How to Develop Yourself into a Transformational Leader

How to become an extraordinary leader (and person).

Posted Dec 14, 2020

There are many theories of exemplary leadership. Clearly, the most popular of these theories is transformational leadership. The concept of transformational leadership became prominent in a 1978 book entitled Leadership by James MacGregor Burns. A political historian and U.S. presidential biographer, Burns distinguished between transactional leaders (those who lead through exchange – your efforts in exchange for pay and recognition), and transformational leaders, who lead by motivating followers to outstanding levels of achievement and accomplishment through offering support and empowerment.

Inspired by Burns, leadership scholars Bernard M. Bass, Bruce Avolio, and colleagues further developed transformational leadership theory by uncovering the specific factors that make transformational leaders so effective. There are four main components to transformational leadership. We will focus on what these are and how to develop each. Then, we will turn our attention to the issue of ethical leadership and add in the elements that distinguish ethical, or “authentic,” transformational leadership.

1. Idealized Influence (Leader as Role Model)

The first component of transformational leadership involves the leader “looking like a leader” and being a positive role model for followers. As the saying goes, the leader “walks the talk.” A transformational leader would never say one thing and do another, and wouldn’t ask a follower to do something he or she would never do. 

2. How to Develop Idealized Influence

There are three critical elements to portraying yourself as a leader that people want to follow – a positive role model. First, you need to be optimistic. You must have a “can-do” attitude. No one wants to follow a pessimistic leader. Second, and related, you need to exude self-confidence. How can you do this? You need to develop your sense of “leadership self-efficacy.” What that means is that you need to develop your sense of competence (self-efficacy) in your leadership role. Finally, and importantly, you need to embody the mission or purpose of the team, group, or organization. Remind people of the mission and roll up your sleeves and work together with people. 

3. Inspirational Motivation (Leader as Motivator)

The second component of transformational leadership is the ability to inspire and motivate followers. Combined with Idealized Influence, these are the elements that we think of as a leader’s “charisma.”  Besides being a good speaker and being able to inspire others with words and actions, the transformational leader is able to align the goals and values of the followers with the mission and purpose of the organization or group. In other words, the transformational leader makes it clear that everyone is working together to achieve shared goals and purpose. This builds motivation over the long term and gets followers emotionally committed to the group and its goals.

4. How to Be Inspirational and Motivating

The key to motivating followers is to be inclusive – maintaining the attitude that “we are all in this together” and focusing on shared goals and purpose. An inspirational leader should often mention the mission, purpose, and goals as a reminder. In addition, it is important to convey positive affect and be positively motivated yourself. 

5. Individualized Consideration (Improving the Leader-Follower Relationship)

This component involves the leader reaching out and establishing a strong relationship with each individual follower. Of particular importance is the leader’s attunement to the specific individual needs, goals, strengths and limitations of each team member. By knowing this, the leader is able to work on both motivating and developing the follower.

6. How to Develop Individualized Consideration

In order to connect with followers and coworkers, it is important to engage in active listening. This means not only listening to what the other person is telling you, but also paying attention to and “reading” nonverbal cues. The key is to try to understand each follower’s needs, concerns, and feelings. By better understanding what motivates and makes each follower “tick,” you can be a more effective leader by responding to his or her specific needs. Remember to “check in” with followers on a regular basis. Ask how they are doing and how you can help them.

7. Intellectual Stimulation (Get Followers to Engage Their Brains)

The final component of transformational leadership is called intellectual stimulation. This involves challenging followers to be creative and innovative – to think outside the box and consider new strategies and ways to approach and solve problems. It is by pushing employees to be innovative and to work hard that transformational workplace leaders have teams and organizations that perform beyond expectations.

8. How to Develop Intellectual Stimulation

It is very important to get into the habit of asking questions and getting yourself and others to question assumptions. For example, question the status quo (“Do we really have to do it that way?” “Isn’t there a better way?”) or to try new strategies. Become an expert at helping in setting goals for individual team members. Push them to try to develop what are called “stretch goals” – trying to go at least 10% beyond what one might think is the upper limit.

9. Character: The “Missing” Element in Transformational Leadership

Although both Burns and Bass, the formulators of the theory of transformational leadership, mention the importance of morality and ethics in leaders, all too often the moral element gets left out of the picture. Think of famous charismatic leaders. There are the good ones — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela — but there are also morally corrupt charismatic leaders, such as Adolf Hitler and Osama Bin Laden. All of these leaders are charismatic and transformational (they had a transformative effect, either positive or negative), but we could call the former “authentic transformational leaders” and the latter “inauthentic.” 

So, what are the elements of character that are important for transformational leaders? First, the leader has a sense of justice and fairness. The authentic transformational leader would never take credit for someone else’s work or treat others unfairly. Second, the leader avoids excesses, including refusing to succumb to the temptations afforded by power and position. Finally, the leader has the courage to do what is right – even to the extent of losing his or her leadership position rather than do something wrong or unethical.

10. How to Develop Leader Character

This could be a whole lesson in and of itself. Developing character is a leader’s (and really any person’s) imperative. It is a lifelong process of developing yourself into a “good” and “ethical” individual. Focusing on these four virtues will help:

Prudence: Try to consider other’s perspectives and points of view before moving forward.

Temperance: Don’t give in to excesses; “moderation in all things," particularly being moderate in your emotions and emotional outbursts.

Justice: Treat others fairly (“do unto others…”)

Courage: Take calculated risks and have the courage to do the right thing.

Mix these with a good dose of humility and you will be a leader of good character.

Finally, realize that becoming a transformational leader is not easy. It takes diligence and hard work, but the results can be quite impressive.

References

Bass, B.M., & Riggio, R.E. (2006). Transformational leadership (2nd ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Riggio, R.E., Zhu, W., Reina, C.*, & Maroosis, J.  (2010).  Virtue-based measurement of ethical leadership: The Leadership Virtues Questionnaire.  Consulting Psychology Journal, 62(4), 235-250.

Riggio, R.E. (2020). Daily Leadership Development: 365 Steps to Becoming a Better Leader. Barnes & Noble Press.