Is Transformational Leadership Overly Heroic?

Sections of this topic

    In Cater McNamara’s blog entry from earlier this week (“Are we Really Just Looking for Leaders to Save Us from Ourselves?”) he asks how much consultants fantasize when they come up with all the “wondrous traits” that the leaders of today are supposed to possess. I am not sure if it is fantasy, but certainly agree that it is not based in reality. I would like to keep in mind this question (i.e. is it fantasy?) in mind as we explore the theory of transformational leadership.

    Introduction to Transformational Leadership

    James MacGregor Burns was the first to talk about transformational (and transactional) leadership theory in 1978. It is relatively evident to me that the research, training, and academic teaching on transformational leadership has outpaced that of any other theory of leadership in the past twenty-eight years. There is an interesting phenomenon in the way that transformational leadership is almost never discussed, at least not at length, without differentiating it from transactional leadership. I will lend support to this claim by doing just that.

    What is Transactional Leadership?

    Transactional leadership is grounded in the notion that leaders lead through social exchange. That is, they offer rewards to followers, financial and otherwise, for meeting productivity and performance standards, and withhold rewards to followers if productivity and performance are considered deficient. These transactions are established by leaders specifying with followers the rewards that are available for meeting expectations.

    What is Transformational Leadership?

    The theory of transformational leadership views the transactional leadership style as appropriate in certain circumstances, and even as an extension of transformational leadership, but believes leaders must also attend to the sense of self-worth of followers and the garnering of full-fledged commitment to individual, team, and organizational objectives. In conducting a quick scan of the literature the following attributes and qualities of transformational leaders emerged: charismatic, inspirational, challenging, persuasive, intellectually stimulating, considerate, supportive, respected, risk-taker, coach, mentor, consistent, ethical, enthusiastic, encouraging, and personable. It is a long laundry list of worthwhile qualities and roles. But does it cross some line, intimated by Carter, which has the theory flirting with foolishness? I say “yes”, “no”, or “maybe”. In my mind, it depends on whose version of transformational leadership you embrace. I like the way that Bass delineates the main components by stating that transformational leaders should:

    • Inspire followers to extraordinary performance and to a shared sense of commitment to a vision for the organization
    • Encourage and challenge followers to be creative and innovative in their efforts to solve organizational problems
    • Focus on the development of the leadership skills of others through coaching, mentoring, and other forms of support


    While the proponents of transformational leadership, of which there are many, may excessively romanticize the theory at times, it is my opinion that the central components of the theory are just tangible and relevant enough to make it a valid and valuable leadership model. In future blogs, a more in-depth description and analysis of transformational leadership will be provided. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Is it too much, too little, or just right?