4 elements of transformational leadership

What are the four elements of transformational leadership? Are you a transformational leader – or headed there? Consider these four principles to inspire and motivate your team
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Of all the leadership theories that have been posited over the years, few have the enduring simplicity of transformational leadership. Originally conceived by James Burns and further developed by Bernard Bass, transformational leadership has provided inspiration and principles on which many other leadership theories have expanded. Its straightforward approach makes it easy for any leader to keep in mind as they go about their work.

What are the 4 elements of transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership rests on four simple principles:

1. Offer a strong, appropriate role model

Referred to in transformational leadership terms as idealized influence, being a role model includes things like standing up for what you believe in, following through on what you say you will do, demonstrating the highest levels of ethical behavior possible, admitting when you’re wrong, and acting in a socially respectable and appropriate way.

[ Read also: Transformational leader vs. transactional leader: Which do you want to be? ]

Leaders who bend the rules to suit their own needs or goals, who are in any way dishonest, or who make inappropriate remarks, whether openly or behind closed doors, do not (as authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner refer to it in their framework, The Leadership Challenge) “model the way.”

2. Take an interest in your team members

This should extend beyond simply learning the names of your employees’ spouses, children, or pets and their favorite hobbies. Aspire to understand their goals and dreams, what kind of work they do and don’t enjoy, and what they are passionate about.

This is called individualized consideration, and it is the pillar of transformational leadership. Taking an interest in their team members enables leaders to craft assignments and communications in the most effective way possible. 

Leadership is about relationships, and it won’t work very well if either side has no interest in the other.

Leaders who have no interest in people should consider a different role. Leadership is about relationships, and it won’t work very well if either side has no interest in the other. As a leader, you should be prepared to go first. Take a genuine interest in your team, and you’ll find that they will take an interest in you.

[ Is toxic leadership taking you down? Read also: How to deal with a toxic boss: 7 tips. ]

3. Create a compelling vision for your team

Do your team members understand how their work fits into the overall goals of the organization? Inspirational motivation is the third area of transformational leadership.

Transformational leaders talk in a positive yet realistic way about the work of the team and the mission and the positive impact of the organization. Everyone strives to find meaning in their work – if you’ve ever had had a job that lacked meaning, you know how soul-destroying it can be. Leaders who minimize or dismiss the value of work or who do not help people see how their contribution fits into the bigger picture will struggle to inspire those that they lead.

[ What are the characteristics of a transformational leader? Read also: What is transformational leadership? 5 qualities. ]

One of the most insidious but common examples of this is complaining about clients. Transformational leaders remind their teams that without clients the team would not exist. Holding up clients, no matter how frustrating they may sometimes be, is one of the hallmarks of an inspirational leader.

4. Provide intellectual stimulation

Being challenging and interested in one’s work is one of the biggest factors in discretionary effort – it’s the difference between what someone must do and what they want to do.

People generally work better when they are doing something that interests them, so providing intellectual stimulation benefits everyone. This is one of the reasons making the right hire in the first place is so important. Hiring someone for the help desk who loves technology but dislikes people is unlikely to work out. Similarly, hiring someone for a job that requires significant detail-oriented problem-solving skills when they prefer to do big-picture visioning will rarely work out, even in the short term.

An accountant friend of mine once noted that he didn't feel there was much opportunity for intellectual stimulation with his team, because their work didn't change much. I encouraged him to ask his team two questions: “What is it about your customers that drives everyone nuts?” and “What is it about you that drives your customers nuts?”

Both questions were answered through small focus groups (one with the team, one with customers), and the team was able to come up with many highly impactful process improvements from the information they collected. The lesson? There are very few situations where intellectual stimulation is not possible.

4 key questions: Are you a transformational leader?

Are you a transformational leader? Ask yourself these four questions to find out:

  • Are you demonstrating the highest standards of behavior and ethics?
  • Do you take a genuine interest in those you lead?
  • Do you articulate a clear and inspiring vision for your team?
  • Do you do whatever you can to make the work as interesting as possible?

While there are more complex, nuanced, and detailed theories of effective leadership, all leaders would do well to ask themselves the above questions on a frequent basis. Effective leadership is complex, but understanding the key foundations on which to build doesn’t need to be.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Drew Bird, MSc, MA, and author of "The Leader’s Guide To Emotional Intelligence," is a coach, trainer, facilitator and speaker. He is founder of The EQ Development Group. Over 20 years in the IT industry has helped Drew understand first-hand the opportunities and challenges senior leaders face in this complex field.

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