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Transformational leaders: Theory and Practice

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Now, when we hear the word transform, most of us geeky folk think of a yellow Camaro that can change into a giant space robot... While that is really cool, that's not exactly what we are talking about here. The point that I really want to get across is that leaders must transform their teams and themselves with the changing tides of business and culture. A transformational leader motivates, inspires, and encourages team members and peers to be innovative and hands on as organizations change. The transformational leader challenges the status quo, empowers employees, and binds them together through inclusion and a common vision for organizational and individual success.

Transformational Leadership Theory is one of the most popular approaches to leadership and is considered a new paradigm of leadership practice. Transformational Leadership is the process that transforms organizations by changing its people. The main tenants behind transformational leadership are concerned with emotions, values, ethics, standards and long-term goals. If 2020 taught us anything, its that leaders MUST be aware of these tenants and how they impact their employees. Here, we will dive into two overarching tools to help you lead your teams - inspiration and motivation.

Inspiration and Motivation

Inspiring and motivating your staff may seem difficult and time consuming but are incredibly important pieces of leadership. An inspired employee will work harder, operate more efficiently, and will be more productive than an uninspired one.

The first steps to inspiration is a common, and agreed upon, vision and mission. Without these, your staff will be running around all "Willy Nilly" with no target to shoot at. If your staff truly believes in and is contributing to the mission and vision, they will be "bought in" and have equity in the organization.

Two highly important aspects of transformational leadership, motivation, and inspiration are diversity and inclusion. These are key components to success in becoming a transformational leader. I have personally found that having a diverse team will give you answers to problems that never would have been created otherwise. I've worked on both sides of this spectrum. As a Marine in an infantry battalion, diversity was extremely hard to come by - as were new ideas on how to do things. Decisions were made and orders carried out. That's the way we needed to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan - and it worked. My current team is extremely diverse, with backgrounds that span the spectrum of walks of life and experience. Some of the ideas that are thrown out there in our "innovation hours" (explained below) blow me away. I often find myself saying, "I never would have thought of that", which is an amazing thing to have happen.

Inclusion goes a long way in the inspiration and motivation realms. An employee who is included is one who has buy in to the organization and is motivated to succeed. Inclusion can be defined as, "the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure". It's a very basic definition of the word but gives us a foundation from which to build upon. Inclusion goes far beyond, well, including... As a transformational leader, your job is to invite participation. Include your staff in important decision... Ask for their opinions because the outcome of these decisions can and will likely have an impact on your staff. Allowing them to be a part of the process will build trust and a cohesiveness that can't be found otherwise. As we look at inspiration and motivation through the lens of TLT, here are a few crucial pillars to consider.

Intellectual Stimulation: Transformational leaders not only challenge the status quo, they also encourage creativity among followers. If you want to inspire your people, challenge them to be better. A few ways that this can be done are through what I call "Innovation Hours". This is time that is set aside for your people to create and innovate based on an established problem set! I started incorporating this into our weekly schedule. I give my staff four hours a week to create "outside the box" ideas to solve organizational problems. We have come up with some amazing solutions that have created significant impact to our organization.

Individualized Consideration: Transformational leadership also involves offering support and encouragement to individual followers. Each one of your employees have different desires, passions, goals, and are inspired by different things. This is where knowing your staff becomes so important. One employee may be intrinsically motivated and love that yearly bonus. Another employee may really desire educational opportunities and professional development. As a transformational leader, you have to understand these differences, and plan accordingly.

Idealized Influence: The transformational leader serve as a role model for followers. Your people are looking at you and to you! They are watching how you interact with others, how you respond to stress, and how you carry yourself outside of the workplace. Followers want to trust and respect a leader. This trust comes from action, not words. Show them how to lead and soon enough, if you are lucky, you will have trained your staff to become transformational leaders themselves. And if you are REALLY lucky, you may one day lead someone into taking your place.

Transformational leadership is not the end-all, be-all to leadership theory. It is an important piece to the holistically healthy and effective leader we are all trying to be. Leadership styles must be malleable depending on those being led, and a good leader will recognize the need to change things up when inspiration and motivation are lacking. I look forward to your thoughts on leadership and what works for you. "Start strong and finish well"!

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