In this series I plan to share key lessons I’ve learned about what drives or derails leadership, gleaned from both academic and consulting experiences over my 17 year career.
In my introductory article, I described how the series will unfold, and shared some reflections on why I think leadership is such an important topic. I also described how the first few topics I will write about summarize possible drivers of effective leadership which I learned from academic sources.
In the second article in the series, I described how charisma and inspiration might contribute to leadership effectiveness.
In this article, I’d like to summarize another framework which I believe contributes to effective leadership, and which has arguably gained the most attention among social science scholars in the last 40 years, transformational leadership (TFL).
I’ll describe what TFL is, why I think it’s so potent, what might be missing from it (i.e., two other complimentary styles called contingent reward and instrumental leadership), and what leaders should do to demonstrate it.
What is Transformational Leadership (TFL)?
TFL is a framework that emerged in the latter part of the 20th century, and attempted to explain how leaders could inspire and motivate followers to achieve extraordinary outcomes. It represented a break from more traditional characterizations of leadership that proliferated in the period preceding it. The earlier frameworks described leadership as a series of exchanges focused on fulfilling role and task requirements. By contrast TFL represented leadership as a charismatic, visionary, person-centric, aspirational, growth-inducing, role-modeling activity that created profound changes in followers and that led to unusually high motivation.
We could trace the genesis of thinking about TFL back four thousand years to Aristotle’s writings about how leaders should use rhetoric to influence others, but for our purposes I’ll mention a few modern precursors to TFL. In the mid-1900s, a German sociologist named Max Weber coined the term ‘charisma’ and introduced basic ideas of inspirational leadership. Several other thinkers in the political realm (Downton and Burns) followed in the 1970s and expanded descriptions of what prosocial, collective-oriented, inspirational leadership could involve. Also in the 1970s a prominent researcher named Robert House published the first psychological theory of charismatic leadership, which created a preliminary scaffolding upon which TFL would be built.
All of this activity culminated in the mid-1980s with the creation of the TFL framework by a researcher named Bernard Bass. His model would consume leadership researchers for the next 40 years (and counting). Below I will describe all the key behaviours mentioned in Bass’ framework, and I’ll also compare it to another less popular but still useful version of TFL created by a researcher named Podsakoff. First I’ll present the dimensions shared by Bass and Podsakoff, and then I’ll highlight a few unique features of Podsakoff’s more expansive model. Please note that if you’d like more description of the specific leader behaviours constituting any of the dimensions, you can scroll to the Appendix at the end of the article where I’ve captured each framework in more detail.
Charisma/inspirational motivation is the first dimension of TFL, and a style I wrote about in my first article in this series. This set of behaviours involves formulating and articulating a compelling vision, emphasizing the importance of the mission, role-modeling admirable behaviours, showing an ethical orientation, self-sacrificing, expressing energy and optimism about the future, and showing confidence that goals can be achieved.
Intellectual stimulation involves leaders encouraging innovation and creativity by asking followers to question their assumptions, reframe problems, and approach old situations in new ways.
Individual consideration involves treating others with respect and concern, recognizing the unique needs of individuals, and offering coaching and mentoring to encourage the growth of others.
In addition to the above dimensions which cut across both Bass’ and Podsakoff’s TFL models, Podsakoff also suggested adding two other dimensions.
Fostering the acceptance of group goals involves leaders encouraging collaboration among team members, asking staff to be ‘team players,’ and building a sense of team spirit within the group. This is similar to the ‘team builder’ dimension I cited in the previous article, which the GLOBE research project identified as a style that’s endorsed as effective by all major societal cultures across the world.
High performance expectations involves leaders seeking excellence and the highest levels of performance, and in turn setting those standards for the team. This dimension also converges with GLOBE’s findings, which reveal that people around the world include this characteristic in their definition of effective inspirational leadership.
Why is TFL so potent?
TFL predicts a range of desirable outcomes, like follower job performance, job satisfaction, motivation, citizenship behaviour, and commitment to stay with the organization (among others). Why?
There are several reasons why I think this particular leadership style might be so effective.
First, TFL fosters an emotional connection to the leader, to the vision, and to the collective team. These emotion-based bonds are often enduring, play a significant role in animating follower actions, and may encourage people to self-sacrifice for the good of the team.
Second, TFL appeals to people to join the pursuit of something bigger than themselves, sometimes based on higher-order values (e.g., ‘this goal is the right thing to do, and we have a duty to pursue it,’ or ‘we’re not just making medical devices, we’re changing lives’). Responding to this call to a higher purpose is attractive to many, perhaps because it infuses a sense of meaning and importance into people's lives.
Third, TFL involves the leader demonstrating many prosocial behaviours, like considering ethical perspectives, supporting the development of others, and showing belief in the capabilities of team members. It seems likely that most people would be attracted to these positive aspects of human behaviour.
Fourth, the part of TFL that is less emotional, intellectual stimulation, can still be very satisfying for followers. It can change the way people think about problems and solutions, promote agency and independent thought, and encourage a continuous improvement mindset. It can also foster an inclusive and participative problem-solving environment within the team.
Fifth, TFL describes a form of leadership with flattened power dynamics. TFL isn’t about controlling others, it’s more about motivating, facilitating, and empowering. TFL isn’t about conforming, it’s more about uplifting and enabling. While the leader is still assumed to possess authority, there is a sense that both leader and follower respect and show partnership to one another.
What might be missing from TFL?
As much as TFL describes an attractive leadership style, it may be useful to ask what’s missing from this framework. When I share the TFL model with executives, I’m sometimes left with the impression it doesn’t resonate. If this is true, one reason could be that it doesn’t portray the everyday management, executional, and work facilitation tasks that fill the days of many leaders. After all most executives don’t hang around in ‘pure TFL mode’ all day, visioning on their white-boards, thinking about which metaphors and colourful language to use to motivate their team. Rather they’re involved in direct and practical efforts to advance their agendas.
The two leadership styles I’ll mention here portray some of these practical realities. They aren’t formally included in the TFL framework, but I think compliment it and should be considered alongside it, to create a more complete portrait of how effective transformational leadership could operate.
When Bass created his model of TFL he also created a dimension called ‘contingent reward,’ but placed it in a separate category called Transactional Leadership. It was housed in that category alongside other ineffective and progressively more passive-avoidant styles of leadership. Despite this initial branding problem for contingent reward, over time researchers discovered that it produced similar positive outcomes as TFL, though in a more muted way. So it predicted things like job performance, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment among followers just like TFL, but with slightly less strength. (In terms of the pattern of predictive relationships, it was like the acoustic version of TFL.) Because contingent reward tends to create the same kinds of positive impacts on followers, and because it's an active and engaging style of leadership (very different from the passive-avoidant styles it's classified with) I tend to think about it as a close relative of the TFL family. For practical purposes, I think any leader striving to demonstrate TFL behaviours should also work to include contingent reward in their repertoire.
So what is it? Contingent reward involves clarifying role requirements, obtaining follower agreement on what needs to be done, and rewarding and praising desirable outcomes. Another way to think about it is that it involves the leader providing positive reinforcement (e.g., a compliment, public recognition, an agreed-on reward) for achieving agreed-on objectives. It’s a kind of exchange, involving setting up a contract of sorts, and then providing the reward as promised and on cue. It’s based on the good faith of the parties. It’s not sexy, but it’s quite effective, I believe in part because it creates role/task clarity, provides positive reinforcement (i.e., not punishment or blame), and evokes a sense of fairness for team members on the receiving end of it. Both Bass and Podsakoff include contingent reward in their frameworks. If you’d like to see more specific descriptors of this dimension, scroll to the Appendix at the end of the article.
About ten years ago, two researchers named John Antonakis and Robert House (that prominent scholar I mentioned earlier) identified and elaborated upon several other missing pieces of the TFL framework. They called these behaviours instrumental leadership, and they described ways in which the leader plays a more direct role in supporting the team and delivering on the team’s work.
Antonakis and House described four areas of instrumental leadership. The first is environmental scanning, and involves identifying opportunities, constraints and needs within the organization.
The second area is strategy formulation and implementation, and involves translating the vision into specific goals and objectives, and ensuring the team understands those terms.
The third area is work facilitation, which involves providing the needed resources to the team, removing obstacles, and clarifying the path to achieving the goal.
The fourth area is outcome monitoring, which involves leaders providing constructive feedback about mistakes, while helping others learn about how to avoid them in the future.
What should leaders do to demonstrate TFL?
For the charismatic and inspirational parts of TFL, there are several key behaviours which leaders should strive to demonstrate. They involve creating and articulating a compelling vision; inspiring others by describing a compelling vision/goal; encouraging and building confidence among followers (e.g., ‘this is a hard goal, but I believe you/we can do this!’); demonstrating and encouraging thinking about morals and ethics during decision making; showing self-sacrifice in the interest of achieving the goal; and setting high performance expectations.
For individual consideration, there is often a tension between the desire of team members to consume coaching, and the time leaders have to provide it. In my experience, team members often want more coaching than their leaders can provide. Coaching team members to the degree they want might paralyze leaders and require them to ignore other critical priorities. Over many leadership engagements, I’ve found the best way to provide individual consideration is for leaders to a) set a regular cadence for coaching discussions (e.g., bimonthly to quarterly), b) keep the developmentally oriented coaching discussions separate from meetings discussing business topics (if possible), c) add a development item to all one-on-one business-focused meetings in cases where separate coaching meetings aren’t possible, and d) be available for real-time or just-in-time consultation should the team member need it (i.e., a great deal of coaching happens on the fly and in an acute moment of need).
For intellectual stimulation, leaders can use several strategies to bring this dimension to life. First they can seek out divergent perspectives from inside and outside the team. A great question to ask the team and other stakeholders is ‘how could we be totally wrong?’ Second, leaders can use the idea of ‘lenses’ to facilitate perspective-taking. Leaders could ask ‘what if we were the CEO, leader of function A/B/C, members of the Board, shareholders, community members… how would we look at this problem?’ Third, leaders can ask open-ended questions to provoke thinking without appearing heavy-handed. Start questions with ‘what, how, or why’ and try to avoid phrasing that guides the other party such as ‘do you think it’s the case that…?’ or ‘isn’t it true that…?’ Fourth, during team deliberations, ask your team to present one divergent, creative, or exploratory view on the topic at hand, in a way that stimulates new thinking about it.
To demonstrate contingent reward, leaders should create as much clarity as possible about roles, responsibilities, accountabilities, and possible rewards or incentives. Second, leaders should give agreed-on rewards when team members reach the goal. Third, leaders should seize ANY opportunity to give informal recognition when merited (e.g., compliment, public mention of someone’s excellent work). Fourth, leaders should also show appreciation to team members (this is different than giving recognition). This involves making a more personal comment about how much the individual is valued, like ‘I’m glad you’re part of this team’ or ‘we’re lucky to have you’ or ‘we all benefit from your skills.’
Finally, for all the TFL and instrumental dimensions, leaders could review the descriptors in the Appendix and rate themselves against them. Leaders can ask themselves, ‘which of these behaviours do I demonstrate?’ using a simple Yes or No response. Also, leaders can ask a trusted colleague who works with them closely to rate them on the same descriptors. Compare the results, and then discuss any differences with the colleague. This should generate some insight about what a leader’s doing well and what they could do differently.
In this article I’ve outlined the major parts of TFL, one of the most impactful and validated frameworks for effective leadership known to researchers. I’ve also described two additional leadership dimensions, contingent reward and instrumental leadership, which aren’t included in the TFL model but which can be considered important compliments to it. I’ve also shared some practical suggestions on how leaders could integrate TFL behaviours into their day-to-day work.
While there are many pathways to becoming an effective leader, one of the most reliable and well marked seems to be defined by the principles of Transformational Leadership. It provides a template for how leaders can influence followers in uplifting, constructive, compassionate, and mutually beneficial ways.
If you would like more specific descriptions of the leadership behaviours associated with any of these dimensions, please see the Appendix below.
As always I would welcome your feedback, positive or constructive, on anything you read, and I would love to learn from your perspective.
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Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has assessed and coached leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He's also worked with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.
Bass’ TFL framework
- Instill pride in followers for being associated with him/her
- Go beyond self-interest for the good of the group
- Act in ways that builds followers’ respect
- Display a sense of power and confidence
- Talk about their most important values and beliefs
- Specify the importance of having a strong sense of purpose
- Consider the moral and ethical consequences of decisions
- Emphasize the importance of having a collective sense of mission
- Talk optimistically about the future
- Talk enthusiastically about what needs to be accomplished
- Articulate a compelling vision of the future
- Express confidence that goals will be achieved
- Re-examine critical assumptions to question whether they are appropriate
- Seek differing perspectives when solving problems
- Get followers to look at problems from many different angles
- Suggest new ways of looking at how to complete assignments
- Spend time teaching and coaching
- Treat followers as individuals rather than just members of a group
- Consider individual followers as having different needs, abilities, and aspirations from others
- Help followers to develop their strengths
- Provide followers with assistance in exchange for their efforts
- Discuss in specific terms who is responsible for achieving performance targets
- Make clear what one can expect to receive when performance goals are achieved
- Express satisfaction when followers meet expectations
Podsakoff’s TFL framework
Articulating a vision
- Is always seeking new opportunities for the unit/department/organization
- Paints an interesting picture of the future for our group
- Has a clear understanding of where we are going
- Inspires others with his/her plans for the future
- Is able to get others committed to his/her dream of the future
Providing an appropriate model
- Leads by ‘doing’ rather than simply by ‘telling’
- Provides a good model to follow
- Leads by example
Fostering the acceptance of group goals
- Fosters collaboration among work groups
- Encourages employees to be ‘team players’
- Gets the group to work together for the same goal
- Develops a team attitude and spirit among his/her employees
High performance expectations
- Shows us that he/she expects a lot from us
- Insists on only the best performance
- Will not settle for second best
- Acts without considering my feelings (reverse scored)
- Shows respect for my personal feelings
- Behaves in a manner that is thoughtful of my personal needs
- Treats me without considering my personal feelings (reverse scored)
- Has provided me with new ways of looking at things which used to be a puzzle for me
- Has ideas that have forced me to rethink some of my own ideas I have never questioned before
- Has stimulated me to think about old problems in new ways
- Always gives me positive feedback when I perform well
- Gives me special recognition when my work is very good
- Commends me when I do a better than average job
- Personally compliments me when I do outstanding work
- Frequently does not acknowledge my good performance (reverse scored)
Antonakis and House’s instrumental leadership
- Understands the constraints of our organization
- Senses what needs to be changed in our organization
- Recognizes the strengths of our organization
- Capitalizes on opportunities presented by the external environment
Strategy formulation and implementation
- Develops specific policies to support his/her vision
- Sets specific objectives so that the mission can be accomplished
- Ensures that his/her vision is understood in specific terms
- Translates the mission into specific goals
- Removes obstacles to my goal attainment
- Ensures that I have sufficient resources to reach my goals
- Clarifies the path to my goal attainment
- Facilitates goal attainment
- Helps me correct my mistakes
- Assists me to learn from my mistakes
- Provides me with information concerning how mistakes can be avoided
- Provides me with constructive feedback about my mistakes