Throughout time some leaders have led movements that transformed situations, lives, and ultimately history itself. Transformational leadership is the study of what happened, what the traits were, and why the actions of a few inspired many to achieve something great (Burns, 1978). This blog explores the transformational leadership continuum and seeks to understand why by comparing development theory.
Transformational leaders reach individuals on a personal level and inspire them to believe in and actively support a cause (Burns, 1978). When Mahatma Gandhi walked to the ocean to make salt, people followed him in a simple protest with a profound message of freedom. The movement led to a civic transformation and Indian independence. When Lilian Gilbreth completed time and motion studies with a goal of improving efficiency, she laid the foundation for Frederick Taylor to refine scientific management (Hoopes, 2003). Their work transformed manufacturing. When Viktor Frankl (1984) helped others while fighting for his own survival in WWII concentration camps, he developed Logotherapy, a psychotherapy focused on finding meaning in one’s life. His work has transformed the lives of countless others over the years. There are a number of leaders who stand-out who have made such differences raising questions as to how they did it.
Burns (1978) studied the traits of historical transformational leaders to find what common traits he could find that led to success or failure. Bass (1990) explains Burns’ results were the discovery of a continuum with three main stops: laissez-faire, transactional leadership, and transformational leadership. Each of these three continuum stops are described next.
A laissez-faire leader demonstrates ambivalence to his or her team and does not regularly engage (Bass, 1990). This type of leader does not build relationships that would inspire trust or confidence (Macaleer & Shannon, 2002; Covey, 2008). Instead, followers tend to deliver results contrary to what the leader would desire out of conscious or unconscious spite. This leadership style should be avoided.
Depending on a follower’s success or failure, a transactional leader will grant or withhold a reward (Bass, 1990). Transactional leaders are effective at getting results in a short period of time without a strong need for a relationship. Organizations do not have unlimited resources and rewards lose some value over time, so this method of leadership, while effective, is not always suited for long-term success.
Transformational leaders build relationships and common goals with their followers (Bass, 1990). What may begin as a transactional relationship can grow into transformational leadership as trust grows and support for a cause inspires. With a good cause and clear leadership, these leaders can champion a movement to transform situations. Transformational leaders are successful because they fulfill the basic needs people have.
Human development is tied to the leadership continuum Bass (1990) describes. Children, especially younger ones, who do not have their needs met tend to act-out in oppositional and defiant ways (Siegel & Bryson, 2016). A parent who is not present for their child, like a laissez-faire leader, is destined to get negative results.
As children mature, they tend to do well with rewards or consequences (Siegel & Bryson, 2016). For instance, earning screen time for doing chores and completing homework are strong motivators to perform. On the other hand, the consequence of not earning rewards when children fail to meet responsibilities motivates as well. Leading children with transactions can be effective while they develop.
Finally, as adolescents reach adulthood, they develop an understanding of the world, their place in it, and the value of relationships (Solso, Maclin, & Maclin, 2008). Their parents have a deep relationship with them and strong trust which give them the foundation to make their own mark on the world. The parent, as a leader, has helped to transform this child into a thriving adult.
The continuum of leadership from laissez-faire to transactional to transformational is based on a relationship level and achieves linked results. People, regardless of age, are wired to respond negatively to being ignored, positively to rewards, and exponentially well to a strong relationship. Individuals respond best when they care about a person and a cause and know that the person and the cause care about them too. Transformational leaders have the power to shape history through their influence. As leaders, when we think about how to get from here to there, we must remember that we are on a transformational journey and relationships and vision are the keys to success.
Bass, B. M. (1990). Handbook of leadership: Theory, research & managerial applications (3rd ed. ). New York: The Free Press
Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: HarperCollins.
Covey, S. M. R. (2008). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. New York: Free Press.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to Logotherapy (3rd ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Hooper, J. (2003). False prophets. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books Group.
Macaleer, W. D., & Shannon, J. B. (2002). Emotional intelligence: How does it affect leadership? Employment Relations Today, 29(3), 9-19.
Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Bantham Books.
Solso, R. L., Maclin, O. H., & Maclin, M. K. (2008). Cognitive psychology (8th ed.). New York: Pearson.
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