What Is Transformational Leadership? [+ How It Drives Innovation]

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Think about the best boss you’ve ever had. What made them great?

Were they open to new ideas? Did they lead with humility? Showed empathy when you needed it? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, this person could be considered a transformational leader.

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Transformational leaders empower and motivate others to achieve extraordinary feats and, in the process, sharpen their own leadership skills.

Here, we’ll cover the basics of transformational leadership, define the key characteristics of this style, and see how it differs from transactional leadership.

To get a better idea of how transformational leadership plays out in the workplace, we need to look at its four primary elements:

  • Idealized influence — this is the degree to which a leader models the behavior they want followers to emulate. In doing so, they gain trust and respect from their followers.
  • Inspirational motivation — this is the degree to which a leader articulates a vision and outlines future goals. By aligning followers under a singular vision, they can drive the group forward.
  • Individualized consideration — this is the degree to which a leader tends to each follower’s needs and acts as a mentor or coach. As a result, followers feel empowered to make individual contributions to the team.
  • Intellectual stimulation — this is the degree to which a leader challenges assumptions, takes risks, and solicits ideas and feedback. The goal here is to stimulate creativity in their followers.

Now let’s take a closer look at the impact of this leadership style in the workplace.

Why is transformational leadership effective?

1. Promotes psychological safety.

Transformational leaders know that psychological safety is key for encouraging participation, bringing new ideas forward, and uncovering solutions. They urge people to think independently and challenge the status quo.

Part of fostering psychological safety is replacing criticism with curiosity. For example, if an employee misses a few deadlines, transformational leaders don’t spend too much time on fault. Instead, they might say, “I’ve noticed you missed a few deadlines this month. I assume there are some factors impacting your performance. Can you walk me through what those are?”

Ultimately, it’s up to the leader to model the behavior they want to see from their employees. In doing so, they foster an environment of trust and respect.

2. Prioritizes career development.

Transformational leaders act as a mentor or coach to their employees. They make themselves available to support and advise others when they need it. Most importantly, they look for opportunities – and even create opportunities – to help their employees get closer to their goals.

3. Boosts innovation and high performance.

Transformational leaders don’t shy away from risks, and they often push themselves — and their employees — outside of their comfort zone. Sometimes, this means failure. But other times, it results in exciting, innovative solutions. This motivates employees to keep raising the bar and improving team performance.

4. Cuts down on micromanaging.

Transformational leaders value employee autonomy more than oversight. They give space to employees to work autonomously and make decisions.

That said, this isn’t a complete laissez-faire style. Leaders provide clear instructions and the necessary resources for employees to do their job. Additionally, they provide appropriate, well-timed support without overstepping boundaries.

5. Nurtures a growth mindset.

Transformational leaders embrace new ideas, solicit feedback, and admit when they’re wrong. In other words, they aren’t afraid to learn and grow.

This type of growth mindset is contagious in the workplace, allowing employees to feel comfortable making mistakes, receiving constructive criticism, and keeping an open mind.

Transformational Leadership vs. Transactional Leadership

Transactional versus transformational leadership is not a question of good versus bad. While polar opposite, both are effective in different situations.

To state the obvious, transactional leadership involves a transaction. Leaders set goals and, in exchange for achieving them, employees receive rewards.

It involves maintaining a status quo, hitting specific targets, and controlling outcomes. While this approach may seem cold or impersonal, it’s an effective approach for mid-to-large organizations operating under rigid targets or rules.

For instance, imagine a sales team grinding to hit a certain quota per week. Or line workers at a manufacturing plant inspecting a certain number of products per day.

This is quite different from transformation leadership where employees are given autonomy and space to create and innovate. This is a fitting approach for organizations looking to retain and develop talent instead of meeting a fixed quota.

Transformational Leadership Examples

1. Marissa Andrada, Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and People Officer at Chipotle.

“HR leaders need to have clarity on values, with a deep understanding of who the company is and what it stands for as an organization.”

2. Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at HubSpot.

“When things have gone sideways (big or small), we have always leaned into transparency and being upfront with people about what we have learned from the experience. We also try to actively celebrate failure. Doing so helps ensure we don’t just celebrate the things that go perfectly and that our leaders set the tone on failure as part of our journey.”

3. Indra Nooyi, Former CEO of PepsiCo.

“If you don’t give people a chance to fail, you won’t innovate. Most importantly, we want to create a company where every employee can bring their whole selves to work.”

Back To You

Transformational leadership could be the difference between a stagnant team and a high-performing one. It enables you to retain and develop talent while driving positive change. If you’re in a leadership role, consider how this style could take your team to the next level.

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