Have You Known Any Transformational Leaders?

I tend to be suspicious of anything labeled “transformative” or “transformational”. One theory of mediation says that mediation should seek to be “transformative” as opposed to “evaluative”. I am more of the “evaluative” school—rather than seeking to transform the relationships between the parties, I just want to get the case settled. So when I hear about “transformational leadership”, my first inclination is to roll my eyes.

But then, in most of the cases I mediate, the parties are not going to have an ongoing relationship. Where there is an ongoing relationship, maintaining—or even improving—the relationship is important. When I think about leadership—which presumes a relationship between the leader and followers—it occurs to me that perhaps the adjectives “transformative” and “transformational” make more sense than in mediation.


Image from AboutLeaders.com

The term “transformational leadership” was first used in 1973 by J.V. Downton in his book, Rebel Leadership.  A few years later, the author James MacGregor Burns, in Leadership (1978), defined “transformational leadership” as “A relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.”

This definition sets high aspirations for both leaders and their followers:

  • As leaders, do we really want to convert our followers into leaders themselves?
  • As leaders, do we really want to become moral agents?

These are important questions for leaders to ask. The best leaders would probably answer “yes” to these questions, but perhaps not all leaders would, and not in every context.

In most corporate settings, however, getting one’s followers to take on a leadership mantle—to act independently in furtherance of corporate goals—is a desirable thing, assuming that the followers understand the goals and have the knowledge to fulfill those goals.

Similarly, Mark McCloskey, in “What is Transformational Leadership?”  defines the term as

the process of creating, sustaining and enhancing leader-follower, follower-leader and leader-leader partnerships in pursuit of a common vision, in accordance with shared values and on behalf of the community in which leaders and followers jointly serve. In the context of this process of service and partnership, both the leader and follower, and eventually the entire community experience increasing levels of congruity with the ethos, vision and values of the community.

He says,

Transformational leaders are catalysts for a process of change in which leaders, followers and the community become more and more like who they aspire to be and act more and more in accordance with what they want to do. Leaders invite followers and the entire community to journey with them to a better future, which more fully embodies their personal and collective vision and honors their shared values.

The Transformational Leadership Report, (available at http://www.transformationalleadership.net/products/products.php), cites Bernard Bass for the proposition that that there are three ways in which transformational leaders transform their followers:

• By increasing their awareness of task importance and value.

• By getting them to focus first on team or organizational goals, rather than their own interests.

• By activating their higher-order needs.

Transformational leaders use their influence and charisma, their ability to inspire and motivate, their knowledge of the organization and its goals, and their attention to the individual needs of their followers to transform their followers into leaders.

As I read these articles on transformational leaders, I immediately thought of the various bosses I’ve had and other high-level people in organizations where I’ve worked.

Only two of my past bosses came close to qualifying as “transformational”. One worked very openly to develop his followers into leaders. I knew when he was coaching me and what he was trying to accomplish. The other was more subtle, but perhaps more effective. His coaching seemed more designed to address my personal development in ways that met the organization’s goals, and less designed to tell me that he was a leader and I should be also.

I also thought the more subtle boss came closer to becoming a “moral agent”, as Burns defined “transformational leaders”. I saw this boss as working better across divisions in the organization, whereas the more overt boss’s efforts seemed focused on his own and his division’s superiority over the rest of the company.

Have you known any transformational leaders? What makes you think they were transformational?



Filed under Leadership

2 responses to “Have You Known Any Transformational Leaders?

  1. Sara I really appreciate this approach also – as you’ve described, “The other was more subtle, but perhaps more effective. His coaching seemed more designed to address my personal development in ways that met the organization’s goals, and less designed to tell me that he was a leader and I should be also.” I find that leaders, mentors, or anyone developing people are more effective when they recognize and customize their approach to the individual rather than try to create a “mini-me.” Great point here!

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