Updated: Sep 5, 2020
According to language backed by decades of research from Industrial-Organizational Psychologists Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio, Transformational Leadership can be succinctly defined as an approach to leadership that actively works to transform one's followers into leaders of their own (Bass & Avolio, 2004).
Since its formal description in 1985, dozens of researchers have studied Transformational Leadership for its validity, effectiveness, and true expressions around the world. It has been often scrutinized for its changing definitions, ambiguous terminology, and susceptibility for misrepresentation (and sometimes outright abuse). Critics argue that how one person interprets Transformational Leadership at one point in time might be entirely different from how another person does five years into the future—and the outcomes of these different interpretations vary wildly.
But the benefits of a leader that truly works to transform their followers into fully developed leaders of their own are hard to deny. The very measures that current evidence-based criteria use to identify Transformational Leadership speak to its substantive value to workplace well-being and functionality. These criteria are defined as a leader’s ability to: build Trust, act with Integrity, Encourage others, stimulate Innovation, and Develop their followers (Bass & Avolio, 2004). Taken at face value, none of these qualities should have the power to elicit negative consequences.
But true understanding of a topic is rarely obtained by taking information at face value.
Truthfully, much of what gives the Transformational Leader its influence can be faked. It can be misconstrued and twisted to other ends—so much so that it is sometimes measured against a concept known as Authentic Leadership just to avoid dangerous misinterpretations (Bass & Avolio, 2004). Transformational Leadership is particularly susceptible to these pitfalls because the humanistic skills it demands are difficult to truly pin down in everyday behavior. Trust can be built under false pretenses; integrity can be no more than an act; encouragement, innovation and development can be fostered to less-than ethical ends.
I describe here five discrete action items a leader can take to develop their abilities as an authentic transformational presence within their team or organization. Taken in good faith, these five items have the power to bring about dramatic, positive transformations in a leader’s team, organization, or other followership.
To avoid subscribing oneself to an unrealistic and often confusing ideal, I encourage readers to think of these items not as a means of becoming a Transformational Leader, but rather as a means of serving as a force of transformation among their followers.
Trust allows followers to believe the words coming from their leader’s mouth. It enables them to be authentic with their leader, and lean on them for support and direction. While deep, substantive trust must be built through consistent effort and time, there are changes a leader can make today to start building the trust of their followers.
They can commit to speaking with their followers with honesty and transparency. Honesty in this sense is defined as an unwillingness to misconstrue or misrepresent factual information in one’s communication, while transparency is defined as an unwillingness to hide or conceal pertinent information.
In the uncertain times we find ourselves in today due to the coronavirus, your followers are looking to you more than ever for information and guidance.
An honest attempt at providing this information might involve telling your followers (in no uncertain terms) that lay-offs are a possibility—as hard as that conversation may be. This conversation might include a truthful explanation and/or justification for this decision in certain and specific terms. Trust cannot be built without this honesty. Even in the most adeptly dishonest of leaders, followers invariably become privy to lies, misdirection, or obfuscation. They silently come to judge that they cannot trust their leader.
Similarly, a transparent attempt at providing information in this same scenario might involve admitting that you do not have all the details with regards to the magnitude of layoffs. This can be an understandably uncomfortable task for many leaders, but if you truly do not have the information you need to answer your follower’s questions (and they likely know you don’t already), then it is important that you openly communicate this to them. Achieve even greater transparency by describing all the steps you are taking to find the information that you lack. Trust will follow.
In my personal estimation, integrity is the single most important trait a leader can possess. It is also a notoriously loaded concept that can be difficult to define, measure, and predict. A leader displays integrity when their actions and behaviors reflect the messages and words they project to others; when they not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk.
If you have ever found yourself telling your followers that they should do as you say and not as you do, then you can expect them to rate you quite lowly on a scale of integrity. If you’ve ever found yourself telling them that the rules and messages set forth by leadership are just there for show you can likely expect the same result.
Building integrity is not a simple process, but leaders can begin easily enough by taking inventory of the expectations they set forth for their team. What kind of culture do you profess to support for your people? Think about it. Write it down if you have to. Take a look at your company’s mission statements. Reflect on some of the phrases and language you repeat to your staff.
Can you point to actions of yours that align with this messaging? Can you point to actions of yours that go against it? When contemplating raises, bonuses, and promotions, do you typically give these rewards out to individuals who reflect these messages or not? Take an honest look. Ask a trusted colleague if you wish (although consider whether they’re the kind of colleague that would just tell you what you want to hear). If you find a disconnect between your messaging and actions, find simple changes you can make today to bridge that disconnect and commit to them.
Most people are naturally drawn to all the things that are wrong in our lives. We selectively tune into information pertaining to error, conflict, and areas for improvement over information pertaining to proficiency, agreement, and excellence. Cognitive psychologists call this the Negativity Bias.
I am guilty of demonstrating the Negativity Bias when I push through the doors of a movie theater after watching a multi-million dollar feature film only to have my mind flooded by all the things I didn’t like about it. Later on I may conclude that there were many things I did actually enjoy about the movie, but directly after watching it all I could think about were the things I did not enjoy.
Unfortunately, this bias towards negative information is something that is often brought into the workplace. It can lead to managers that only focus on bad behavior, which makes positively-minded encouragement a complicated task.
Employees engage in exceptional behavior every day. They often do so without prompting, and without recognition. Over time, this lack of recognition does little else beside foment frustration and deincentivize excellence in the future.
Leaders who wish to serve as a transformational force in their organizations must work to overcome their Negativity Bias and actively encourage good behaviors when displayed by their team.
Leaders may start by thinking back to workplace problems they had in the past but no longer experience now. These don’t have to be massive improvements; they could be small things that just make the day go by smoother. Was anyone on your team responsible for making that change? Go ahead and acknowledge that change. Tell your team member that you see their efforts, appreciate them, and value their contributions to the company. Doing so would constitute one small step towards building positive encouragement among your followers.
Innovation is a concept any business-minded person should be entirely familiar with. Innovation drives change and novelty, and gives organizations a constant competitive edge in demanding, volatile markets. But the process of encouraging a truly innovative work culture is neither simple nor easy to accomplish.
By definition, innovation requires risk, and risk necessitates the occasional failure. To generate innovation, leaders must be comfortable with this—an understandably difficult pill to swallow for many.
But there are steps that leaders can take to ensure that the failures they encourage result from calculated risks and experimentation as opposed to simple incompetence or disorganization. This is often a delicate task, and is the subject of an emerging field of study in business management and leadership studies today.
A recent article by Gary Pisano which received the Harvard Business Review’s first ever Clayton M. Christensen prize for excellence offers guidance for organizations seeking to overcome this dilemma. Among other things, Pisano writes that organizations must explicitly define and communicate their expectations for competent behavior in the workplace. By making these expectations clear, failures that fall within this framework may be understood as learning experiences and the necessary consequences of innovative behavior (Pisano, 2019).
Pisano’s article does a wonderful job describing the many challenges organizations may face when attempting to foster effective innovation, and is a fantastic supplemental read for any leader looking to master this delicate craft.
To effectively facilitate transformation among their followers, leaders are encouraged take a personalized stake in their followers’ professional development. This means setting aside broad stroke policies and one-size-fits-all ideas in favor of individualized solutions and coaching strategies.
While doing this may appear to be an overly labor-intensive task, strong, individualized consideration in the workplace has been shown to directly correlate with job satisfaction (Rafferty & Griffin, 2006). This, in turn, can have a wealth of benefits in the form of increased pro-social behavior, engagement and compliance. In my eyes, these effects point to a workday with less stress and fewer headaches, not more. Isn’t that worth the effort of getting to know the people with whom you work?
Adaptability is critical here, and learning how to approach leadership differently depending on the needs of the individual is the hallmark of a truly adept leader. Models such as Situational Leadership Theory offer a comprehensive means of adapting one’s leadership approach to develop individuals of any level into fully actualized leaders of their own. But to start this process, leaders need only to take the initiative to reach out and ask their followers what they can do to help. This simple action is an extremely powerful tool that can simultaneously build connections, remove barriers to communication, and open the door for effective individualized leadership.
Particularly today—during the isolation that your followers are feeling due to COVID-19—to see if they’re okay and ask what you can do to help can build a deeply personal relationship and ensure that your followers understand you have a personal stake in their needs, goals, and personal development.
To quickly build Trust, commit to speaking with your team with transparency and honesty.
To ensure you act with Integrity, take a sincere inventory of the relationship between your actions and messages.
To Encourage others, remember to actively work against the Negativity Bias and consider all the improvements your team has helped to build already.
To stimulate Innovation, lean into a tolerance of acceptable failure. Develop and communicate a set of competencies for your team to ensure that failures become learning experiences and not unsalvageable misuses of resources.
To Develop your team, commit to considering them on an individualized level. Ask what you can do for them and then commit to serving these needs to the best of your ability.
Leadership is a complex topic. After decades of research, scholars cannot agree on one true model that can produce the perfect leader.
The preceding offers only a rudimentary introduction into the concept of leadership as an instrument of transformation. Each of the preceding five items has a wealth of nuance to examine—both for their benefits and for their potential misuse. But good faith actors with a genuine interest in lifting their followers and their organizations to new productive heights with dignity and authenticity can implement these recommendations to set the transformative powers within themselves in motion.
Bass, B. & Avolio, B. (2004). Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire Manual (Third Edition). Menlo Park, CA: Mind Garden, Inc.
Pisano, G.P. (2019). The hard truth about innovative cultures. Harvard Business Review, 97(1), 62–71.
Rafferty, A.E. & Griffin, M.A. (2006). Refining individualized consideration: Distinguishing developmental leadership and supportive leadership. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79(1), 37-61.