What is Transformational Leadership?

Sections of this topic

    Is Transformational Leadership Unique?

    Transformational leadership is the winner of the prize for the most researched, studied, and debated approach to leadership that has ever existed. It also has more influence than any other leadership approach on the organizational leaders of today. Although most of these leaders aren’t even aware it exists. I believe it is the approach to leadership most responsible for championing the notion that it is important for leaders to create a shared vision, develop and coach future leaders, encourage innovation in others, and act with high levels of integrity and ethics. The irony is that transformational leadership is also simply a compelling phrase used by many consultants and organizations – most of whom don’t even realize that an “official” approach with that name exists. It is a sexy term that is often used to build neat little models of leadership and hopefully score some coaching clients. And who can blame them? I mean, what have we to work with? Servant? Authentic? Situational?

    Bernard Bass is arguably the person whose head is most firmly wrapped around the “official” form of transformational leadership (see Transformational Leadership, 2nd Ed, Bass and Riggio, 2006). Bass and Bruce Avolio developed the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (see www.mindgarden.com) which has guided much of the research on this approach. The MLQ is intended to identify the extent to which a leader exhibits transformational leadership by surveying the followers of a specific leader.

    Basic Elements of Transformational Leadership

    Bass has identified four components to transformational leadership and has creatively figured out a way that all four can start with the letter “I” so that it might be called the 4I Model. In my mind these four components are in essence role modeling, motivating, developing, and encouraging creativity. Needless to say, these aren’t all that sexy, and truth be told they do not get at the complexity and richness of the 4I Model. In light of this, here is a breakdown of the 4I Model’s description of the key elements of transformational leadership.

    Idealized Influence

    This component states that transformational leaders act as role models and that followers will seek to emulate their behavior. In addition to being considered generally extraordinary leaders, the three attributes that ideally are demonstrated through Idealized Influence are a willingness to take risks, consistent (versus arbitrary) behavior, and high levels of integrity and ethics. I personally think that Idolized Influence would have been a more appropriate and decidedly tongue-in-cheek term for this component.

    Inspirational Motivation

    This component states that transformational leaders behave in ways that are inspirational to followers and provide meaning and a sense of challenge to their work. This is achieved in three different ways: involving followers in the development of a preferred vision for the future, communicating clear expectations, and demonstrating a clear commitment to the shared goals and vision of the group or team.

    Intellectual Stimulation

    This component states that transformational leaders include followers in addressing organizational problems and stimulate and support them in being as creative and innovative as possible in identifying solutions. The leaders accomplish this by encouraging followers to challenge assumptions, reframe problems, and approach existing problems in novel ways. This is all supposed to be done in a context in which no idea is considered too stupid.

    Individualized Consideration

    This component states that transformational leaders give individualized attention to each follower’s professional development by acting as a coach or mentor. The key element of this component is that customized learning opportunities are designed for each follower based on that person’s unique needs and desires. These learning opportunities are often delegated action learning tasks that the leader assigns and monitors.


    As previously stated, in my opinion, transformational leadership is the most influential approach and theory to leadership that exists today. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its detractors and it doesn’t mean that it has remained a uniform approach. It has come to mean many things to different people. What does it mean to you? Do you like it? Do you think it is going too far to say that it is more influential than other approaches? Why?