What you’ll learn about transformational leadership:
- In the midst of the Great Resignation, current employees and candidates are looking for leaders that match their values.
- Transformational leadership was first defined by leadership expert James MacGregor Burns.
- Transformational leaders encourage, inspire, and motivate employees to create change and innovate.
It’s no secret that we’re living through a pretty unique time in the workforce. People are leaving their jobs in hordes—a trend aptly named the Great Resignation—and they’re going in search of workplaces that pay better, are remote-forward, and are better aligned with their values.
Leaders have an important role to play in this shift. Candidates are keen to work with leaders who go beyond the operational aspects of the business. They want leaders that are committed to reshaping what it means to work for their company, focusing more on people, community, and sustainability.
To get this right, executives need to adopt and embody the practice of transformational leadership. In this post, we’re exploring what that means. Let’s get started.
First Things First: What Is Transformational Leadership?
The concept of transformational leadership was first introduced by leadership expert and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns. In his definition, transformational leadership happens when “leaders and followers make each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation.” More specifically, through the strength of their vision and their personality, transformational leaders inspire their employees to change their expectations, perceptions, and motivations, so that they can work together towards a common goal.
In the 70s, researcher Bernard M. Bass continued to build on this concept, developing a model for transformational leadership that has four key components.
- Intellectual stimulation. Transformational leaders challenge the status quo while fostering creativity. They encourage people to learn and explore new ways of doing things.
- Individualized consideration. Transformational leaders develop supportive relationships, keeping open lines of communication and creating spaces for people to share their ideas and get recognition for their unique contributions.
- Inspirational motivation. Transformational leaders have a clear vision and they have the ability to get people excited about that vision.
- Idealized influence. Transformational leaders should demonstrate the traits they want to infuse into the rest of the organization.
Despite being 50 years old, this model is still an effective leadership style. Authenticity and passion never gets old; it’s a driver that encourages people across industries—and it’s particularly effective in high-paced industries like tech and marketing.
What Does It Take to Be a Transformational Leader Today?
Today’s transformational leaders stand out against executives in a number of ways.
They prioritize motivation and positive development for their teams. They foster ethical work environments with clear values and standards. They make decisions that focus on the common good. They reflect authenticity, cooperation, and open communication back to their employees. They find a sustainable balance of supporting their employees while also giving them ownership.
These are all inspiring traits, and might feel like they need to be deeply embedded into your psyche to make you a transformational leader—but they can actually be developed over time.
How to Become a Transformational Leader
If we look back at Bass’ model, there are four clear steps that guide people towards becoming transformational leaders.
1. Create an Inspiring Vision (and Share It)
What is it that you want to accomplish? What are your goals for the organization? What’s the purpose of the business? These are all things that should be addressed in your vision, and communicated to your teams.
A couple of things that’ll make your vision successful: it should be aligned with the overarching values of your workforce and should be executable by the people you have at your disposal (or backed with a targeted hiring and upskilling plan).
2. Motivate Your Team to Deliver Your Vision
Build a call to action that’s based on your vision. What is it that you want your teams to accomplish—both collectively and separately? Note that this can look like different things for each team. For example, your marketing team might have goals that ladder up to your vision that are different from the ones set by your software engineers.
Make sure you also connect your vision to the problem you’re trying to solve and the people you’re trying to help. Whether that’s your customers are your local community, it’s best to give your employees an understanding of who they’re supporting.
3. Manage the Delivery of the Vision
A vision on its own isn’t going to get anywhere. It needs to be parsed down into individual work units that all come together to execute it. Here, you’ll need a blend of project and change management. Start by bringing together your team leads and work with them to set specific tasks for each group. Then, empower them to communicate and manage those projects, and share updates with you and other executives on a regular basis.
4. Build Trust With Your People
As you empower your teams to run with the projects that ladder up to your vision, there’s still an important role for you to play: focusing on your people. Take the time to meet individually with people to understand their development needs and how you can help them. In these conversations, take the time to share your own experiences and let them in on what you’re trying to accomplish yourself. If people are able to see you as a person, one that’s relatable and supportive, they’ll be more likely to trust you.
You should also be a resource for your people. If someone comes to you explaining a barrier that’s getting in the way of their project, use your influence to give them the tools they need or connect them to the right stakeholders. As a leader, you should be an enabler.
Why We Need Transformational Leaders
With so much change happening for businesses—from an evolving workforce to the growing use of technology in product development and operating remote-first environments—transformational leaders are a must. They are the ones best equipped to steward these changes and empower their workforce to transform successfully.
To all the transformational leaders out there: we salute you. You’re the ones bringing about the change we want to see.
Photos by Chris Lawton.