The Elements of Transformational Leadership

transformational leadership
This extract from Wellbeing at Work by Cary Cooper and Ian Hesketh is ©2019 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.


Transformational leadership

One of the popular frameworks of leadership is that of transforming leadership. Initially coined by James Downton in 1973 following his research into charismatic leadership, it was influenced largely by Bernard Bass, and his instrumental book Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations (1985). Bass set out to unpick just what it was about leadership that inspired extraordinary achievement, and large contributions of discretionary effort. As set out in Figure 1.3 (Chapter 1), the benefits of tapping in to reserves of discretionary effort are clear, and something most leaders aspire to carry out. So, what are these traits that great leaders seem to have in buckets? What is more, can these be learnt, or are they something we are born with? Mobilizing followers while having credibility and commitment and creating job satisfaction, meaning and purpose for others is really the essence of transformational leadership. With so much change in business, and the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution in the making, it is clear to see that organizations can benefit from the approach.

If we now look at the four areas, although we concede there are many sub-divisions of these we can begin to understand what these leadership attributes may look like. What is more important is that we can start to define what it is you might be looking for in people you desire to lead your own particular work setting. Or, what development needs existing leaders may have. What is clear about trans- formational leadership is its congruence with wellbeing. We share the view that this may largely be down to the notion that it moves followers beyond self-interest, to see work as a greater good rather than simply a transaction for money, for example. In terms of wellbeing, you may begin to see how the concepts of meaning and purpose become more vivid. We look at the four main areas first, commonly known as the 4 ‘I’s’, these being:

  • Idealized Influence (II)
  • Inspirational Motivation (IM)
  • Intellectual Stimulation (IS)
  • Individual Consideration (IC)


These are usually compared with transactional leadership attributes of:

  • Contingent Reward (CR)
  • Management by Exception (MBE)

A last anomaly, which must not be entirely dismissed but fills in a leadership gap in the majority of text, is the style of:

  • Laissez-Faire (LF)

It may be helpful here to offer an explanation of what these words are describing before we suggest a simplified version for you to operationalize in Figure 2.3. Although when described, these facets of transforming leadership take on some meaning, we suggest that in these terms they are not, well, very usable. To overcome this, we provide a working solution that fits with our overall aim of improving wellbeing at work.



Idealized influence

This is a description that conjures up faith and respect in your leader. It suggests charisma, devotion, awe and emotional attachment. Now, we can see a little red flag here, and our good friend from Australia, Professor Ken Parry, suggests this may not be all good if one ends up falling in love with their leader, so a certain amount of caution is advised! However, broadly speaking we suggest that charismatic leaders are attractive to followers, and make people feel good in their work, linking solidly to meaning and purpose.

This is an active and effective approach and, as in Figure 2.3, we suggest it could be simplified as credibility. In other words, what credibility does this leader have in the eyes of the follower? Sometimes this is quite difficult to describe. We may look to see if the leader has achieved great things, thought great thoughts, articulated great narratives, or is just a nice person whom people look to and like.

As the late Warren Bennis, an American author, scholar and organizational consultant, famously noted on leadership, ‘Leadership is like beauty; it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it’ (Bennis, 1989).


Inspirational motivation

To inspire and motivate are attributes that all leaders must possess. Communication skills and effective engagement is key to success here. Looking at our first point, leaders do not necessarily have to be charismatic to inspire others, they can have deep values, be highly ethical, champion a cause and such-like descriptions. People high on this are also highly committed, whether that be to an organization or a cause, or of course both. People can be inspired both intellectually and emotionally, through feelings, thoughts, needs and the ability to attach and align to their own meaning and purpose. When people see this in others we suggest it forms a bond, and in leadership this can be a powerful bond. It can result in high levels of loyalty, contribution and work satisfaction. There is a connection here to the individual and their identity, maybe feelings of being valued, supported and trusted spring to mind; that their work is important and valued as such. We suggest that this approach is both highly effective and active.


Intellectual stimulation

Work needs to be challenging. We often hear of burnout, but rustout is very real also. This occurs when employees become bored or tiresome, when the work does not challenge them either physically, mentally, or both. The role of the leader can really make the difference, providing the much-needed links to meaning and purpose. One may look at the role of education or teaching within this area, the role of a leader in guiding the way, through thoughts and deed, being a role model, having knowledge and skills they can pass on to those work- ing for them. Referring back to the VUCA world modelled in  Figure 1.2, the ability of a leader to navigate their workforce through these dilemmas requires problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to delegate, to trust, to support and talk positively about those in their charge.



Individualized consideration

This is our closest wellbeing area, and as such we show this as highly effective and active. This active element indicates that, like most things that impact on wellbeing, it requires time, energy, consideration and a deep sense of caring for others. This is borne out in the feelings of the recipients of this caring. Is it seen as authentic, genuine and long lasting? Another aspect of this, and one for leadership more generally, is whether it feels personal to each recipient. The ability of certain leaders to instil in others these feelings of personal focus can be very powerful, and often leads to huge payback in terms of work commitment, loyalty, discretionary effort, productivity and performance. As such it is a highly desirable attribute. Within this aspect we can introduce elements of continuous professional development, coaching, mentoring and career opportunities.


Transactional leadership

Wellbeing at work coverIf we now take a brief moment to look at transactional attributes, and how they may manifest, we will see the impact these can potentially have on wellbeing, especially if sustained over long periods. The crux of the relationship between subordinate and lead is what the subordinate does for reward, or to avoid being punished. The reward may come in several forms, such as gaining financial reward, or not reducing, or benefitting from the transaction financially. In terms of psychological contract, it is probably the easiest relationship to consume – and be broken. Interestingly, the earliest forms of discretion, in terms of factory labour, were openly discouraged. This was largely due to discretion being associated with the freedom to make mistakes on the production line. The theory was that little freedom, or discretion, meant fewer mistakes and better quality; productivity was calculated as such and rigidly adhered to. Now if we take that and plonk the model into the VUCA world we described earlier you can instantly see the potential for problems. As such, we argue that discretion is good, discretionary effort is a clear sign of wellbeing, satisfaction, loyalty and happiness, and as such ought to be promoted and seen as good practice. One of the divisive outcomes of transactional leadership is that it can lead to deep-rooted competitive behaviours being played out in the workplace, gaming and other such outcomes. We suggest these are certainly not good for a spirit of wellbeing to coexist, and are certainly not sustainable.

Taking a look at these two aspects of transactional leadership brings to mind a couple of HR issues that may arise, or cause a rethink. Namely, that the reward and recognition mechanisms in place in some organizations, and how these almost conflict with these two areas. Remember, however attractive they may seem superficially, we are suggesting these approaches are not congruent with wellbeing!


Contingent reward

This is described as the means by which workers transact for reward, and how that reward may be given, or alternatively, not be reduced or withdrawn. Notions of piecework spring to mind, incentive schemes and so on. The employee works only on the understanding that they will be in receipt of reward, or will not be punished or sanctioned, as the name suggests work is contingent on the pay-off; an exchange. There is a minor exception here, in that the reward could be psychological, but we do not consider this a powerful-enough rationale to warrant a green light for this sort of approach!


Management by exception

This is a negativity-based approach. It can include negative criticism, negative outcomes, threats and coercion. It is akin to micro- management, whereby in its active tense the leader is on the prowl for mistakes, errs and excuses for punishment or belittlement. In its passive use, the leader giving a bad appraisal out of the blue, without telling the employee when and where their work could have been improved or rectified, may practise management by exception. This is both passive and ineffective, and we suggest can have long-term psychological affects on employees, especially if they are exposed to these over long periods of time. Simplified, this can be likened to being treated like a child in the workplace.



The final leadership factor, or as it is sometimes known, the non-leadership factor, is laissez-faire. The astute will recognize it is a French phrase, meaning hands off, or let things be. It implies little or no leadership activity, no development, encouragement, no shouting, fault finding or anything. Nothing positive, but nothing negative either. Now, as we are considering wellbeing, this may well be con- strued as effective in some finite circumstances, for example where a team of highly specialized people are working on a highly technical piece of work, and the last thing they need is interference of any kind. A family business may also see this in a limited form, where there is no requirement for any interventions, development or otherwise. We suggest a modicum of effectiveness as there may be collegiate under- standing that this is the case, therefore it is not ineffective.


Leadership summary

To conclude this section on leadership, hopefully we have illustrated a few considerations for those charged with recruitment and promotion into management positions, usually HR professionals. We have focused on transformational leadership, as more research has been conducted on this than all other leadership theories combined (Judge and Bono, 2000). What we hope we have shown above is the criticality of having the right people leading in an organization. One of the dangers is that operational competence is rewarded by a management appointment, and we suggest that leading people is very much a skill in itself and should be carefully considered. We have argued that line management is a serious step, and those taking up people responsibilities should be adequately trained, equipped and supported for the vital role they will play.

Taking into account the VUCA world we described earlier and the criticality of discretionary effort, it is easy to see why getting the lead- ership part of our basic equation right can lead to big dividends. As often quoted, the late great Albert Einstein is believed to have pro- posed, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’(Einstein, in Lau, 2011).

We have provided two illustrations above in Figures 2.2 and 2.3 that attempt to simplify what is potentially a very complex world. This is in the hope that it provides a memorable way of thinking about leadership in everyday business and informs the decision mak- ing that accompanies business as usual. Leadership is probably one of the hardest concepts to get right in the workplace, being almost a constant balancing act. What is commonly accepted is that positive leadership behaviours impact positively on wellbeing, and negative leadership behaviours impact negatively. We suggest that wellbeing provides a lens by which to make sense of the complexity of leadership, and thus renders it a useful tool for viewing and arranging work to the benefit of the workforce. We will explore this further in the next section when we look at what creating the right environment looks like.


This extract from Wellbeing at Work by Cary Cooper and Ian Hesketh is ©2019 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

For more information, see Wellbeing at Work.


Bennis, W G (1989) On Becoming a Leader, Century, London

Judge, T A and Bono, J E (2000) Five-factor model of personality and transformational leadership, Journal of Applied Psychology, 85 (5), pp 751–65

Einstein, in Lau, 2011: Lau, J Y F (2011) An Introduction to Critical Thinking and Creativity [Electronic Resource]: Think More, Think Better, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ

Angelus, in Rathus: Rathus, S A (2012) Psychology: Concepts and connections, 10th edn, Wadsworth, Belmont, CA

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