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4 ways to activate transformational leadership at your organization

February 15, 2022 - 21 min read

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What is transformational leadership?

5 qualities of transformational leadership

4 elements of transformational leadership

3 examples of transformational leadership

Transformational vs. transactional leadership

The effects of transformational leadership on teams

4 ways to become a transformational leader

Leadership, like human beings, comes in a variety of packages. 

After all, behind every leader is a human. Every leader is their own unique person with distinct characteristics, skills, and personalities. 

But there are common denominators in transformational leaders. Transformational leaders are charismatic, full of energy, passion, and drive. Transformational leaders also empower their teams. They identify strengths and challenges in each of their team members. 

Transformational leadership may sound lofty or trendy. But at its heart, it’s this type of leadership style that has the potential to change the way your organization operates. 

Transformational leadership is powerful

“The most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed, to advance a vision or an idea or a project that is bigger than me, that’s going to affect a lot of people. The bigger you aim there, the more you focus on doing something that’s going to benefit others. Then, the more likely you are to produce something that’s also going to achieve success for you.”

Adam Grant, organizational psychologist, author, BetterUp Science Advisor  

But what does it actually mean to be a transformational leader? And what does transformational leadership look like in the workplace? What about the concept of transformational leadership makes it so effective? 

What is transformational leadership?

Researchers James MacGregor Burns and Bernard M. Bass are widely known for their work formalizing what we know about transformational leadership

Burns first introduced the concept of transformational and transactional leadership in 1978. Just a few years later in 1985, Bass extended Burns’ work on transformational leadership. Together, they’ve defined this leadership model. 

The works of both Burns and Bass have held strong in the last few decades. In its truest form, transformational leadership increases motivation, boosts morale, and performance. Essentially, the leader helps to tap into a person’s sense of identity and self. By doing so, they’re able to connect that person (and their work) to a larger mission. 

First, a leader needs to understand the strengths, internal motivations, and their team members as humans. From there, that’s when levers can be pulled to activate the individual and team’s success. In the end, this results in better success for both the team and the individual. 

5 qualities of transformational leaders

Let’s try a little exercise. Think of some of the best leaders you’ve had in your work experience. Or, think of leaders you look up to. People you look to as role models or inspirational figures. What commonalities do you see? How would you describe them to a friend or family member? 

It should come as no surprise that transformational leaders share common traits and qualities. Of course, transformational leaders aren’t carbon copies of each other.

They each bring their own unique skills, personality traits, and perspectives to their leadership style. But as Adam Grant has shared, one common characteristic is the willingness to find meaning in work. And then make connections to that meaning and purpose to those who benefit from it. 

“Transformational leadership is most effective in motivating followers when they interact with the beneficiaries of their work, which highlights how the vision has meaningful consequences for other people.”

Adam Grant  

When we peel back the layers of transformational leadership, we find that leaders share these five common traits

1. A growth mindset and an open mind 

A fixed mindset locks people into narrow-minded thinking. Transformational leaders aren’t afraid to grow and learn. Sometimes, that means admitting (and knowing!) when they’re wrong. 

Having a growth mindset and an open mind is one of the most important characteristics of transformational leaders. These types of leaders often are open to feedback, receive criticism, and create actionable change. They also actively seek ways to better themselves and those around them. 

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2. Active listening 

To grow and to maintain open-mindedness requires an innate skill that’s harder than it seems: listening. Active listeners and transformational leadership go hand-in-hand. 

A core tenant of transformational leadership is recognizing the strengths of each teammate. Without active listening, how would a leader elevate their team members’ strengths? Consider ways you can cultivate a culture of listening to your organization. It’s possible to learn how to listen better. It might just take some additional support, like coaching

3. Willingness to take risks (and risk failure) 

Every person on this Earth has failed at something. But those who fail often learn often, too. Transformational leaders aren’t afraid to take risks and push themselves (and their teams) outside of their comfort zone. 

Sometimes, this means failure. But that’s OK. Future-minded leaders who are willing to accept failure as a win. Oftentimes, failure can teach us more about success than success alone can ever do. 

4. Extreme ownership and accountability 

Leaders who practice extreme ownership and accountability are able to inspire confidence in their teams to do the same. 

At BetterUp, one of our core high-impact behaviors is called extreme ownership. It’s a practice that our co-founders Alexi and Eddie have engrained in the fiber of BetterUp. And it results in empowerment. Empowerment of people, empowerment of teams, and the permission to fail and own our failures. But then, learn from them. 

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5. A culture of trust  

At the foundation of every transformational leader is an acute awareness of the psychological safety of the team. For team members to feel comfortable failing, learning, growing, and taking ownership of risks, there needs to be a deep sense of trust.

Creating a work environment that breeds psychological safety is critical to transformational leadership. With a bedrock of safety and trust, your organization will reap the benefits. Organizations with a deep sense of psychological safety see increased employee engagement, employee well-being, and more creativity. 

The 4 elements of transformational leadership

According to the work of Bass and Burns, there are four elements to transformational leadership. Let’s learn how these four elements take part in this leadership style — and why it’s important. 

  • Idealized influence. In a nutshell, this means “be a positive role model.” The leader serves as a role model for their followers. This also means the leaders' actions match their words, which increases alignment to the mission. 
  • Inspirational motivation. Transformational leaders are known for their charisma, energy, and passion. In a lot of ways, this manifests in inspiration for their teammates. Combined with influence, this leads to meaningful actions from team members to empower the team’s success.  
  • Individualized consideration. Getting to know a person on a human level is critical to any team’s success. This element of transformational leadership is about knowing the whole person. Once you know the person, you can demonstrate genuine concern for the needs of their team. In order for employees’ needs to be met, the leader must be attuned to who they are as people. 
  • Intellectual stimulation. The last element of transformational leadership challenges team members to continue to learn. At BetterUp, we adopt the growth mindset in the form of a few high-impact behaviors, like “stay on your edge” and “work to learn.” It’s important for transformational leaders to inspire team members to create those learning pathways

3 examples of transformational leadership

There are many great examples of transformational leadership, not all of them splashy or well-known. We’ve been humbled by the opportunity to learn from some of our customers, first-hand, in their transformation journeys. 

Chipotle 

Chipotle has walked a new walkthrough of transformational leadership, especially when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Marissa Andrada, chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer at Chipotle, shared why transformational and inclusive leadership has worked for her organization. 

“If you aren’t clear on what you stand for you, you really can’t show up for others.” 

Marissa Andrada, chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer, Chipotle 

With BetterUp, Chipotle was able to lock into its values and missions to enable a thriving workforce. And with an inclusive leader like Andrada, Chipotle was able to see incredible business growth. 

Chevron 

A 140-year old oil and gas company, Chevron has seen its fair share of successes and challenges. As a human energy company evolving to adopt cleaner energy means, Chevron knew it needed to create a culture of transformation. 

“When you have 1,000 people receiving coaching all at once, that can change a culture very quickly. BetterUp has grown the ability for supervisors to change, to pivot, to be resilient, and ultimately, how we deliver results.” 

Matthew Dodson, Organizational Development, Chevron

With personalized coaching for people managers, Chevron saw increased resiliency and increased feedback. 

transformational-leadership-two-workers-talking-in-shed

Satya Nadella 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reshaped Microsoft in more ways than one.

Beyond his collaborative approach to strategy, he also took a high-trust approach to reshaping the company’s culture. He leads with empathy, inclusivity, and trust. These characteristics are tenants needed in a psychologically safe work environment. 

He’s also been a role model for other leaders not only in Microsoft but around the world. Nadella acts as both a transformational and servant leader. He embraces big, new ideas. He inspires innovation and isn’t afraid to take risks. And he also ensures that his people are growing, developing, and dreaming big. 

Transformational vs. transactional leadership

There are key differences between transactional and transformational leadership. Let’s break it down. 

Transactional leadership is often seen in companies that need to operate quickly and scale to grow fast. It’s more common in mid-to-large-sized organizations and operates under fixed ways of working. In a transactional leadership style, processes and procedures are dominant. 

As a transactional leader, results come first. This can mean that employees are motivated (and therefore, valued) by external rewards or output. Essentially, this type of leadership is built on the theory that employees aren’t self-motivated. They need to be incentivized to perform, often with eternal rewards. 

While this might sound harsh, it’s a leadership style that still works well for some organizations (especially global ones). Of course, it comes with its own set of pros and cons. 

On the flip side, transformational leadership is quite different. 

Transformational leadership is built on the theory that employees are intrinsically motivated. This leadership style doesn’t need to incentivize employees with monetary gains. Why? Because employees are mission- and purpose-driven to contribute in meaningful ways. Employees understand their contributions are tied to a larger mission — and that’s important. 

Transformational leaders aren’t afraid to take risks, think outside of the box, and operate with a deep sense of trust in their people

Transformational leadership isn’t about simply delegating tasks for employees to execute. It means employees are empowered to make their own decisions, innovate, create, and contribute meaningfully. 

The effects of transformational leadership on teams

If you’re not yet sold on transformational leadership, it’s time we talk about the impact. There are plenty of positive effects of transformational leadership on teams. 

Increased creativity 

One study took a close look at the impact of transformational leadership and creativity. The results? Increased creativity

When employees are given the opportunity to be innovative (and are trusted to do so), they’re more likely to practice imagination. Creativity and innovation are a pair any organization needs to see success, especially in our fast-changing world

transformational-leadership-man-talking

Increased psychological safety 

The same study found psychological safety was a benefit of transformational leadership. After all, for creativity and innovation to take place, it needed that foundation of psychological safety. 

Transformational leadership allows for psychological safety to spread between teams. With leaders who place trust and autonomy in their team members’ abilities, the organization wins. 

Increased performance and productivity 

Another study found that a transformational leader helps teams reach optimal performance. In this study, the results showed that transformational leaders improved team members’ performance, self-efficacy, and individual regulation. 

Employees show more productivity and growth — and this is reflected in the output of work.

4 ways to become a transformational leader

Transformational change at an organizational level needs to be boiled down to the individual. So how do you make personalized, individual change that has big impact? 

Offer access to coaching 

With BetterUp, you can empower your employees to become transformational leaders. You can build an organization empowered by transformational leadership. And it starts with personalized coaching. 

Our data has shown that personalized coaching leads to a thriving workforce. This leads to teams that are more mentally fit, more productive, more resilient, and more engaged. 

Be a role model 

The simplest definition of a leader is to lead by example. If you want your leaders to lead with open- and future-mindedness, adopt (and model) a growth mindset.

If you want your leaders to trust their employees to do their jobs, operate with deep-seated trust in your employees. If you want your leaders to take risks and get creative, don’t be afraid to fail yourself.  

Trust your team 

Create a psychologically safe work environment. Employees need to feel a deep sense of belonging, trust, and safety to do their jobs well. 

Consider ways you can model trust and psychological safety with your leaders. With role models who lead with trust, you’ll empower a culture of trust in your organization. 

Connect the purpose of your team’s work 

A shared vision and sense of purpose are critical to transformational leadership. After all, your employees need to be intrinsically motivated by the work. If there’s a disconnect between their work and the mission, there’s a problem. 

Internally communicate to your teams often. The purpose and meaning of their work should be talked about often. 

Create transformational leaders 

There are plenty of styles of leadership. Leadership behaviors, leadership development, and leadership training are probably top of mind. 

But the key components of transformational leadership are what make for an empowered workforce. With transformational leadership, you can change the organizational culture. You can bring leadership skills to a higher level and inspire positive change. 

And with some support from BetterUp, you can empower a new sense of purpose within your employees — and reach a shared vision. No matter what leadership characteristics you're looking to develop, personalized coaching can help

An effective leadership style starts with effective resources and tools at your disposal. Activate transformational leadership styles across your organization with BetterUp coaching

Are you ready to change the status quo? Get started today.

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Published February 15, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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