Transformational Leadership: an idea that refuses to go away

Transformational Leadership: an idea that refuses to go away

The recent election of Donald Trump as once and future king president of the United States of America has brought back to the fore an idea of leadership that is simultaneously popular and widely denigrated, that is, the idea of ‘transformational leadership’. Like the idea of a school ‘superhead’ or a powerful business CEO, transformational leaders are understood to be exceptional individuals who are able to ‘transform’ followers through inspirational motivation to achieve much more than they would be otherwise inclined to do. And although it is tricky to claim to speak for the motives and aspirations of millions of people that I have not met and do not know, the apparent impact of The Donald’s speeches on his supporters certainly appears to fulfil the requirements of the role.

Popularised by Bernard Bass in the 1980s (and therefore sharing some of the motifs of that decade), transformational leadership is often summarised under four headings[1]:

  1. Idealized (or charismatic) influence – leaders become role models who are admired and emulated by followers. Normally, ethical and moral integrity is taken as a prerequisite.
  2. Inspirational motivation – the work of followers is given meaning and invokes enthusiasm and optimism for a desired future state.
  3. Intellectual stimulation – followers are helped to be innovative and creative by questioning assumptions and approaching old situations in new ways. Followers are included in problem-solving, creativity is openly encouraged and mistakes are not criticised.
  4. Individualised consideration – followers receive personal attention, with mentoring and coaching being used as a means of development and growth. Tasks are delegated and monitored unobtrusively, to see if additional support or direction is needed.

As a relatively young academic discipline, leadership studies is still populated by many of the academics who coined the different models and ideas that we are exploring in this series. As such, there is ongoing competition to define the landscape and to produce the theories that others will discuss. Transformational leadership has its cheerleaders and its detractors, but the very existence of these detractors suggests that it remains one of the dominant theories (why attack something that isn’t that important?). The transformational leadership ‘bubble’ has not burst. It has not yet been discarded to the scrapheap of history as yet another outdated management fad. Reactions against the perceived individualistic / ‘heroic’ nature of transformational leadership, expressed in ideas such as servant leaders or distributed leadership, will be considered later in this series. As I have presented this model of leadership to students, reactions have tended to split down the middle, with half seeing it as troublesome and individualistic and the other half seeing it as a model and ideal to live up to.

One of the problems with this model is that only the success stories get written up, so that those leaders who took this approach but whose organisations crashed and burned remain unknown. Keith Grint criticises it as representative of the “Western fetish for heroic individuals” (ever since the ancient Greeks. I blame Hercules). One valid criticism is that it tends to focus attention on leaders at the top of organisations and it pays too little attention to leadership as a group phenomenon, whereby informal leadership is shown by those lower down the organisational hierarchy[2].

Without doubt, if transformational leadership consisted primarily of the first two aspects listed above (idealised influence and inspirational motivation), then the potential for misdirection and harm is obvious. In the case of Donald Trump, it is the impression that he embodies the first two without much thought of or care for the second two (intellectual stimulation and individualised consideration) that provides most cause for concern. But it is the second two that help to redeem and limit the harm that the first two might cause if left to their own devices. Gerald Arbuckle[3] provides a robust defence of this model for leadership for the church, especially in a chapter entitled The transformational leadership of ‘authority dissenters’.  A couple of quotations will serve to illustrate:

“For the transforming leader, the only constant in today’s economic, political, social and religious world is change and the only stability possible is stability in motion. No business firm, no organisation of any kind, including the Church, can ignore the reality of radical uncertainty at the heart of all change. Innovate or die.” (p101)

“If deep in my heart I become aware of the manipulative tendencies in my leadership, despite the rhetoric I give to others, I have self-knowledge of immense worth” (p120)

The third and fourth criteria listed above thus help to protect the best examples of transformational leadership from grandiosity, power-seeking and potential destructiveness. Rather than seeking destructive consent, they encourage constructive dissent. An example that illustrates this well is offered by Keith Grint[4]. Alfred Sloan, the powerful chairman, chief executive and president of General Motors, was meeting with his board.
“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in agreement here?”
[Consensus of nodding heads]
“Then I propose that we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is all about”.

Richard Tiplady

The new MA in Theology (Transforming Leadership) course has just started. A January 2017 entry is possible, in which case you would begin with some pre-reading and seminar preparation in advance of an intensive study ‘week’ on Leadership and Change in Manchester from 20th – 27th May. It is also possible to attend this as an in-service study week. Complete our Intent To Study enquiry form to find out more, or start your application now.

[1] Thus making it a traits-based model, although it avoids the tendency to inflate the number of traits and manages to keep them down to a coherent and easily-remembered four.
[2] Brad Jackson and Ken Parry (2008), A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Leadership, London:SAGE Publications, p31
[3] Gerald Arbuckle (1993), Refounding The Church: Dissent For Leadership, Maryknoll:Orbis
[4] Keith Grint (2010), Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford:OUP, p108