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Transforming Goals into Greatness: The Transformational Leadership Style

The transformational leadership style has been with us for thousands of years — being both praised and cursed. This is one leadership style among many, but it’s a really important one in the age of disruption.

Written by Murray Johannsen. Feel free to connect via LinkedIn or directly from this website

“The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on transformational leadership. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them as leaders, and continually develop them.” — John C Maxwell (2001) The 17th Irrefutable Laws of Teamwork, page 185

Transformational Leadership Definitions

“Leadership is like roller skating-either you keep moving or you fall down.” — Doc Blakely, humorist

Essentially, it’s about change—and who doesn’t need to change? This is leadership style is incredibly important in both organizational change and personal transformation.

“Transformational leadership is a type of leadership style that leads to positive changes in those who follow.” —

“Transformational leadership is defined as a leadership approach that causes a change in individuals and social systems.” — Wikipedia

“A style of leadership in which the leader identifies the needed change creates a vision to guide the change through inspiration and executes the change with the commitment of the members of the group.” —

“A leadership style that involves generating a vision for the organization and inspiring followers to meet the challenges that it sets. Transformational leadership depends on the leader’s ability to appeal to the higher values and motives of followers and to inspire a feeling of loyalty and trust.” —

Characteristics of The Style

Four Fundamental Characteristics

My take is that there are 4 desirable elements to a good definition.

a. It’s a Style 

It is a style of leadership — one of many different leadership styles. This means it is best used in certain contexts.

b. It Involves Change

The transformational leadership style and those who follow it are change-oriented. They are not creatures of the status quote. They are men and women of action who understand that “good enough” never is. And what works, could always be made better. That progress is not a dirty word to be resisted in the name of tradition, order, or routine. Sometimes they live within the status quo but their minds see what could be changed.

c. It Requires Vision

One would think that foresight would be common, but it’s not. The ability to understand the predictable trends and then be able to map a path through the swamp of change is not that easy.

d. It includes Charisma

If you want to transform people, charisma helps, it really, really helps.

Great leaders are often transformational. They have to be if you keep in mind the words of Nicollo Machiavelli, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” In The Prince, he further goes, “Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

See: 4 Leadership Lessons From Martin Luther King

Three Transformational Leadership Theories

Three theorists in America are associated with the development of a set of theories describing transformational leadership.

Burns, James MacGregor: A Classic Book on Leadership

James McGregor Burns (1978) is a Pulitzer Prize author who wrote a classic book titled Leadership. He eloquently described qualities transformational leaders possess in different fields of endeavors ranging from the military to business, to politics.

Bass, Bernard: The Research Model

 In many articles and his book, Improving Organizational Effectiveness Through Transformational Leadership, Bass talked about the fundamental theoretical qualities that define transformational leadership from its polar opposite, transactional leadership. According to Bass, these individuals possess:

Inspirational Motivation

This is one of those transformational leadership qualities that is hard to define; like beauty, you know it when you experience it. I remember a quote, about a charismatic individual by the name of Oliver North. One of his men once said about him, “I would follow him to hell since he is the only man I know who could get me back.”

Individualized Consideration

This involves the creation of a compelling picture of the future, a desired future state that people identify with. By creating this vision, the leader provides a means for people to develop commitment, a common goal around which to rally, and a way for people to feel successful. 

Intellectual Stimulation

Transformational leadership is about seeing new ways of looking at old problems since they challenge the existing boundaries and the mental prisons people put themselves into.

Idealized Influence

To inspire is difficult, requiring as it does a decent understanding of psychology.

Murray Johannsen: Four Competencies Used in Training and Coaching

The theory base focused primarily on change and what is needed to change yourself and change others. It is focused on four competencies, four transformational catalysts one can develop. These are:

1. The Transformational Mind-set

A mindset is a worldview—it defines what you believe and how you think. It’s attitudes, values, and feelings.

Most of these schemas and scripts (to use a couple of psychological terms) have been installed very early in life, in our childhood. They are installed without our awareness, and we absorb the culture. And let’s not forget the role of education.

But somewhere along the way, great leaders formed their own beliefs about change and transformation.

2. The Skill of Building Skills

Few know how to build a skill, so they waste countless hours in futile effort in study. It’s like having a car engine running at high RPM with the transmission in neutral—it makes lots of noise, but it’s not going anywhere.

One cannot build skill by reading about it. But, of course, you could be a transformational leadership professor, and you can talk all day about what you cannot do.

3. Self-Mastery

Often the greatest barrier to success is not others, not the environment; it is our self — our Ego.

Strange to say, the most important success tool is also one that is the dullest.  Not only is it dull, it’s hard to sharpen.

4. Social Influence

So if you have an immense amount of authority, subordinates in the vertical chain obey you. In such an environment, you might ask, “Why should I develop influence skills?”

  • Almost everybody has a boss at work. And this individual cannot be influenced by your authority.
  • And everyone has peers at work, and authority does not work on them either.
  • Let’s not forget about customers, suppliers, government officials, and so on—authority doesn’t work on them either.

Managerial authority does not translate into leadership influence for another reason—one cannot order people to change.  

So for these and other reasons, those who lead should not really be in authority.

When Would You Use Transformation Leadership

Transformational leadership helps when you want to:

  • Escape the trap of the status quo,
  • Grow a small business into a larger one
  • Change others & change yourself.

Four Darn Good Reasons To Develop

You can manage to the status quo. But transformational leadership is required for a change.” — Murray Johannsen

This is an image of Ben Franklin. A symbol of the European enlightenment. Franklin was also a successful writer, publisher, entrepreneur, scientist, government sector administrator, politician, and diplomat—a rare individual who was a leader in many different fields.

1. They Can Reverse Organizational Decline

  • Dry rot sets into organizations. They grow old, they atrophy, they die. Stakes are high if transformational leaders fail to emerge when organizations get in trouble. Even civilizations collapse if they are not renewed (see below).
There are many reasons as Dr. Diamond points out. But one important reason is a lack of proper transformational leadership

 2. People Hate Being Managed

It’s important to understand that a key source of job dissatisfaction is the quality of the relationship that exists between an employee and the boss. If a manager lacks leadership skills, morale goes into the dumpster, and turnover skyrockets.

3. Transformational Leadership Is About Having Followers, Not Subordinates

My father had a simple test that helps me measure my own leadership quotient: When you are out of the office he once asked me, does your staff carry on remarkable well without you?” — Martha Peak, 1992

People can tolerate a lot of things. A bad boss is not one of them. Clearly, a major reason people quit. Your BEST LEAVE. For they always have options. 

Engagement (HR speak for morale) is typically higher. Let’s face it, some people don’t trust big business. Others don’t trust big government. But we trust 

4. Leadership Is Needed For Teams To Form and Teamwork To Occur

The venture capital guys like to say that one of their major criteria for putting money into an enterprise is a high-performance team — that great teams build great organizations. Agreed. But a team doesn’t happen by accident. It requires an individual who can mold others into a unit that’s tougher and stronger than individual members.

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Why Is Transformational Leadership Necessary For Organizations?

Image by: Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Notice the conformity displayed by group members. This is what normally happens in large business and governmental bureaucracies. One could argue that practicing transformational leadership in such an organizational culture is extremely difficult.
Image by: Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Notice the conformity displayed by group members. This is what normally happens in large business and governmental bureaucracies. One could argue that practicing transformational leadership in such an organizational culture is extremely difficult.

Over 40 years ago, Luchians, a German psychologist, grew interested in how humans learn. He ran an experiment where he taught a six-step process to transfer water between two containers. After the explanation, he had people practice this technique a few times. He then demonstrated a 3-step process to transfer the water. Despite the obvious ease of the new and improved method, only fifty percent of the group used it. Luchen’s realized that humans quickly form habits. Unfortunately, once a habit forms it’s difficult to modify, even when the new behavior is clearly better than the old.

Habits also form in organizations. The U. S. steel industry is a perfect example of companies refusing to do business differently. The seeds of decline were sown over many years. The crisis started when Japanese steelmakers began to produce high-quality steel. It deepened when Japanese companies could beat the price offered by most U.S. manufacturers.

This occurred despite high transportation costs. The Japanese had to transport scrap iron from the Great Lakes to Japan. In Japan, it was turned into a finished product and shipped back to the United States. Once the quality and productivity advantage was lost, it was just a matter of time until profit margins started eroding and jobs started disappearing.

Organizational dry rot takes many forms. A particularly insidious form consists of a state of complacency where individuals believe, “It ain’t broke,” and “It doesn’t need fixing.” This love of the status quo is especially dangerous in industries with a rapid rate of technical change.

To survive, organizations must grow and adapt. They must continually try out and adopt new ideas. And that is why they need transformational leadership.

The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership

“A rotting fish begins to stink at the head.” Italian Proverb

Certain writers assume individuals exhibiting transformational leadership characteristics are always good and that the changes they bring are always positive. From a standpoint of teaching the young, we want to emphasize the positive. However, this viewpoint excludes many transformational leaders who made the world a worse place.

Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), München, Adolf Hitler vor Feldherrenhalle. It must be remembered that not all transformational leaders produce positive social change.
Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), München, Adolf Hitler vor Feldherrenhalle. It must be remembered that not all transformational leaders produce positive social change.

Hitler was an extremely effective, charismatic who turned a weak democratic state into a strong totalitarian one. He remained an amazing popular Fuhrer until the very end. Few Germans questioned his decisions, goals, methods, and the vision of a Thousand Year Reich. However, that vision brought ruin to Germany and much of Europe. In fact, the greatest mass murderers were transformational leaders. On a shortlist of 20th Century heads of state that wanted to transform people by killing them we would have:

  • Mao Tse Dung
  • Joseph Stalin
  • Adolf Hitler
  • Pol Pot.

One-way to look judge the value of transformational leadership is to make a judgment on whether the changes initiated made life better or worse. As one can see from the list above, change does not always mean a society prospers.

Sometimes transformational efforts result in destruction for those taking up the call. This is an important thing to understand about transformational leadership — sometimes those individuals do not make things better — sometimes, they can make things worse. Progress is not assured. (The Economist: The Idea of Progress).

Take the example of the First Emperor of China. One can argue the end (unifying China) was admirable. However, to achieve that end, the means used by the Emperor was war — wars resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands. (Qin Shi Huang, Wikipedia)

For the transformational leadership style to make things better, we would have to assume a set of virtues and an ability to make wise decisions. However, it is often the case that these individuals lack both wisdom and virtue (Capital Virtues, Virtues Science)

Get Personalized Guidance in the Practice of Transformational Leadership

“A leadership book typically teaches you what, but coaching teaches you how.” — Unknown

Access Site Resources

“It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.” — Ralph Ellison


Aggarwal, J. & Krishnan, V. (2014). Impact of transformational leadership on follower’s self-efficacy: moderating role of follower’s impression management. Management and Labour Studies. 38(4). 297-313.

Alimo-Metcalfe, B. & Alban-Metcalfe, J. (2001). ‘The development of a new Transformational Leadership Questionnaire.’ The Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 74, 1-27

Bass, B.M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Bass, B.M. & Avolio, B.J. (Eds.). (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Bass, B. M. (1998). Transformational leadership: Industrial, military, and educational impact. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bass, B.M. & Avolio, B.J. (Eds.). (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Bass, Bernard M., Avolio, Bruce J. and Goodheim, Laurie, (1987). Bibliography of Transformational Leadership, Journal of Management. Spring, vol. 13 no. 1 7-19

Burns, James MacGregor (2003). Transforming Leadership, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. (A Classic book) Twenty-five years after the publication of Leadership, Burns expands his theories. He starts by explaining the two opposing styles: those who occupy the position (they arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic) and those who transform not only their own position but those around it (they fix the ship). Burns draws on numerous examples from history, citing meaningful examples from the lives of great political transformational leaders. Unlike many writers, he possesses deep insight into recent psychological approaches and so has a more profound understanding of the transformational leadership style.

Burton, L. J., & Peachey, J. W. (2009). Transactional or transformational? Leadership preferences of Division III athletic administrators. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, 2(2), 245-259.

Hobbs, C. (2016). Motivating the motivators. Interscholastic Athletic Administrator. Winter 2016.

Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2012). The leadership challenge: how to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. Hoboken: NJ. Wiley Brand.

Homrig, Colonel Mark A. (2001). Transformational Leadership, United States Air Force, Air University

Lim, J. & Cromartie, F. (2008). Transformational Leadership, Organizational Culture and Organizational Effectiveness in Sport Organizations. The Sport Journal. 19(2).

Peachey, J.W., J. Burton, L., & E. Wells, J. (2014). Examining the influence of transformational leadership, organizational commitment, job embeddedness, and job search behaviors on turnover intentions in intercollegiate athletics. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 35(8), 740-755. 10.1108/LODJ-10-2012-0128

Peachey, J. W., Zhou, Y., Damon, Z. J., & Burton, L. J. (2015). Forty Years of Leadership Research in Sport Management: A Review, Synthesis, and Conceptual Framework. Journal of Sport Management, 29(5), 570-587. doi:10.1123/jsm.2014-0126

Yusof, A. (1998). The relationship between transformational leadership behaviors of athletic directors and coaches’ job satisfaction. Physical Educator. 55(4). 170-175.

Tichy, Noel & Devanna, Mary (1986). The Transformational Leader. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. 

Last updated in July 18, 2023  First published in March of 2014

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