What is transformational leadership?

There’s a lot of talk these days about transformational leadership. But what is transformational leadership and how does it differ from transactional leadership?

We define transformational leadership as aligning and motivating people, individually or collectively, to achieve something they previously thought not possible. Transformational leaders are able to get people to give their discretionary effort.

Transactional leadership is, as the name suggests, a transaction where the leader is able to get people to act based on the pay and effort transaction: “I’ll pay you this and you do that.”  There’s no discretionary effort provided once the deal is fulfilled.

Transactional leadership therefore has limits. “You expect me to do that for what you’re paying me!” Organisations do not have unlimited funds so transformational leadership is needed to inspire people to give their discretionary effort – to go above and beyond.

Transformational leaders tap into people’s commitment and release their energy and passion. They are adept at addressing both the head and heart drivers of behaviour. To be inspired to implement change people need both the rational and emotive reasons for the change.

Basic building blocks for transformational leadership include:

  • A unifying and inspiring purpose
  • An ambitious and desirable vision for the change
  • A common set of values that are understood and lived

Working toward the fulfillment of a common and noble purpose can be highly inspiring – it has the ability to get people out of bed on cold mornings.  Nurses and teachers don’t do it just for the pay!

Vision refers to an ambitious and highly desirable future. Transformational leaders want people to do more than the bare minimum – they want commitment and effort to create something new and better. So it’s important to be able to create a vivid and compelling picture of what this extra effort will result in – what difference it will make.

Values refer to commonly understood and upheld beliefs about how people will conduct themselves as they go about their work and the achievement of the vision and goals.  Leaders who role model and champion these values inspire others to do the same.