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.

Vision, drive, an ability to inspire … these are all traits you’d expect to see as descriptors for any great leaders. But it turns out that the most important trait of a truly transformational leader may be a deceptively simple one. 

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

What’s more, that sense of positivity and joy trickles down to team members. A third study found that because transformational leadership is focused on empowering employees, it can actually boost their happiness, too. 

But, it’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” scenario. Does happiness lead to transformational leadership? Or does transformational leadership lead to happiness? 

Well, both. And that’s one of the many reasons why the transformational leadership style is an approach worth aspiring to.

What is the definition of transformational leadership?

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

A transformational leader identifies opportunities for change, creates a plan for achieving the change, and then executes that plan by inspiring others.

What are the characteristics of a transformational leader?

Transformational leaders pursue organizational improvement without breeding a sense of discouragement, frustration, or discontent. Transformational leaders typically have these 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. 
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, it’s when you put them all together that you’re truly able to embody transformational leadership. 

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 he 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.
  • Meg Whitman: When she took over as the President and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Meg Whitman had her sights set on turning the information technology company around. One of the most radical changes she made during her tenure was splitting the company into two divisions.
  • Reed Hastings: As the Co-CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings has seen firsthand that the best ideas surface when he gives his team freedom, independence, and trust. It’s rumored that it only took him a half hour to sign off on production for Netflix’s smash-success series “House of Cards,” because he had so much faith in the groundwork his employees had already done. 

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, as long as you’re 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. 

If you’re responsible for executing on your entire company’s vision, ask the necessary questions to get the clarity you need to effectively relay those goals to your team. Unfortunately, one survey found that only 28% of executives and managers were able to list three of their company’s strategic priorities. 

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. 

It’s also worth involving employees in this process (remember, transformational leadership emphasizes their autonomy and contributions) by soliciting their feedback about what they think needs tweaking. 

3. Avoid micromanaging

Remember that there’s a difference between uniting people around a shared goal and dishing out strict directions. Transformational leaders 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. But, 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 

Nobody wants to follow a grump — especially not through a challenging or potentially rocky adjustment. You’ll have a tough time spreading positivity to your team if you aren’t getting a sense of enjoyment and contentment from your work yourself. 

As counterintuitive as it seems, you need to invest in your own happiness as a leader. It’s like being on an airplane: you should put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Find out what helps you be your happiest self for your team, whether that’s blocking out time for the tasks and projects you really enjoy or dedicating more energy to the hobbies you’re passionate about outside of work. 

Cue Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” That’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it? 

Read more about different leadership styles:

The surprising secret ingredient of transformational leadership