- Last Updated: Tuesday, 06 April 2021
Back in 1978, James MacGregor Burns published a book describing several different types of leaders and styles. Two of the most important styles that Burns identified within his theory were the transformational and transactional leaders.
Interestingly, Burns identified two other broader categories: amoral and moral leaders. For Burns, the amoral leader was not really a true leader at all. To be a leader, a person must be able to satisfy the motives of others. That is, they must find common ground with their followers and thereby help motivate them to action.
Amoral leaders (leaders without any moral character) were really “power wielders” in Burns’ opinion, and were primarily interested in satisfying their own needs, regardless if this need satisfied those being led. For example, a power wielder might rule through fear rather than using charisma or another form of influence.
Burns scorned such rulers, and did little to build any association between them and what he viewed as true leaders. Unfortunately, amoral leadership continues to exist even in today’s world.
Transformational Leadership Style
The transformational leadership style is said to occur when one or more persons engage in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. This is almost like a synergy that might exist, whereby everyone gets raised to a higher level of performance.
Mahatma Gandhi is a great example of a transformational leader, because he satisfied the needs of his followers. But instead of riding those needs to power, he remained sensitive to a higher purpose. His vision of leadership went beyond himself. He believed in satisfying the needs of all that followed him.
In 1993, Kenneth Leithwood’s theory added to this model of the transformational leader. His theory explained that the transformational style fostered the acceptance of group goals, communicated high performance expectations, and challenged people intellectually. They also set the example of what is expected from those being led in terms of the ideal behavior.
The transactional leadership theory developed by Weber and Bass later became part of a three style model: transformational, transactional, and laissez faire. These three leadership styles are briefly described below.
Transformational theory is based on the hypothesis that leaders can exploit a need of the follower. These particular needs are not based on quid pro quo transactions, but higher-order needs. These needs are those of the total person, and are closely aligned with the internal motivational factors of the follower.
So at one end of the spectrum there are transactional leaders making many “deals” with those being led. On the other end of the spectrum there are transformational leaders that are looking to satisfy a greater need of an individual.
The transactional leadership style developed by Bass is based on the hypothesis that followers are motivated through a system of rewards and punishment. The transactional leader’s view of their relationship with others is best described as one of quid pro quo – or this for that. If the follower does something good, they will be rewarded. If the follower does something wrong, they will be punished.
Laissez Faire Leaders
There was another leadership dimension that was later recognized by experts: the laissez faire leader. This approach allows for complete permissiveness, and the group often lacks direction because the leader does not help in the decision making process.
Working for a laissez faire leader gives the followers many opportunities to make decisions. However, the lack of direction can lead to anarchy if it is allowed to remain in place for an extended period of time.
Examples of Transformational Leaders
In the Burns model, he went on to describe several different types of leaders including:
- Intellectuals: devoted to seeing ideas and values that transcend the practical needs of all. With an intellectual leader, there is a higher moral purpose and vision that can transform society.
- Reformers: movements that require the participation of large numbers of followers to achieve. Reform leaders can transform part of society to realize a higher standard of moral principles.
- Revolutionaries: may ask followers for the “ultimate sacrifice” for the greater good of all. While a reform leader may work towards improving one aspect of society, the revolutionary leader asks for changes to the whole of society.
- Charismatic (Hero): perhaps the ultimate form of a transformational approach. The charismatic leader is viewed as a hero among followers.
Organizations utilizing a transformational strategy have the opportunity to motivate and inspire employees, especially when the company is facing a challenge or change in direction. This approach provides a sense of purpose and meaning that can unite employees to achieve a common set of goals.
The major drawback of transformational strategies is they depend on the highly developed intellectual skills of employees to be successful. This is because an exciting and satisfying place to work alone does not guarantee goals will be achieved; the employees must be smart too.
Today, this topic has evolved into a “transforming organizational framework,” which focuses on four components:
- An active and disorderly environment.
- An organization as a background for capacity building.
- Transformational leadership that assembles, facilitates, and lifts up human and organizational processes.
- Outcomes characterized by maximized employee and corporate capabilities, as well as their possible contributions to the company, and society.
Over the last two decades, transformational leadership and its emphasis on vision, employee empowerment and challenging the traditional leadership hypotheses, has become a well-liked model among today’s more progressive companies.
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