Transformational Leadership Theory [Easy & Quick Explanation]

Transformational leadership is a relatively new approach to leadership that focuses on how leaders can create valuable and positive change in their followers. James MacGregor Burns first introduced the concepts of transformational leadership when studying political leaders, but this term is now used when studying organizations as well. Burns described two leadership styles: transactional and transformational.

Transactional leaders focus on gaining compliance by giving and withholding rewards and benefits. Transformational leaders focus on “transforming” others to support each other and the organization as a whole. Followers of a transformational leader respond by feeling trust, admiration, loyalty, and respect for the leader and are more willing to work harder than originally expected. Another researcher, Bernard M. Bass, added to the work of Burns by explaining the psychological mechanisms that underlie transformational and transactional leadership. Bass’ work established that transformational leaders demonstrate four factors: individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation (charismatic leadership), and idealized influence.

Transformational leadership theory is supported by nearly 30 years of research correlating transformational leadership to positive performance outcomes including individual, group, and organizational level variables. It also solidified the need to study followers in leadership research. Transformational leadership was the first developed and validated theory to emphasize morals and values in leadership. However, research on the theory is primarily based on the multifactor leadership questionnaire, which has produced inconsistent results. Research has also focused heavily on senior-level leaders. Transformational leadership also has the potential to be used negatively by leaders “faking it.” Regardless, transformational leadership theory is a valuable and widely used approach to studying and teaching leadership.


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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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