation (IS). Transformational leaders encourage creativity, innovation, and critical thinking among their followers. They challenge the status quo and promote problem solving. These leaders promote a culture of continuous learning and growth.

  • Individualised Consideration (IC). To achieve this element, a leader should recognise and address the individual needs, strengths and aspirations of each follower. Transformational leaders help each individual reach their potential. By fostering a strong interpersonal connection, leaders create a supportive and empowering environment.

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Transformational leadership: Advantages and disadvantages

Embracing transformational leadership in your organisation offers several advantages and benefits, but it also comes with disadvantages and potential challenges. 

Advantages of transformational leadership

  • Increased motivation. Transformational leaders motivate their followers by creating a compelling vision and fostering a sense of purpose. This leads to higher levels of engagement and commitment among team members.

  • Enhanced performance. Transformational leaders encourage innovation, creativity and a willingness to go above and beyond. This often results in improved performance and higher productivity levels within the organisation.

  • Improved culture. Transformational leaders contribute to the development of a positive and supportive organisational culture where individuals feel valued.

  • Adaptation to change. Transformational leaders are skilled at managing change and guiding their teams through transitions. This helps their team members adapt to new challenges and opportunities.

  • Talent development. Transformational leaders prioritise the individual growth and development of their team members. This can lead to increased skills, confidence and career advancement for employees.

Disadvantages of transformational leadership

  • Dependency on the leader. The strong influence of a transformational leader can sometimes pose challenges when the leader is absent or when followers lack the ability to think independently.

  • Burnout risk. The high expectations and drive for continuous improvement could lead to burnout among both the leader and followers, as the pursuit of ambitious goals could result in excessive stress and pressure.

  • Resistance to change. Some individuals might be resistant to change or feel uncomfortable with the level of disruption that transformational leadership can bring.

  • Drain on the leader. The demands of maintaining a high level of inspiration and engagement can be time consuming and emotionally taxing for the leader.

Difference between transactional and transformational leadership

The primary difference between transactional and transformational leaders is in how they seek to achieve leadership goals. Transactional leadership relies on directives and a system of rewards and punishment to gain the desired response from employees. Transformational leadership instead seeks to inspire desired behaviours by appealing to an employee's motivations and values. 

Transactional leadership can suit stable environments where employees prefer clear hierarchy and static goals. Transformational leadership tends to excel when organisations are undergoing change or seeking to innovate because it promotes creativity and allows room for challenging the status quo. 

How can HR benefit from transformational leadership?

Human resources professionals are often tasked with helping organisations bolster engagement, navigate change and develop talent. Transformational leadership concepts can help HR contribute to a more engaged workforce, a positive work environment and change readiness. 

HR benefits from transformational leadership include:

  • Leadership development. HR can identify and nurture transformational leadership potential within the organisation. By providing training and development programs, HR can cultivate a pipeline of effective transformational leaders.

  • Navigating change. HR can lead through change by working alongside transformational leaders to facilitate smoother transitions and avoid uncertainty. 

  • Managing performance. Transformational leaders set high expectations and support employees in reaching their potential. HR can support these efforts with effective performance management processes that motivate employees and recognise outstanding achievements.

  • Employee development. Transformational leaders prioritise individualised growth for their employees. HR can support this by offering tailored development plans and opportunities that align with employees' strengths and aspirations.

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Examples of transformational leadership

Transformational leaders can be found across the corporate world, as well as in public institutions and individual activism.


The UK National Health Service (NHS) has embraced transformational leadership concepts as it navigates the many challenges before it. A study conducted by ACT Academy and reported in BMJ Leader explored how senior NHS leaders worked through transformational changes in their local areas.

The study found that the leaders created allegiance to the transformational change by connecting with employees on three levels: 

  • Relational. This was achieved through role modelling, honest conversations, personal relating, accessing executives and brokering with others.

  • With purpose and vision. This required framing the goals, creating ownership and translating ideas to the everyday.

  • Through practice. This was achieved through linking workstreams, gathering insights and developing processes.

NHS leaders were found to require leadership skills that build relationships while also developing allegiance to the system. 

Other examples of transformational leadership

  • Steve Jobs, Apple. The co-founder and former CEO of Apple is widely regarded for visionary leadership and innovative product development. He is credited with being a highly inspirational leader, but is also sometimes criticised for expecting too much from those he led.

  • Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code. The founder of the Girls Who Code nonprofit led the organisation to empower women and advocate for closing the gender pay gap in technology. Her book, Brave, Not Perfect, encourages readers to embrace imperfections and challenge societal expectations.  

  • Reed Hastings, Netflix. The co-founder of Netflix radically disrupted the entertainment industry and brought similar tactics to Netflix’s corporate culture. He created a culture guide for the company, which has been used in Netflix recruitment to weed out incompatible candidates.

  • Malala Yousafzai, activist. Malala advocates for girls' education and women's rights, even in the face of extreme adversity. Her courage and commitment to education have inspired people worldwide and brought attention to the importance of education for all. She has been recognised as a Nobel laureate for her efforts.

When to embrace transformational leadership

Transformational leadership has grown steadily in popularity since it was first discussed over 40 years ago. It seeks to motivate followers through inspiration, positive reinforcement and a shared vision for the future. In the right environment, transformational leadership can promote engagement and innovation while navigating organisational changes. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) on transformational leadership

Is transformational leadership effective?

Transformational leadership can be highly effective in organisations navigating change or seeking to build through innovation. It does not work optimally in organisations with a high level of change resistance or where employees prefer more structured direction.

Is transformational leadership a model or a style?

There is no substantive difference between defining transformational leadership as a model or a style. Regardless of the terminology used, transformational leadership is a well established concept in leadership theory, known for its focus on inspiring and motivating followers to achieve higher levels of performance and personal growth. 

When should you use transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership is most effective in situations that require change, innovation or a strong sense of purpose. It is not a solution for every scenario and requires that you assess your organisation’s needs and culture as well as your team’s willingness to embrace change.

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