Leadership Theory Research: Transformational Leadership

Dion Ginanto & Xutong Wang (2014) – Michigan State University

The quote from Napoleon Bonaparte, “an army of rabbits commanded by a lion could do better than an army of lions commanded by a rabbit” (Bass, 1990), reminds us of the important function of a leader and leadership. A leader should be able to inspire and motivate his/her team member as Wexner did by converting his vision of a nationwide chain of women’s sportswear stores into reality through his own hard work. Wexner stimulated employee participation in discussions, and he encouraged them to share (Bass, 1990).  Further, Bass (1990) gave another example of leadership, H. Ross Perot, who was willing to be involved in the rescue of two of his employees trapped as hostages in Iran 1979. Perot is an example of individualized consideration, which is one of the important elements of leadership. Leading by inspiring, motivating, and valuing others is what we call transformational leadership. There are several theories of leadership, including transformational leadership that we need to know in order to increase our awareness that all of us are leaders. Transformational leadership has become a popular paradigm among scholars due to its emphasis on intrinsic motivation and follower development, which fits the needs of today’s work groups, who want to be inspired and empowered to succeed in times of uncertainty. This paper discusses further definition of transformational leadership, its history, its strengths and criticism, and its key factors.

                                      Definition of Transformational Leadership

A transformational leader is a leader who transforms his/her associates from zero to hero.  Burns, in McCloskey (1991), defined transformational leadership as “a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents” (Burns in McCloskey, 1991). Further, Callow (2011) asserted that transformational leaders are those who stimulate and inspire their followers to achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their followers’ own leadership capacity. This leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in ways that result in leaders and followers raising one another to higher levels of motivation and morality (Burns, 1978).

Transformational leaders are often charismatic. Transformational leaders always have large amounts of enthusiasm, which, if relentlessly applied, can wear out their followers. Transformational leaders also tend to see the big picture, but not the details. If they do not have people to take care of the detailed level of information, then they are usually doomed to fail. Transformational leaders, by definition, seek to transform. When the organization does not need transforming and people are happy as they are, then such a leader will feel frustrated.

                                      The History of Transformational Leadership

Friedman and Langbert, (2000), MindTools (n.d), and McCloskey, (1991), agreed that the term “transformational leadership” was introduced by James McGregor Burns in 1978. Burns (1978), in his famous book Leadership, stressed the important connection between leaders and followers. However, Northouse (2013) believed that the term “transformational leadership” was first coined by Downton in 1973, and then was continued by James McGregor Burns in 1978. There are several prominent scholars who have focused on transformational leadership: House (1976), who was famous with his charismatic leadership, and Bass (1985), who drew close relationship between transactional and transformational leadership (Northhouse, 2013).

                                       Four Transformational Leadership Factors

Northouse (2013) listed four important factors that develop transformational leadership, which are called the Four I’s: (1) idealized influence; (2) inspirational motivation; (3) intellectual stimulation; and (4) individual consideration. After considering these four aspects, we can gain the effect of “ performance beyond expectations.”

First of all, idealized influence, means charismatic vision and behavior that inspires others to follow. This aspect is about building confidence and trust and providing a role model that followers seek to emulate. Leaders are “admired, respected, and trusted.”

Second, inspirational motivation means leadership that motivates the whole organization. This means that almost all transformational leaders make a clear description of the future, provide the team member the chance to see the actual meaning of their work, and require them to achieve higher standard. Leaders advocate that team members be a part of the organization environment. Inspirational motivation requires leaders to inspire others by using passionate speeches and conversation to make things come true. Therefore, transformational leaders lead their team members to make contributions to the whole organization.

The third factor is intellectual stimulation. This aspect refers to a leader who needs to encourage his/her team members’ creativity and innovation. A transformational leader advocates team members to be creative, and to change old problems in some new ways. They empower team members by persuading them to accept new ideas without fear of punishment.

The final factor is individualized consideration. This aspect means that a leader not only cares about the whole organizational development, but also about every subordinate’s needs, abilities, and aspirations. Team members are treated individually and differently on the basis of their talents and knowledge. At this point, a transformational leader will become a teacher or consultant, and will help the lower subordinates meet their problems and challenges during the working period of the organization.

                                                      Strengths and Criticisms

Northouse (2013) listed several strengths and weaknesses of transformational leadership. By understanding its strengths and weaknesses, we -as leaders- will be able to figure out when and where we can apply this concept. There are five strengths of transformational leadership, according to Northhouse (2013): (1) transformational leadership has been widely researched from many different perspectives, including a series of qualitative studies of prominent leaders and chief executive officers (CEOs) in larger, well-known organizations; (2) transformational leadership has intuitive appeal; it is appealing that a leader will provide a vision for the future; (3) transformational leaders treat leadership as a process that occurs between followers and leaders; (4) the transformational approach provides a broader view of leadership that augments other leadership models; (5) transformational leadership places a strong emphasis on followers’ needs, values, and morals; and (6) there is  evidence (based on research) that transformational leadership is an effective form of leadership (pp. 200-202).

Northouse (2013) also listed several weaknesses of transformational leadership: (1) transformational leadership is too general and broad -it is difficult to define exactly the parameters of transformational leadership; (2) the four I’s are factors which correlate highly with each other, which means they are not distinct factors (Tejeda, Scandura, & Pillai, 2001, in Northhouse, 2013); (3) transformational leadership treats leadership as a personality trait or personal disposition rather than as a behavior that people can learn (Brayman, 1992, in Norhtouse, 2013); (4) researchers have not established that transformational leaders are actually able to transform individuals and organizations (Antonakis, 2012, in Northouse, 2013); (5) transformational leadership tends to be more elitist and anti-democratic (Avolio, 1999; Bass & Avolio, 1993, in Northouse 1993); and (6) transformational leadership has the potential to be abused (pp. 202-204).


    All in all, given all the explanations of transformational leadership, as well as its strengths and weaknesses, this kind of leadership theory can be applied to all organizations, including educational institutions. This leadership theory could enrich the quality of a leader. The nature of leadership is that there must be a closed connection between leaders and their associates; therefore transactional leadership will best serve increased trust and collaboration within an organization. When leaders are able to transform the positive ideas and values of the organization to their followers, then the organization’s goals and vision are easily achieved.


Bass, B.M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision.  Academic Journal, Organizational Dynamics. 18(3) 19-27.

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

Callow, N. (2011) Transformational leadership in higher education. The Higher Education Academy.

Friedman, H.H., & Langbert, M. (2000). Abraham as a transformational leader. Journal of Leadership Studies. 7(2), 88-95.

McClosky, M.W. (1991). What is transformational leadership? ML513/ML791

MindTools (n.d). Transformational leadership: Becoming inspirational leader. Retrieved from: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/transfromational-leadership.htm

Northouse, P.G. (2013) Leadership: Theory and practice (6th Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.