What Is Transformational Leadership? Your 2024 Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Explore why transformational leadership matters and how it differs from other leadership styles. Then, get some tips on developing your transformational leadership style. Doing so can help inspire and motivate your employees.

[Featured Image] A woman leads a team meeting.

To understand the term "transformational leadership," consider companies that appear to have it all. Employees look inspired and engaged, the work culture flows with positivity and innovation, and everyone seems to work toward a common goal. This work environment doesn't happen by accident. It occurs through transformational leadership. 

Read this guide to learn more about this leadership style and why some companies respond so well to it. You'll get a clear definition of transformational leadership and learn more about transformational leaders, including four key characteristics they exhibit and how they compare to other types. You'll also get some tips on developing your transformational leadership skills.

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What is transformational leadership?

The word "transformational" comes from the word "transform," which means to "change in form, appearance, or structure."[1] Sociologist James Downton coined the term "transformational leadership” in 1973. He defined it as influencing followers and changing processes to achieve better results and positively affect the greater good. 

Further defined by leadership expert James Burns and psychologist Bernard Bass, transformational leadership now spans many industries, from business and manufacturing to transportation. Transformational leaders articulate an organizational mission (or purpose), provide a vision for where the organization should be in the future, and encourage and mobilize employees to play a role in the organization's success.

The 4 I's of transformational leadership.

As part of his transformational leadership theory, Bass proposed four key components of transformational leadership that remain popular today. Now commonly known as "the Four I's," these include:

1. Idealized influence

Transformational leaders influence employees in many ways. For instance, they often have a charismatic personality, model good social and ethical behavior, and have enthusiasm for their work. They also build trusting relationships within the workplace, so employees want to follow their lead. 

2. Inspirational motivation

Transformational leaders impart a clear vision for the company and motivate others to participate in achieving the vision. They do this by setting high standards for themselves, meeting or surpassing their expectations, and showing passion for their work.

3. Intellectual stimulation

Transformational leaders invite employees to contribute creative ideas and be part of an organization's decision-making process. Doing so helps encourage innovation in the workplace. They also believe in ongoing learning, education, and personal development for employees. 

4. Individual consideration

Transformational leaders believe in supporting employees on an individual basis. They accomplish this by establishing strong relationships with open communication. This behavior encourages a free flow of ideas and makes employees feel like more valued members of the organization.   

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Benefits of transformational leadership

As mentioned, transformational leadership can help provide a clear vision for a company, increase employee motivation, and boost creativity and innovation, but this type of leadership offers even more benefits. These might include:

  • Higher employee productivity

  • Greater enthusiasm at work

  • Better communication among employees

  • More integrity in the workplace

  • A healthier work culture

  • Greater loyalty to the organization

  • Reduced employee turnover

  • Better adaptation to change within the workplace

  • More commitment to achieving company goals

How do transformational leaders compare to other types of leaders?

To get a clearer understanding of the characteristics of transformational leaders, it helps to compare them to other types of leaders. Explore the bullet points below to see the differences in style between authoritarian, democratic, laissez-faire, transactional, and transformational leaders:

  • Authoritarian/autocratic: Focuses on strict command and control of workplace operations; makes decisions without much input from employees

  • Democratic: Always encourages participation from employees; asks for input when making decisions

  • Laissez-faire: Delegates tasks to employees; offers very little guidance; leaves decision-making to others

  • Transactional: Sets clear roles and expectations in the workplace; provides direction and close supervision; motivates employees through reward and punishment

  • Transformational: Inspires and motivates employees to perform their best by being a good role model and providing a clear vision; has a strong belief in coaching and mentoring others

When transformational leadership doesn't work

Although many organizations benefit from transformational leaders, some do better with other types of leaders. Companies that focus on short-term goals or strict supervision, like sales or manufacturing firms, often are more successful with a more transactional leadership style. 

How to develop your transformational leadership style

Whether leaders are born or made remains debatable, but all types of leaders can develop a more transformational leadership style. To become a more transformational leader at your place of work, remember the Four I's: idealized influence, inspiration, intellectual stimulation, and individual support.

To influence employees in positive ways:

  • Be friendly and approachable.

  • Build trust by showing employees they can depend on you.

  • Model qualities like passion, honesty, integrity, and a good work ethic.

  • Dress for success, use positive body language and make eye contact when communicating.

To motivate and inspire employees:

  • Demonstrate belief in them by delegating responsibility and authority.

  • Encourage creative ideas.

  • Ask employees for advice and feedback.

  • Highlight employee accomplishments.

To stimulate employees intellectually:

  • Have regular brainstorming sessions for new projects or product ideas.

  • Challenge employees to think outside the box when solving problems.

  • Encourage a "learning through mistakes" mentality.

  • Provide a workplace that encourages creative and critical thinking.

To provide individual support:

  • Practice your communication and active listening skills.

  • Provide opportunities for individual coaching and mentoring.

  • Offer employee training that plays to each individual’s strengths and interests.

  • Check in periodically with employees to learn about them and build relationships.

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Article sources

1. Dictionary.com, "Transform, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/transform." Accessed April 4, 2024.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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