How to Grow from Transactional to Transformational Leadership

transformational leadership
Photo by Mark Angelo Sampan from Pexels

Why managers should aspire to go from transactional to transformational leadership

What is the hardest leadership role you have ever fulfilled? When people hear that I was a bomb disposal officer and have done multiple operational tours they naturally assume that it was in some warzone where my leadership was most tested. My leadership was certainly tested in these environments. I had to command soldiers and achieve missions but, in those early years of leadership, there was something I was lacking. That something was transformational leadership.

I only realised this when I was working for a non-profit start-up after leaving the Army. I was, among other things, employed as the Production Manager and this role meant I had to organise the set-up of all our events. Having worked on complex construction tasks as a project manager this was – in theory at least – a relatively straightforward task. But there was one major challenge. 

Event management

The preparation for our major events was driven by the set-up of the stage. This was the ‘critical path’ of activity. We had to erect the frame for the lighting and set up the speakers before the band could do their soundcheck. The band required a lot of time to do a soundcheck (picture a drummer tapping a snare long enough to induce madness) and after this was done they required a long practice too. Apparently, musicians can never have enough practice.  

All this meant, that when you worked back from the start time of the event, my team had to be in way earlier than everyone else because before anyone of this strutting, tuning or even setting up could take place, we had to unpack the store and move the equipment just to get to the start point. Our venue was a big West End theatre in London and Victorian-era theatres are built like rabbit warrens. Moving large equipment around required winches, mechanical lifts, and lots of shuffling, grunting and cries of “left a bit, left a bit, no LEFT!”

So, the task was complex and had a tight deadline, but it was certainly not insurmountable. I could plan each task and the time it would require. The critical nature of the task was not the challenge.

The difficult sell

The challenge came from the fact this set-up would require a large team and we – the organisation putting on the event – were a charity. We did not have the money to pay all the people needed to do this scale of work. So basically, I had to convince a bunch of volunteers to give up their free time and work for me, for nothing, and get up early (rather than have a nice lie-in) at the weekend.

A difficult sell? Well, it gets worse, because after the event, on the same day, we had to pull everything down again. This took several more hours, so by now, you are looking at a 10-12 hour working day, on your day off, for no pay. And the real kicker? We had to do this every single week throughout the year. Volunteers? Anybody?

But the amazing thing was, we pulled it off. In the process, I learned a lot about the true meaning of transformational leadership.

From transactional to transformational leadership

I already had a good knowledge of transactional leadership. This leadership style was one that I employed a lot as a project manager. Transactional leadership plays to the needs of individuals, using rewards, and where necessary disincentives or punishments, to ensure performance and the achievement of a goal. The approach plays on our basic needs, as per Maslow’s hierarchy, to ensure compliance.

Transformational leadership, by contrast, goes beyond just self-interest. It seeks to draw people to the highest point on the Maslow triangle – that of self-actualisation. To achieve this the transformational leader needs to inspire their team with a vision. This vision is so compelling that it encourages people to stretch themselves as individuals, to come together as a team, and to work together for long-lasting change.

Who developed transformational leadership theory?

The term transformational leadership was first coined by James Downton (author of Rebel Leadership) who conducted research on charismatic leaders. But the early theory was refined by James MacGregor Burns (1978) who differentiated leadership styles as either transactional or transformational. Burns used the lens of political leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr, to explore the idea of those who led positive social change. This positive change was one of the key hallmarks of transformational leadership.

“In real life, the most practical advice for leaders is not to treat pawns like pawns, nor princes like princes, but all persons like persons.” 

James MacGregor Burns

Bernard M Bass helped to further popularise the concept of transformational leadership in his book Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations (1985). He has continued his research and published a large number of influential research papers on the topic since then. Bass added to previous research by working out how the influence of a leader, and their degree of transformational effect, can be measured. 

Charismatic vs transformational leaders

Bernard Bass also helped to define the difference between charismatic and transformational leadership. Charisma plays an important role in transformational leadership as it is the means by which a leader communicates vision and inspires people. 

“Transformational leaders motivate others to do more than they originally intended and often more than they originally thought possible.”

Bernard M Bass

But charisma without social conscience can lead to negative extremes of leadership, as displayed by the likes of Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. The authentic transformational leader is not seeking to exploit others. They transcend their own personal interest for the sake of a larger, positive vision of the future. They also have the best interests of their followers at heart. These differences can be best seen in the four core components of transformational leadership.

The four key components of transformational leadership

The four components of transformational leadership are:

  • Idealised Influence 
  • Inspirational Motivation 
  • Intellectual Stimulation 
  • Individualised Consideration 

Idealised Influence 

The transformational leader creates idealised influence through being a positive role model to their followers. Their behaviour inspires others to higher standards of conduct. A transformational leader also demonstrates the willingness to take risks and displays confidence in overcoming obstacles.

Going back to my experience as a Production Manager the most important element of idealised influence for me was remaining calm. As a team we were always under time pressure and, more likely than not, we would face some issue or another on any given day. Remaining calm in the face of adversity helped everyone else to ‘keep calm and carry on,’ as the saying goes.

I also tried to set the example of work ethic. To do this, for this scenario, it was important that I was first to arrive and the last to leave. I got stuck in with the manual work and would take on the most difficult or unpleasant tasks if we were short-handed as a team. A good sense of humour also went a long way in setting the tone for the team. It was important that we had fun alongside working hard.

Inspirational Motivation 

Inspirational motivation goes beyond just leading from the front. This comes from effectively communicating a vision that brings meaning to the work of the team. The vision has to be compelling enough to capture people’s hearts and challenging enough to stretch people’s minds.

“The leader articulates a compelling vision of the future.”

Bernard M Bass

For us, the work we were doing, setting up events, was part of the much bigger picture. The organisation we were part of was committed to helping transform London.

London is an amazing place. It is a cultural geezer, a well-spring of politics, art and business. But hidden beneath the glare of the lights and smothered beneath the noise there is a lot of brokenness. Therefore, the vision was to build a community, in central London, to serve the city and see it renewed at every level.  It was a family of artists, accountants, musicians, bankers, teachers, emergency services workers – and everything in between – who wanted to inspire people to be better. Lawyers who wanted to see real justice, financiers who wanted to alleviate poverty and business leaders who did not measure success just by profit. 

It was incredibly exciting. I bought into that vision. I moved house and changed career to be a part of it. And, even though I was not the original dreamer of the dream, once I had captured the vision, I wanted to share it. 

So, my job as a leader was to connect the job we were doing to that larger vision and that is what we did at the start of every set-up. We gathered as a team to pray and remind each other of why we were giving up our weekends. There was no way I could have persuaded the teams to give up their time willingly if they did not buy into the mission.

Intellectual Stimulation

A transformational leader needs to provide intellectual stimulation to individuals in their team. This can be done by setting challenging goals, but perhaps more importantly, by encouraging creativity and allowing people to take risks. 

Manual labour – which is effectively what we were doing – did not seem to lend itself to creativity but there even I was surprised. Given the opportunity, the team brought innovative solutions to every part of what we did. Whether it was new storage solutions or ethical sourcing of products, each team member was able to bring ideas to improve our work. 

One simple idea that came from team members was eating together during the soundcheck. There was a slack time for us while this was going on and eating together brought social bonds beyond which we would have gained in just working alongside each other. Many deeper, long-term friendships were born out of these shared lunches. It taught me that any creative idea, no matter how small, can bring huge rewards if you are willing to experiment and try things out.

Individualised Consideration

A truly transformational leader gives special attention to every individual in their team. This is what is meant by individualised consideration. A good leader is always looking for learning and then supports the team member through their growth. As Bass puts it:

“The leader is individually considerate, providing the follower with support, mentoring and coaching

Transformational leaders also work to turn their followers into leaders. They empower individuals, set challenges, and help people to change expectations of what they can achieve. 

As Production Manager, my long-term goal was to do myself out of a role. I wanted to raise up new leaders to take over my position. The organisation was growing rapidly so there were plenty of other challenges for me to take on. Equally, if I failed to raise up new leaders, I would stymy the expansion of the organisation as a whole. Therefore, I systematically coached and mentored my team leaders. They all developed into excellent leaders and one of them did indeed go on to take over from me. It has been a great pleasure to see each of these leaders go on to success in their professional work in the subsequent years. Being part of their development journey, even in a small way, was a real privilege. 

Transforming your approach to leadership

Transformational leadership is a term often used but much less frequently understood. A true, authentic transformational leader is known by the following traits: they are a positive role model; they communicate a compelling vision; they embrace creativity and develop their followers into the leaders of the future.

It took a very different leadership challenge, that of leading volunteers, for me to fully grasp these lessons, but once learned I have not forgotten them since. In my subsequent jobs, I have continued to measure myself against these four key areas. That process of examining my practice against the standard for transformational leadership has changed me, as a leader and manager, for the better.

How about you? Would you describe yourself as a transformational leader? We can all find areas for improvement. Which area do you most need to work on? Why not take a couple of minutes now to think about what you can do today to develop your leadership. You might surprise yourself – the results can be transformational!

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