What Is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leaders can inspire and empower members of a group

Have you ever been in a group where someone took control of the situation by conveying a clear vision of the group's goals, a marked passion for the work, and an ability to make the rest of the group feel recharged and energized? This person might be what is called a transformational leader.

Transformational leadership is a leadership style that can inspire positive changes in those who follow. Transformational leaders are generally energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate. Not only are these leaders concerned and involved in the process, but they are also focused on helping every member of the group succeed.

The primary goals of transformational leadership are to inspire growth, promote loyalty, and instill confidence in group members. This article discusses the characteristics of transformational leadership and its effects on groups.

Transformational leadership traits
Verywell / Emily Roberts

History of Transformational Leadership

The concept of transformational leadership was initially introduced by leadership expert and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns. According to Burns, transformational leadership can be seen when "leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of moral and motivation."

Through the strength of their vision and personality, transformational leaders are able to inspire followers to change expectations, perceptions, and motivations to work towards common goals.

Later, researcher Bernard M. Bass expanded upon Burns's original ideas to develop what is today referred to as Bass’s Transformational Leadership Theory. According to Bass, transformational leadership can be defined based on the impact that it has on followers. Transformational leaders, Bass suggested, garner trust, respect, and admiration from their followers.

Mental Health in the Workplace Webinar

On May 19, 2022, Verywell Mind hosted a virtual Mental Health in the Workplace webinar, hosted by Editor-in-Chief Amy Morin, LCSW. If you missed it, check out this recap to learn ways to foster supportive work environments and helpful strategies to improve your well-being on the job.

Components of Transformational Leadership

Bass also suggested that there were four different components of transformational leadership.

  1. Intellectual stimulation: Transformational leaders not only challenge the status quo; they also encourage creativity among followers. The leader encourages followers to explore new ways of doing things and new opportunities to learn.
  2. Individualized consideration: Transformational leadership also involves supporting and encouraging individual followers. To foster supportive relationships, transformational leaders keep lines of communication open so that followers feel free to share ideas and so that leaders can offer immediate recognition of the unique contributions of each follower.
  3. Inspirational motivation: Transformational leaders have a clear vision that they can articulate to followers. These leaders can also help followers experience the same passion and motivation to fulfill these goals.
  4. Idealized influence: The transformational leader serves as a role model for followers. Because followers trust and respect the leader, they emulate this individual and internalize their ideals.

Groups led by this type of leader tend to be both successful and loyal. They give a lot to the team and care deeply about the group's ability to accomplish its goals. Turnover tends to be relatively low as transformational leaders can inspire a great deal of commitment in their followers.

Traits of Transformational Leaders

So what are some typical signs of a transformational leader? Common characteristics of transformational leaders include:

Examples of Transformational Leadership

Recognizable figures who are often cited as examples of transformational leadership include:

  • Barack Obama: The former U.S. President was known for his transformational approach to running his administration, as well as his unifying, motivating, and hopeful communication style.
  • Nelson Mandela: The former President of South Africa was famous for serving as a source of authentic inspiration.
  • Oprah Winfrey: The media mogul is famous for her charismatic, visionary, and inspirational leadership style.
  • Steve Jobs: Jobs was famous for his visionary leadership that transformed Apple into a leader in the technology industry.

Effects of Transformational Leadership

In their classic text, Transformational Leadership, authors Bass and Riggio explained that these leaders inspire people to achieve extraordinary results. Group members are not just encouraged to participate; they are also inspired to become leaders themselves.

Transformational leaders can accomplish this by being responsive and empowering. The individual's goals become better aligned with the purposes of the entire group so that each group member's success furthers the organization's goals.

Researchers have found that this style of leadership can have a positive effect on the group. Some of these effects include:

  • Better performance: Those led by transformational individuals have better performance and are more satisfied than those in groups with different types of leaders.
  • Better well-being: Employees who identified a higher level of transformational leadership in their employers also reported higher levels of well-being. The effect stayed significant even after researchers controlled for factors linked to well-being, such as job strain, education, and age.
  • Sense of empowerment: This is attributed to the fact that transformational leaders believe that their followers can do their best, leading group members to feel inspired and empowered.

How to Become a More Transformational Leader

Becoming a more transformational leader may provide many benefits. Researchers believe that such results can help companies develop leadership training programs that can be used to teach transformational leadership skills.

Acquiring communication skills such as resolving workplace conflicts and recognizing employees' needs are important parts of transformational leadership. Such programs can serve as essential parts of health promotion efforts in the workplace to help improve employee well-being.

What can you do to become a more transformational leader? Leadership experts suggest that a robust and positive future vision plays a critical role. Not only is it essential to believe in this vision yourself, but you've also got to inspire others to buy into your vision as well.

You can also develop your transformational skills by being:

  • Genuine
  • Passionate
  • Supportive
  • Trustworthy

Transformational Leadership vs. Transactional Leadership

Transformational leadership is often contrasted with transactional leadership, which is a style that is essentially the opposite of transformational. In the transactional approach, leaders motivate their subordinates through the use of rewards and punishment.

While the transformational approach focuses on communication, inspiration, and positive reinforcement, transactional leaders supervise, monitor performance, and create routines to maximize efficiency. While the transactional approach can be effective in some situations, it does not foster loyalty, innovation, or creativity.

Transactional
  • Motivates using rewards and punishments

  • Focused on compliance

  • Tends to focus on short-term goals

  • Uses extrinsic rewards (pay, promotions, etc.)

Transformational
  • Motivates using enthusiasm and charismatic inspiration

  • Focused on commitment

  • More focused on long-term success

  • Uses intrinsic rewards (esteem, pride, etc.)

Potential Pitfalls

While transformational leadership is often viewed as one of the best approaches to leadership, that doesn't mean that it is necessarily right for every situation. For example, when group members need more guidance and direction, it can be more effective to utilize a more transactional approach.

The transactional style can help improve group cohesion and commitment, but it can also contribute to burnout when group members feel constantly pressured to give up all of their time and effort to support the goals of the group.

In situations where a lot of creativity and innovation are important to success, a transformational style is often a beneficial approach. But if the focus is on achieving a prescribed set of short-term goals, taking a more transactional approach might lead to less chaos and better results.

A Word From Verywell

The transformational style of leadership can be highly effective when used appropriately, but it might not necessarily be the best choice for every situation. In some cases, groups may require a more managerial or autocratic style that involves closer control and greater direction, particularly in situations where group member are unskilled and need a lot of oversight.

One way to improve your own leadership skills is to assess your own current leadership style and think about ways in which your strengths can benefit the group you are leading. By evaluating your own skills, you will be better able to play to your strengths and work on improving your areas of weakness.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Allen GP, Moore WM, Moser LR, Neill KK, Sambamoorthi U, Bell HS. The role of servant leadership and transformational leadership in academic pharmacyAm J Pharm Educ. 2016;80(7):113. doi:10.5688/ajpe807113

  2. Choi SL, Goh CF, Adam MB, Tan OK. Transformational leadership, empowerment, and job satisfaction: the mediating role of employee empowermentHum Resour Health. 2016;14(1):73. doi:10.1186/s12960-016-0171-2

  3. Psychology Today. Are you a transformational leader?

  4. Jacobs C; Pfaff H; Lehner B, et al. The influence of transformational leadership on employee well-being: Results rrom a survey of companies in the information and communication technology sector in Germany. J Occup Environ Med. 2013;55(7):772-8.​ doi:10.1097/JOM.0b013e3182972ee5

Additional Reading
  • Bass, B. M. & Riggio, R. E. Transformational Leadership. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc; 2008.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.