an image showing the positive impacts of transformational leadership
5-second summary
  • Transformational leadership is associated with positive change in individuals and organizations.
  • Transformational leaders typically have a strong vision, an open mind, are charismatic, and trusting of their team.
  • Cultivating sense of personal happiness and contentment can help leaders inspire their teams.

Maybe you’ve had a “this is the way we’ve always done it” leader before. You know — the type who wants to stick with what’s familiar, even if it’s inefficient and ineffective. They don’t want to rock the boat or deviate from the norm. 

Transformational leadership is the exact opposite of that. 

Transformational leaders set their sights on improving systems, processes, teams, and entire organizations. They’re not content with the status quo. They want to leave things better than they found them. 

Needless to say, in the right circumstances, this leadership style can have a big impact. Here’s why, and how to make the jump from theoretical changemaking to true transformation. 

What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership is when a leader seeks to move beyond their own self-interest to promote positive change within individuals, teams, and companies. 

A transformational leader identifies opportunities for change, creates a plan for achieving the change, and then executes that plan by inspiring others. Their aim is to transform the teams and organizations they’re part of. 

The term originated with sociologist James V. Downton in 1973, but it’s more commonly associated with leadership expert James MacGregor Burns, who expanded on the original concept of transformational leadership. 

Other experts have continued to add to the approach over the past few decades. And today, it’s one of the more common and popular leadership styles – especially in organizations that need to innovate and adapt. 

What are the characteristics of a transformational leader?

Wondering how to tell if you’re a transformational leader (or what competencies you need to work on to fill those shoes)? Like any other leadership style, transformational leadership has some defining traits: 

  • A strong vision: These leaders don’t want to make a change for the sake of shaking things up. Instead, they have a clear idea of where they’re headed and are able to relay that information to the team in a way that fosters understanding and increases motivation. 
  • Charisma: Transformational leaders are often viewed as inspirational and highly charismatic people. While they’re in a management role, they step alongside their direct reports to develop them, encourage them, and mentor them.
  • An open mind: Transformational leaders are hungry for change, but they recognize that it doesn’t need to come from the top. They’re approachable, open-minded, and always eager to hear feedback and ideas from other people. 
  • A flexible approach: Change can be a rocky road and not every new idea will pan out. These leaders don’t white-knuckle their original suggestions. They’ll quickly adapt and roll with the punches when a suggested change doesn’t work out. It’s not a failure – it’s a learning experience.  
  • Trust: Research shows that a high degree of trust is crucial for transformational leadership. Not only are these leaders trusted by their team members, but they also place a high degree of faith in their direct reports in return. They give them ownership over their work and autonomy to make contributions.

These qualities help transformational leaders pursue organizational improvement without breeding a sense of discouragement, frustration, or discontent.

How to use a democratic leadership style without succumbing to ‘majority rules’

4 components of transformational leadership

The root of transformational leadership is change and improvement, but there are different ways to go about that. This leadership style can be broken down into four components or factors, known as the “four I’s.” 

  1. Idealized influence: Leading by example as a positive role model for the entire team
  2. Inspirational motivation: Motivating employees to rally around a vision and get excited about how they can contribute
  3. Intellectual stimulation: Encouraging critical thinking and out-of-the-box ideas, rather than sticking with existing norms and processes
  4. Individual consideration: Considering the strengths, goals, and needs of each team member and acting as a coach or a mentor 

Each of those components is valuable on its own. But when you put them all together, you’re truly able to embody transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership vs. transactional leadership

These two styles sound similar, but they couldn’t be more different. While transformational leadership focuses on improving and inspiring, transactional leadership is far more rigid and structured, using rewards and punishments to motivate people.

For example, a transformational leader might incentivize an employee by connecting them to the broader vision and purpose, while a transactional leader might use something tangible like a commission or a bonus. 

One style isn’t inherently better than the other. They each have their unique benefits, drawbacks, and use cases.

Learn transformational leadership from these great examples  

There’s no shortage of real-world transformational leadership examples throughout history. A few recognizable transformational leaders include:

  • Henry Ford: Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, not only revolutionized the automobile industry, but also pioneered worthy causes like safer conditions and better wages for workers. He had a strong vision for the future and was relentless in pursuing it.
  • Oprah Winfrey: Television host and media mogul Oprah Winfrey built an entire career on her charisma. So, it makes sense that would trickle into the leadership of her staff. She’s known for being an accessible leader who prioritizes development, teamwork, praise, and psychological safety.
  • Yvon Chouinard: As the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard didn’t only focus on internal transformation. He had his sights set on something bigger: the planet. From changing the climbing hardware the company sold in the early days to something more environmentally friendly to starting a self-imposed Earth tax to support environmental nonprofits, Patagonia is now associated with activism and environmental change — thanks to Yvon Chouinard’s early influence and values. 

How to become a transformational leader 

Discover the 7 core leadership styles (and take our quiz to find yours)

You already have a leadership style — it’s the approach you default to when you’re in the driver’s seat, whether you’re leading a team or a project. 

Here’s the good news: You can change your leadership style (or, in the case of situational leadership, adapt your approach to certain circumstances). To do so, you need to be intentional about your behaviors and choices. If you’re eager to embody more transformational leadership characteristics, here are a few strategies to help.

1. Know where you’re headed

To get people excited about change, you need to have a clear idea of what you’re working toward. If you’re rallying a team around your own goal or vision, make sure that you’re able to share specifics about what the change is, why it’s being made, what steps are involved, and what challenges you might face. 

This doesn’t always mean handing information down from on high – your team can be involved from the beginning. Use problem framing to talk openly with your team and align on a specific problem you’re solving before you identify your next steps together. When people are more invested in the problem, they’re often more invested in the solution too. 

Once you’re all on the same page, run the vision creation play to paint a clear picture of the future and motivate your team to get there. 

2. Look at what’s working (and what isn’t)

Transformational leadership isn’t just about change — it’s about improvement. To have the most meaningful impact, you need to focus on the areas and processes that actually need refinement. 

You can start by paying close attention to your team’s recent work. Are you running into the same bottlenecks over and over again? Are there certain goals you always fall short of? Those are areas worth turning your attention to. Try running a:

Don’t do those alone. Employees should be involved in these activities and conversations (remember, transformational leadership emphasizes their autonomy and contributions) so they can provide candid feedback about what they think needs tweaking. 

3. Avoid micromanaging

There’s a difference between uniting people around a shared goal and dishing out strict directions. Transformational leaders are similar to coaching leaders in that they act as mentors and resources, but then get out of the way and trust their teams to get their work done.

That can be a tough adjustment if you’re used to having a ton of oversight into what your employees are doing. Fortunately, providing plenty of clarity upfront can give you confidence that your team is moving in the right direction — even if you’re not always gripping the steering wheel. 

Use a system like team goals, signals, and measures or objectives and key results (OKRs) to define what a successful project looks like and how you’ll all know if you’re staying on track. 

Once you’ve laid those out, make an effort to avoid constant check-ins and instead let your team know that you’re there with an open door and a listening ear when they need you. 

4. Prioritize your happiness 

Research shows that leaders with a strong sense of personal happiness are better leaders. And a separate study found that teams consider happy leaders more transformational.

So as counterintuitive as it seems, if you want to be transformational, you need to invest in your happiness first. It’s like being on an airplane: you should put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

It sounds simple enough, but it’s far more difficult in practice — particularly when you’re the one managing objectives, tracking progress, and dealing with complex team dynamics. Practicing some compassion (not just with your team, but also with yourself) can help. 

Compassionate leaders achieve less stress and more happiness than their less-compassionate colleagues. So, try out a few guided self-compassion exercises to be a little kinder to yourself (and then share your favorites with your team). 

Transforming yourself into a transformational leader

Transformational leadership is an effective leadership style, especially in situations where people lack motivation and enthusiasm. 

However, keep in mind that change takes time, whether you’re changing a system, organization, or even your own approach to leadership.

If you want to be a transformational leader, stay committed to some of the strategies we outlined and you’ll see progress over time. After all, true transformation is just as much about the process as it is about the outcome. 

Use transformational leadership to improve and inspire your team