In this blog, I want to discuss a leadership approach that has been growing in popularity, not just in management and psychology, but in “disciplines such as nursing, education, and industrial engineering,” (Northouse, 2016, p. 161). Bryman (1992) considers this approach a part of the “New Leadership paradigm;” in fact, Lowe and Gardner (2001) found that over one-third of articles published in Leadership Quarterly were written about this approach (as cited in Northouse, 2016, p. 161). The approach I am referring to is called Transformational Leadership. As the name implies, transformational leaders transform their followers (Northouse, 2016). According to Northouse (2016), transformational leadership concerns itself with “emotions, values, ethics, standards, and long-term goals;” the leader examines her followers’ motivations/needs and treats them as human beings (p. 161). When we think of such leaders, the names of “John F. Kennedy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.” might come to mind (Penn State University World Campus [PSU WC], 2016, L. 10). However, in this blog post, I will show how an ordinary person can also display transformational leadership abilities.
A unique feature of transformational leadership is that the leader expects the followers to push their limits – to do more than their contractual obligations. The leader attains this by selling a bright future to her followers. According to Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy (2012), transformational leaders are able to excite their followers and develop a strong emotional bond with them (as cited in PSU WC, 2016, L. 10). Burns (1978) helps separate transactional leadership from transformational leadership (as cited in PSU WC, 2016, L. 10):
Transactional leadership: This is a leadership type we mostly see in other leadership models. The relationship between the follower and the leader is mostly an exchange of meeting organizational goals; there is no bond between these individuals that persists beyond the transaction. Most importantly, this type of leadership rarely results in organizational change.
Transformational leadership: This type of leadership style attempts to elevate the organization to a higher level. The leader achieves this by tapping into the follower’s “sense of higher purpose,” and by creating a connection with the followers, which serves to increase the followers’ motivation levels (PSU WC, 2016, L. 10, p. 3).
The positive benefits of transformational leadership have inspired many researchers to devote a lot of their time to identifying the unique characteristics of such leaders. That said, we cannot fully understand the leadership picture without studying the follower and situational characteristics as well (PSU WC, 2016, L. 10, p. 3). According to PSU WC (2016, L. 10), leader characteristics of this approach include “vision, rhetorical skills, image and trust building, [and] personalized leadership”; follower characteristics include “identification with leader and vision, heightened emotional levels, willing subordination to the leader, [and] feelings of empowerment”; and situational characteristics include “crises, [and] task interdependence,” (p. 4). Defining some of these characteristics will help better understand the leadership situation I will be presenting later in this post.
Let us define two of transformational leadership’s leader characteristics. First, transformational leaders hold the status quo in contempt. They look for problems and envision solutions that might lead to a better future (PSU WC, 2016, L. 10). Why was the iPhone so successful, especially when Blackberry had dominated the smartphone market? There are many factors to explain Apple’s success, but one cannot discount Steve Jobs’ ability in recognizing the problems of the previous system and envisioning a better solution. Second, transformational leaders use their rhetorical skills in selling their vision (PSU WC, 2016, L. 10). Using the earlier example, Jobs used his rhetorical skills to excite both his employees and his customers in embracing his vision of the future.
Now let us look at two follower characteristics. First, followers identify with the leader because they believe the leader’s vision can solve their current challenges (PSU WC, 2016, L. 10). I personally bought into Jobs’ vision. I saw the iPhone as the solution to my needs. Second, transformational leaders empower – they have the ability to elicit higher levels of performance from their followers (PSU WC, 2016, L. 10). It is known that Apple engineers worked tirelessly to create the product Steve had imagined.
Last, let us look at the situational characteristics of transformational leadership. First is crises. According to PSU WC (2016, L. 10), it is unlikely that a follower “content with the status quo” is going to accept or embrace a transformational leader; that said, crises prompt followers to look for transformational leaders (p. 4). This shows the importance of a situational characteristic for the success of this approach. Finally, task interdependence between followers is usually a prerequisite for leaders “to be seen as transformational,” (PSU WC, 2016, L. 10, p. 4).
What steps do transformational leaders take? According to both Northouse (2016) and PSU WC (2016, L. 10), transformational leaders usually: 1) empower their followers and align them toward the greater good, 2) serve as role models, 3) give direction, 4) perform change management, and 5) transform the norms, values, and culture of the organization.
These steps remind me of my former role as the managing director of a career development firm called ProLango. You might recall the economic changes of 2008 that resulted in large layoffs across the nation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016), the unemployment rate between January 2008 and October 2009 grew from 5 to 10%! As a result, many professionals found themselves having to compete in a saturated job market. In that period, many colleagues and friends reached out to me for help. In an effort and interest to help these individuals, I examined their job search strategies and noticed many flaws: 1) sending their resume without customizing it to the job description, 2) not differentiating themselves from others, and 3) relying heavily on online job boards. Their job search failures prompted me to envision a better way to go about the process. I started offering free job search seminars teaching job seekers to 1) customize their resume to the employer’s needs, 2) develop a differentiating value proposition, which helped highlight their unique features, and 3) network effectively with hiring managers. My approach caught on and the resulting word-of-mouth filled up my seminars. The Seattle Times asked me to write a column so more people could benefit from this advice. A local TV station started a new show called “How to Get a Job in Seattle” and made me the co-host. Professional associations and government organizations invited me to travel nationally to share this advice with their members and employees. What explains this success?
There are several factors. To start, I envisioned a new way to help solve these people’s problems. The strategies and advice I presented energized my followers; moreover, my empathetic style created an emotional bond between me and the job seekers. I was able to tap into my followers’ values/purpose/desires and energize them to push harder and expect higher levels of performance from themselves. It is important to note that my ideas at the time went against the status quo. I had to use my rhetorical skills to sell these new ideas and to create change in my followers’ behaviors. The follower characteristics were important as well. These job seekers had to identify with my vision; they had to see that my solution would solve their problems. Moreover, they had to become empowered; this was necessary if they were to increase their efforts. Finally, I could not have succeeded without the right situational characteristics. The crises created by the economy played a big role in my success. Followers, who would have settled for tried and traditional techniques, were open to a transformational leader. Additionally, my seminars were conducted in groups and the interdependence I created between these group members enabled them to rely on each other.
In summary, the success of my transforming a community of job seekers required me to empower my followers, serve as their role model, provide them with direction, change their behavior, and transform their job search strategy. Who would have known that years later I would take a Leadership in Work Settings class and find out that by happenstance I followed a recipe that is supported by research? It is important to note that this theory has been widely researched and there is plenty of evidence that this approach is effective as a leadership method (PSU WC, 2016, L. 10). For those of us wanting to become transformational leaders and/or to improve our transformational leadership ability, research has shown that this approach can be learned. Studies by Avolio and Bass (1998), Barling, Weber, and Kelloway (1996), and Dvir et al. (2002) have found that transformational leadership training can improve one’s leadership ability (as cited in PSU WC, 2016, L. 10).
I hope that this blog post provides anecdotal evidence that any one of us can become a transformational leader. More importantly, I hope that this post provides some useful steps on how one might want to embark in transforming others. Finally, with the right training, there is hope that many of us can increase our leadership ability and positively affect the bottom line of our communities and organizations.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016). Labor force statistics from the current population survey. Retrieved June 23, 2016 from http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2016). PSYCH 485 Lesson 10: Transformational leadership. Retrieved June 23, 2016 from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/su16/psych485/001/content/10_lesson/01_page.html.