The Transformational Leadership Style: What it is and Isn’t

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By Murray Johannsen, March 9, 2014.  Feel free to connect with the author by  Linkedin,  Google+  or by  email


The Transformational leadership style has been with us for thousands of years–being both praised and cursed. Discover what it is & why it’s important for organizations that must innovate, adapt and change.

And don’t forget that transformational leadership helps when you want to:

    • Escape the trap of the status quo,
    • Grow a small business in to a larger one
    • Change Others & Change your Self.

This is a model of how, how to evolve to become a great transformational leader. This is a style that is important when it comes to change—and who doesn’t need to change? This is a leadership style that is incredibly important in both organizational change and personal transformation. Discover four key competencies—four catalysts—for change.


On this page, you will find:

  • The Organizational Need
  • Definitions
  • Examples of
  • The Dark Side of the Transformational Leadership Style
  • The Style in Everyday Life
  • Is Emotional Intelligence helpful?
  • Theories and Theorists
  • Style Examples: Queen Elizabeth I, Alexander the Great, and Bill Gates
  • Transformational Leadership Books
  • FOR GREATER UNDERSTANDING —Additional Pages on this site
    • Two Transformational Leadership Styles: Visionary & Charismatic Leadership
    • A List of 125 Transformational Leaders

Why Organizations Need To Focus on Transformational Leadership

Image by: Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Notice the conformity displayed by group members. This is what normally happens in large business and governmental bureaucracies. One could argue that practicing transformational leadership in such an organizational culture is extremely difficult.
Image by: Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Notice the conformity displayed by group members. This is what normally happens in large business and governmental bureaucracies. One could argue that practicing transformational leadership in such an organizational culture is extremely difficult.

“The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on transformational leadership. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develop them.” — John C Maxwell (2001) The 17th Irrefutable Laws of Teamwork, page 185

Over 40 years ago, Luchians, a German psychologist, grew interested in how humans learn. He ran an experiment where he taught a six-step process to transfer water between two containers. After the explanation, he had people practice this technique a few times. He then demonstrated a 3-step process to transfer the water. Despite the obvious ease of the new and improved method, only fifty percent of the group used it. Luchen’s realized that humans quickly form habits. Unfortunately, once a habit forms it’s difficult to modify, even when the new behavior is clearly better than the old.

Habits also form in organizations. The U. S. steel industry is a perfect example of companies refusing to do business differently. The seeds of decline were sown over many years. The crisis started when Japanese steelmakers began to produce high quality steel. It deepened when Japanese companies could beat the price offered by most U.S. manufacturers. This occurred despite high transportation costs. The Japanese had to transport scrap iron from the Great Lakes to Japan. In Japan it was turned into a finished product and shipped back to the United States. Once the quality and productivity advantage was lost, it was just a matter of time until profit margins started eroding and jobs started disappearing.

Organizational dry rot takes many forms. A particularly insidious form consists of a state of complacency were individuals believe, “It ain’t broke,” and “It doesn’t need fixing.” This love of the status quo is especially dangerous in industries with a rapid rate of technical change.

To survive, organizations must grow and adapt. They must continually try out and adapt new ideas. And that is why they need transformational leaders.

Transformational Leadership Definitions

An illustration from Alice in Wonderland. "It (a word) means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass. Unfortunately, "transformational leadership" means different things to different people.
An illustration from Alice in Wonderland. “It (a word) means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” — Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass. Unfortunately, “transformational leadership” means different things to different people.



It would be wonderful if this were true, but the same words often have different meanings. To understand what it means to be a transformational leader, take a look at some of the definitions presented below:



“Transformational leadership is a type of leadership style that leads to positive changes in those who follow.” —

“Transformational leadership is defined as a leadership approach that causes change in individuals and social systems.”— Wikipedia

“A style of leadership in which the leader identifies the needed change, creates a vision to guide the change through inspiration, and executes the change with the commitment of the members of the group.” —

“A leadership style that involves generating a vision for the organization and inspiring followers to meet the challenges that it sets. Transformational leadership depends on the leader’s ability to appeal to the higher values and motives of followers and to inspire a feeling of loyalty and trust.” —

 Elements Common to all Definitions of Transformational Leadership


It’s a Leadership Style. Transformational leadership is a leadership style — one of many different leadership styles. 

It Involves Change. Transformational leadership and those who follow it are change oriented. They are not creatures of the status quote. Transformational leaders are men and women of action who understand that “good enough” never is. And what works, could always be made better. That progress is not a dirty word to be resisted in the name of tradition, of order, of the routine. Sometimes they live within the status quo but their minds see what could be changed.

Elements Lacking A Consensus

Orientation Toward The Greater Good. Certain writers assume transformational leaders are always good and that the changes they bring always positive. From a standpoint of teaching the young, we want to emphasize the positive. However, this viewpoint excludes many transformational leaders who made the world a worse place. 

Characteristics of Achievers. If you are going to be transformational, you might as well strive to be an achiever. But what to this types of people do? Surely more than just looking good and preening for a the next picture in-front of their selfie stick.  

The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership

Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), München, Adolf Hitler vor Feldherrenhalle. It must be remembered that not all transformational leaders produce positive social change.
Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), München, Adolf Hitler vor Feldherrenhalle. It must be remembered that not all transformational leaders produce positive social change.

“A rotting fish begins to stink at the head.” Italian Proverb

Hitler was an extremely effective, charismatic leader who turned a weak democratic state into a strong totalitarian one. He remained an amazing popular leader who retained power until the very end. Few Germans questioned his decisions, goals, methods and the vision of a thousand year Reich. However, that vision brought ruin to Germany and much of Europe. In fact, the greatest mass murderers were transformational leaders. On a short list of 20th Century leaders that wanted to transform people by killing them would be:

    • Mao Tse Dung
    • Joseph Stalin
    • Adolf Hitler
    • Pol Pot.

One-way to look at transformational leaders is who make a judgment on whether the changes they initiated made life better or worse. As one can see from the list above, change does not always mean a society prospers. Sometimes the transformational efforts lead to the destruction of those taking up the call. This is an important thing to understand about transformational leadership — sometimes these leaders do not always make things better — sometimes they can make things worse. Progress is not assured. (The Economist: The Idea of Progress).

Take the example of the First Emperor of China. One can argue the end (unifying China) was admirable. However, to achieve that end, the means used by the Emperor was war — wars resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands. (Qin Shi Huang,Wikipedia)

For the transformational leadership style to make things better, we would have to assume a set of virtues and an ability to make wise decisions. However, it is often the case that they lack both wisdom and virtue (Capital Virtues, Virtues Science)

Transformational Leadership In Everyday Life

“Lead, follow or get out of the way.” American Saying

Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862 – 1938): Mother and Child in Boat

ParentsOne can argue that parents use the transformational leadership style within a small group called the family. They have the task of turning an extremely selfish entity called a child into a human being. I had a friend say to me once that children are animals, they must be transformed in human beings by good parents.

Coaches. The transformational task of a coach is dual in nature. First, one must install in players the skills and motivation to keep trying despite many set backs. And in some sports such as basketball and soccer, one takes selfish individuals and turns them into team players.

Religious Leaders. A tougher challenge here. They seek to turn the flawed into the moral and the selfish into the ethical.

Entrepreneurs. Almost all the writing focuses an the managerial side of being an entrepreneur. However, they must must also exhibit transformational leadership or their organizations fail to grow. It is as simple, and as complex, as that.

Most theories of leadership development stress how to be effective within the status quo—what’s called transactional leadership. A leader using this style can be very influential, but they change very little. To use a popular expression, these people are good at “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”, but they can’t keep the ship from sinking.

Unfortunately, many organizations run lean on transformational leaders, the vast majority of the leaders inside organizations being transactional. Thus we see organizations decline as there is an increasingly disconnect between “the way things should be done” and “the way we do things here.”

The Transformational Style And Emotional Intelligence

Charles-Louis-Lucien Muller: Lanjuinais à la tribune de la Convention

There are a number of leader styles, some relatively easy to do. But still others require a great deal of practice along with determined effort to build the component skills. This is the case with transformational leadership.

All individuals who aspire to become great transformational leaders must master their own emotions. After all, would you want to follow someone who has anger management problems? Effective transformational leaders understand how another will respond to a persuasive or motivational attempt. And when they do not correctly anticpate, they have enough empathy to adjust.

One might say this this theory is a correction for the assumption made in business schools that humans are rationally. If fact, this is a key assumption underlying the dominant theories held by the field of economics.

Transformational leadership is not all about logic and rationale in responding to change, sometimes they will have to deal with illogic and negative emotions. And so, the importance of being high on emotional intelligence.

“Only those who do not seek power are qualified to hold it.” Plato

Technically, emotional intelligence is not about leadership. The emotional intelligence approach stresses five developmental areas:

    • Self-regulation
    • Social Skills
    • Empathy
    • Self-Awareness, and
    • Achievement Motivation

Leader’s need to have a number of different types of skills. One of the practical skills transformational leaders need to develop this the ability to read people’s emotions. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and different cultures have different facial expressions for different types of emotions.

Take the short test and see how good you are.

Is Emotional Intelligence Genetic or Learned?

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is assumed to be learned (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009). It therefore is an extremely important skill set to being an effective transformational leader (Goleman, 2013). Even so, EQ still is not an easy thing to master.

Unlike IQ, it is thought that your EQ can keep growing throughout life—and in some it does. However, since most of us will never be a diplomat, we don’t develop our human relations skills fully. A macho male (or female) will not develop empathy since it’s too “touchy feelly.” And partly lack of growth has to do with inbuilt problems associated with an immature Ego, one symptom of which is low self-awareness and self-discipline. Of course, many of us would like to make self-improvements, but there never seems to have enough energy left over at the end of the day.

It has yet to be shown that extremely high IQs are not that important in transformational leadership. Nor has it been determined what personality traits are necessary elements with this style.

In any case, since both of these have a pretty high genetic component, maybe they aren’t worth changing. For example, one could argue that it’s nearly impossible to change IQ. But while traits can be changed, it this is a difficult thing to do..

Transformational Leadership Theories & Theorists

The four theorists in America associated with the development of a set of theories describing transformational leadership.

Burns, James MacGregor

James McGregor Burns (1978) is a Pulitzer Prize author who wrote a classic book titled Leadership. He eloquently described qualities transformational leaders possess in different fields of endeavors ranging from the military, to business, to politics.

Bass, Bernard

 In many articles and in his book, Improving Organizational Effectiveness Through Transformational Leadership, Bass talked about the fundamental theoretical qualities that define transformational leadership from it’s polar opposite, transactional leadership. According to Bass, these individuals possess:

Inspirational Motivation. This is one of those leadership qualities that is hard to define; like beauty, you know it when you experience it. I remember a quote, about a charismatic individual by the name of Oliver North. One of his men once said about him, “I would follow him to hell since he is the only man I know who could get me back.”

Individualized Consideration. This involves the creation of a compelling picture of the future, a desired future state that people identify with. By creating this vision, the leader provides a means for people to develop commitment, a common goal around around which to rally, and a way for people to feel successful. 

Intellectual stimulation. Transformational leaders show new ways of looking at old problems, they challenge the existing boundaries and the mental prisons people put themselves into.

Idealized Influence. To inspire is difficult, requiring as as it does a decent understanding of psychology.

Johannsen, Murray

Mr. Johannsen mainly focuses on the elements of learning to be a transformational leader. The theory base focused primarily on change and what is needed to change yourself and change others. It is focused on four competencies, four transformational catalysts that one can develop. These include:

TFL Homepage1TFL Homepage2

Transformational Leadership Examples

“He who stops being better — stops being good.” — Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), Lord Protector of the Commonwealt

 Case 1: Queen Elizabeth I of England

Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes. Elizabeth was a truly great transformational leader, one who started with a nation beset with strife. When she died, she had one of the strongest nations in Europe. The would have been no English commonwealth without Elizabeth.
Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes. Elizabeth was a truly great transformational leader, one who started with a nation beset with strife. When she died, she had one of the strongest nations in Europe. The would have been no English commonwealth without Elizabeth.


There are similarities between managing a corporation and running a country. The most obvious difference—countries are much harder to run.

When Elizabeth began her reign, England was, to put it mildly, a mess. Ascending to the throne at a particularly chaotic time of British history, she was beset by enemies from without and within. A betting man would have put good odds on her getting through the first two-years alive.

However, at the end of her 45 year reign, England had become the richest and most powerful nation in Europe and was well on its way to becoming one of the great powers of the modern age.

Bottom line: No Elizabeth—No British Commonwealth.

ImagesA page of portraits of Elizabeth at various points of her reign.

Quick OverviewThe Britannia one-page overview.

Elizabeth I: Life and TimesAn entire site dedicated to the life and times of one of the daughters of Henry the VIII.

Speeches and WritingsA few choice words from a long career of writing.

Example #2: Alexander The Great: King of Macedonia, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Persia and Afghanistan

"Alexander the Great in the Temple of Jerusalem" by Sebastiano Conca. Not only was Alexander a Great general, he was also a great transformational king who brought new ideas and commerce throughout his empire.
“Alexander the Great in the Temple of Jerusalem” by Sebastiano Conca. Not only was Alexander a Great general, he was also a great transformational king who brought new ideas and commerce throughout his empire.

How can one so young accomplish so much? By the time Alexander died in 323 BC, he had not yet reached his 33rd birthday. Yet, in that short time, he had created an empire that stretched from Greece to India.

In an age where tyrants ruled by brute force and fear, he defied the conventional political wisdom of the time. Rather than cleaning out the treasury of a conquered nation and then taxing them them to the max, he built new cities (often called Alexandria’s), libraries; established mechanisms for communication and commerce; had engineers build new roads, and had scientists capture new knowledge.

Known as much for his sound strategy and tactical innovation in the military arena as his wise statesmanship in the political sphere, he was the student of Aristotle who went on to became even greater than his teacher.

 Alexander the Great. The History Channel.

Alexandros from Plutarch’s Lives. A chapter from the one of the great classic works of all time.

Case #3: The Evolution Of A Great Transformational Founder: Bill Gates, Former CEO Of Microsoft

There is a certain type of transformational leader that many try to be, but few succeed. This type of personal, the Great Founder, also requires a set of skills not taught in the university. In fact, one of the most successful entrepreneurs ever, Bill Gates, decided to drop out of Harvard and start a business called Microsoft. One can almost image how that conversation went. The future entrepreneur saying, “Mom, I want to drop out of school so that I can work on an entrepreneurial venture for 80 hours a week, for now pay, that has a high probability of failure.”

But unlike most entrepreneurs, he never failed and Microsoft was never unprofitable. For example, It was said that he took on on a 5% equity investment from a venture capitalist, not because the money was needed, but because they wanted more expertise on the board. Below are three short videos from a recent interview Bill Gates gave at Harvard.

Transformational Leadership Books

A leadership book typically teaches you what, but life teaches you how.” — Unknown

Good books can be invaluable to the study and development of transformational skills.  This list focuses more on the classics. They are classics because they keep getting reprinted. 

“It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.” — Ralph Ellison

James MacGregor Burns (2003). Transforming Leadership, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Twenty-five years after the publication of Leadership, Burns expands his theories on how leaders cultivate transformational leadership skills in themselves and in their successors.He starts with the explaining the two opposing styles: those who occupy the position (they arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic) and those who transform not only their own position, but those around it (they fix the ship).Burns draws on numerous examples from history, citing meaningful examples from the lives of great political transformational leaders. Unlike many writers, he possesses deep insight into recent psychological approaches and so has a more profound understanding of transformational leadership.

Burns, James MacGregor, (1982). Leadership, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Considered a classic by many, the book was the winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award after it was published in 1978. It focuses on the many different types of leadership. Burns argues that the type of leadership exercised by a general in the military is in many respects different from that used by an executive in a multinational corporation, a mayor of city or the head of a religious organization.Two chapters of the book cover power and purpose of leadership, three chapters on the origin of leadership, four chapters are dedicated to understanding transformational leadership and five chapters cover transactional leadership. On the change side of things, he covers heroic, moral, revolutionary and reform styles of transformational leadership.He illustrates his points with vivid historical stories on Joan of Arc, Freud, Gandhi, Mao, the Roosevelt’s, Stalin and others. He also puts forth his belief that great leaders play to mutual need, empathy and growth; whether one lives within the status quo or tries to transform it.
Bass, Bernard, and Riggio (2005). Transformational Leadership, 2nd Edition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

This is a book written from the academic side of view–strong on theory and strong on research. Bass, unlike with Burns, has developed a very strong reputation as a scholar in the area of transformational leadership.

Kouzes, James and Posner, Barry (2007). The Leadership Challenge, 4th Edition, San Franciso, CA: Jossey-Bass.By James Kouzes and Barry Posner

There is a story of a rather old professor who was adamant about not having his students read the first edition on any textbook. It was his belief that good theory only gets better with age and reprints.While not a textbook, The Leadership Challenge continues to get published and republished since it first came out in 1989. The book presents five leadership principles. These five are:

• Challenge The Process
• Inspire a Shared Vision
• Model the Way
• Enable Others to Act, and
• Encourage The Heart.

While not claiming to be a book on transformational leadership, these principles lend themselves to its implementation.

Goleman, Daniel, et. al.(2002). Primal Leadership.Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

In his recent book Primal Leadership, Goleman presents the theory on why emotional intelligence is an important foundation for leader effectiveness.It makes sense that leaders are not only be aware and in control of their own emotions, but also able to influence individuals at an emotional level. Can you take someone who is feeling “down” and leave them feeling “up?”

Tichy, Noel & Devanna, Mary (1986). The Transformational Leader. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

This book takes a different path and focuses on the transformational leader in the context of the organization. It really goes into the inside story of how to be a great leader in the world of business.

Yukl, Gary. (2002) Leadership In Organizations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Much can be learned by a good book honed by constant improvement. Originally published in 1981, Yukl’s book is now up to the fifth edition. The book is jammed packed full of sound theory on leadership. It contains fifteen chapters, some of which are listed below:

• Participative Leadership
• Leaders and Their Followers
• Power and Influence
• Traits and Skills
• Charismatic and Transformational Leadership
• Leading Change in Organizations
• Developing Leadership Skills

For Greater Understanding . . 

A Big List of Transformational Leaders (Lots of Them)

This page contains a list of over 125 transformational leaders as well as leaders from certain areas of the world such as Europe and Asia. Oh yes, entrepreneurs that become CEO’s are by definition transformational.

Image by Sid Maier. A collage of famous transformational leaders, some with questionable morals and ethics—but they all many followers.
Image by Sid Maier. A collage of famous transformational leaders, some with questionable morals and ethics—but they all many followers.


The Nature of Visionary Leadership

All leaders are expected to have a vision of the future — a message that convinces followers that to get on board and move forward in the same direction. Unfortunately, visionary leaders are uncommon.

Raphael: Vision of the Cross. Visions given to leaders has been a common theme among some artists.
Raphael: Vision of the Cross. Visions given to leaders has been a common theme among some artists.

A Primer on Charismatic Leadership

Like visionary leadership, charisma is also related to the transformational leadership style. For many, charisma is something you know it, when you experience. It’s one of those hard to define characteristics, like beauty. However, its best to understand it and its characteristics.


Transformational Change

This article present a  context for change, one that typically occurs at five different areas.

Ataturk, General and Statesman,Founder of the modern state of Turkey
George Washington, General & Statesman,  First president of the United States
Rama V, Chulalongkorn the Great, Founder of the modern state of Thailand

A Final Word

Leadership is like roller skating-either you keep moving or you fall down.” — Doc Blakely, humorist

A RAVEN saw a Swan and desired to secure for himself the same beautiful plumage. Supposing that the Swan’s splendid white color arose from his washing in the water in which he swam, the Raven left the altars in the neighborhood where he picked up his living, and took up residence in the lakes and pools. But cleansing his feathers as often as he would, he could not change their color, while through want of food he perished.

From Aesop’s Fables  Moral of the Story: One must know what one can transform and what one cannot.

References and Resources

Alimo-Metcalfe, B. & Alban-Metcalfe, J. (2001). ‘The development of a new Transformational Leadership Questionnaire.’ The Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 74, 1-27

Bass, B.M. & Avolio, B.J. (Eds.). (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Bass, B. M. (1998). Transformational leadership: Industrial, military, and educational impact. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bass, B.M. & Avolio, B.J. (Eds.). (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Bass, Bernard M., Avolio, Bruce J. and Goodheim, Laurie, (1987). Biography and the Assessment of Transformational Leadership at the World-Class Level, Journal of Management. Spring, vol. 13 no. 1 7-19

Bradberry, Travis & Greaves, Jean (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0, TalentSmart.

Burns, J.M. (1978) Leadership, New York, Harper & Row. 

Burns, James MacGregor (2003). Transforming Leadership, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Greenleaf, Robert (1970). The Servant as Leader. Center For Applied Ethics.

Greenleaf, Robert (1983). Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press.

Homrig, Colonel Mark A. (2001). Transformational Leadership, United States Air Force, Air University

Legacee (ND). Famous Transformational Leaders

Maxwell, John C (2001) The 17th Irrefutable Laws of Teamwork, page 185

Pielstick, C.D. (1998). The transforming leader: A meta-ethnographic analysis. Community College Review, 26(3), 15-34.

Tichy, Noel & Devanna, Mary (1986). The Transformational Leader. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. 

Time, Person of the Year Covers, 1927 to 2011

Trompenaars, Fons and Voerman (2009) Servant Leadership Across Cultures. Infinite Ideas.

Yukl, Gary. (2002) Leadership In Organizations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.


Leadership Skill Development