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Transformational Leadership: Quiz And Research

Transformational leadership is an approach for getting your followers to give their best efforts, deliver better quality and service, generate more creative ideas, exhibit more mental toughness, and strive for bigger goals.

However, currently only about 35% of employees say that working at their organization always, or almost always, inspires them to give their best effort. So transformational leadership is in short supply.

Take the test below to assess your own transformational leadership and see how your results compare.

What is transformational leadership?

Transforming leadership (as coined initially) is a leadership concept originally introduced by James Downton in 1973 and later advanced by James MacGregor Burns (1978).

Unlike most leadership theories which focus solely on the actions of leaders, transformational leadership revolves around BOTH followers and leaders and philosophizes a process where leaders institute "morality and motivation" as mediating factors in improving one another (Burns, 1978).

Unlike transactional leadership which is built on processes and control and expresses the need for a strict management structure, transformational leadership focuses on inspiring team members. Transformational leadership requires a high degree of coordination, communication and cooperation from all parties involved. Idealized influence, individual motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration have been widely held to be factors underlying the transformational leadership approach (Vito, et al., 2014; Ali et al., 2015 and Hoxha, 2019). It is mainly used to facilitate positive changes in teams.

VIDEO OVERVIEW OF LEADERSHIP STYLES

Who is the founder of transformational leadership theory as we know it today?

After James MacGregor Burns in 1978, another researcher, Bernard M. Bass (1985), extended the work of Burns (1978) by elucidating the psychological mechanisms that make up transforming vs. transactional leadership. As one example, Odumeru & Ogbonna (2013) conducted a study that explained and compared transformational and transactional leadership. They explained transformational leadership as a leadership style that involves a proactive leader. People involved implement new ideas to change organizational culture. Employees achieve company objectives through high moral values. They put group interests before individual interests. There is intellectual stimulation that promotes creative and innovative ideas for problem-solving.

What are the four elements of transformational leadership?

Idealized influence, individual motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration have been widely held to be factors underlying the transformational leadership approach. Here’s a simple way to think about it: Transformational Leadership focuses on the psychological and intrinsic aspects and is about the relationships leaders build with their people. Transformational Leadership fundamentally requires four categories of activity:

  • Aspiration (aka Inspirational Motivation): Employees understand how the work they do makes a difference in people’s lives. 
  • Inspiration (Individualized Consideration): Employees are confident they can solve any problem or challenge.
  • Stimulation (aka Intellectual Stimulation): Employees are challenged to grow and achieve beyond their own expectations
  • Idealization (aka Idealized Influence): Employees are proud to be associated with the boss and feel pride to be part of the team.

current research on transformational leadership

Leadership IQ surveyed 32,410 American and Canadian executives, managers and employees about dozens of aspects of leadership and organizational life. Respondents were invited to complete an online assessment comprised of 127 questions, and respondents were drawn from a wide range of industries, ages, and organizational and compensation levels. The average survey participant took 21 minutes to complete the assessment. Here are some of the key results relevant to transformational leadership.

Inspirational Motivation

The classic foundation transformational leadership is visionary leadership, which means promoting a consistent and compelling vision and mission. One critical piece of this vision is ensuring that employees understand how the work they do makes a difference in people’s lives.

 While this seems like an easy-to-accomplish part of leadership, the reality is that most leaders are not fulfilling this well. In the Leadership IQ study on transformational leadership, we asked 30,000+ people to rate the question, “The Work I do makes a difference in people’s lives.” As you can see in the chart below, only 30% feel that the work they do makes a difference in people’s lives. As this is a critical piece of transformational leadership, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to do.

Of course, another part of transformational leadership is visionary leadership. And in the Leadership IQ study on transformational leadership, we asked 30,000+ people to rate the question “My leader has clearly explained their vision for the future.” As you can see in the chart below, only 21% of people feel like their leader has exhibited visionary leadership and clearly explained their vision for the future.

Intellectual Stimulation

The transformational leader wants each follower to exhibit creativity and innovation. In other words, the transformational leader creates an environment where employees are challenged to grow and achieve beyond their own expectations.

 In the Leadership IQ study on transformational leadership, we asked 30,000+ people to rate the question, "I find something interesting in every task I do." As you can see in the chart below, for the most part, individual followers are not feeling significant amounts of intellectual stimulation.

The same study also asked people to rate the statement, "I keep generating great ideas every week to help the organization improve." It stands to reason that organizations not going to have great innovation if frontline employees aren't intellectually stimulated and generating innovative ideas. And when only 20% of the workforce is generating great ideas every week, it's clear that leaders are generally exhibiting more transactional leadership than transformational leadership. 

Idealized Influence

People who work for the transformational leader are proud to be associated with that leader and feel pride to be part of the team. Transformational leadership requires serving as a role model; bosses who say one thing but do another are not transformational leaders. It’s possible that they could have success operating as a transactional leader, but their behavior is not transformative leadership.

 One of the fastest ways to assess whether a leader is serving as a role model (and exhibiting idealized influence) is to look at how they speak about customers. Every leader will say that we should speak positively about our customers, but do they practice authentic leadership and follow that themselves? In the Leadership IQ study on transformational leadership behavior, we asked 30,000+ people to rate the question, “My leader speaks poorly of our customers.” As you can see in the chart below, a shocking 36% of people say that their leader always speaks poorly of their customers.

Another way of looking at idealized influence is the extent to which someone feels that they’ve been positively influenced by the leader and organization. So this same study also asked people to rate the statement, "Working at this organization has had a positive impact on me." While a third of people are strongly experiencing idealized influence, more than half of workers are not experiencing it. Some of that could be due to corporate culture or a lack of effective leadership company wide, but ultimately this issue resides mostly with leaders.

Individualized Consideration

The transformational leader does not treat every employee exactly the same. Because they’re generally high in emotional intelligence, they understand the unique strengths and weaknesses of each person and they tailor their leadership style to bring out the best in each individual. They remove roadblocks and value what each person brings to the table.

In the Leadership IQ study on transformational leadership behavior, we asked 30,000+ people to rate the question, “I feel that my work is valued by my leader.” While nearly a third of employees feel that their leader exhibits individualized consideration, there are far too many people that aren’t seeing that particular leadership skill.

The same study also tackled whether leaders really care about making their people more effective by asking the question, “My leader removes the roadblocks to my success.” A paltry 16% of people think that their leader is transformational in this regard.

Qualities of Transformational Leaders (Characteristics of transformational leaders)

In addition to the transformational leadership skills addressed so far, there are other qualities that transformational leaders tend to have. Below are the nine transformational leadership qualities that, in Leadership IQ’s study, nearly every employee considers essential to being a great leader. 

WHEN COMMUNICATING A DECISION, THE LEADER GENERALLY SHARES HOW THEY CAME TO THIS CONCLUSION.
Great leaders don’t just explain their decision to generate buy-in, they also explain the thought process behind their decision so that everyone on the team can learn and understand.

THE LEADER SHARES GOOD AND BAD NEWS.
A transactional leader might try to manage the flow of information to spin a particular situation, but transformational leaders are very open about the good and bad of situations, trusting in their people to respond appropriately.

 WHEN AN EMPLOYEE MAKES AN ERROR, THE LEADER IMMEDIATELY PROVIDES CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK, RATHER THAN WAITING DAYS OR WEEKS.
Transformational leaders don’t hold onto feedback or play passive-aggressive games with their employees. They’re candid, forthright, and when something needs addressing, they do it quickly.

THE LEADER ENCOURAGES EMPLOYEES TO SHARE THEIR OPINIONS, EVEN IF THEY HAVE RADICALLY DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW.
While transactional leaders operate with a top-down leadership style, transformational leaders solicit any and all feedback from their followers.

WHEN SOMETHING GOES WRONG, THE LEADER ASKS FOR ADVICE FROM EMPLOYEES ON HOW TO FIX IT.
Transformational leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers. In fact, they’re very comfortable getting input from their team about the best solutions.

THE LEADER OPENLY SHARES THE MISTAKES THEY’VE MADE.
One of the keys to generating great trust with employees is a willingness to admit and own mistakes.

THE LEADER TYPICALLY DOESN’T AVOID CONFLICT OR UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS.
While transformational leaders are not afraid of conflict they also don’t avoid it. It’s not unusual for a transformative breakthrough to require a bit of conflict.

THE LEADER TOLERATES AT LEAST SOME DISAGREEMENT OR QUESTIONING.
Great ideas are often born out of disagreement. Innovation and creative thinking, hallmarks of transformational leadership, typically require some disagreement.

THE LEADER CONSIDERS SUGGESTIONS MADE BY EMPLOYEES.
One of the biggest differences between transactional and transformational leadership is the extent to which the leader is willing to consider suggestions from others.

Transformational leadership vs transactional leadership

Transactional Leadership leverages formal authority and puts heavy emphasis on extrinsic and behavioral aspects to incent employees to do what you want them to do. Transactional leaders look at the actions employees take and react accordingly (for example, setting rules and expectations, tackling low performers and rewarding high performers). Transactional leadership fundamentally requires four categories of activity: 

  • Definition: Each employee knows exactly what actions he/she should undertake to fulfill organizational strategy and vision. 
  • Diagnosis: Each employee knows whether his/her performance is where it should be.
  • Development: Deliver Constructive feedback to help employees improve performance. 
  • Reinforcement: Hold employees accountable for their performance with critical feedback and positive reinforcement. 

By contrast, Transformational Leadership focuses on the psychological and intrinsic aspects and is about the relationships leaders build with their people. Transformational leadership fundamentally requires four categories of activity:

  • Aspiration: Employees understand how the work they do makes a difference in people’s lives. 
  • Inspiration: Employees are confident they can solve any problem or challenge.
  • Stimulation: Employees are challenged to grow and achieve beyond their own expectations
  • Idealization Employees are proud to be associated with the boss and feel pride to be part of the team.

How do I Embrace Transformational Leadership in my Workplace?

If you walk into a random group of leaders and ask, “what’s the best type of leadership style?” you’ll almost certainly hear that leaders should be transformational leaders. One of the problems, however, is that many leader think they’re evidencing transformational leadership when in reality, they’re using more of a transactional leadership style.

So the big question for leaders is how to assess whether you’re actually using transformational leadership? That’s as simple as asking each employee the question, “One of my goals is to improve my leadership approach, and to that end, what’s one thing that I could do differently to be a better leader to you specifically?”

There’s a lot embedded in that simple script, so let’s dissect it piece by piece.

  • First, one of the goals of this dialogue is to communicate clearly that, no matter what the employee tells you, you’re going to respond constructively. When you say, “One of my goals is to improve my leadership approach,” you’re essentially telling them that their responses are actually helpful to you (even if those responses are somewhat critical).

    For example, if they tell you that your daily management is too focused on doling out rewards and punishments, they’re clearly saying that you’re employing too much of a transactional leadership style.
  • Second, you’re asking your employees to give you only “one thing” that you could do differently. Asking a broader question or asking for a list of changes can, ironically, make this question far more difficult for the average employee to answer. That, in turn, will stress your employees and drastically reduce the chances that you get meaningful feedback. 
  • If your employees tell you that they want to be challenged more or that they’d like you to better understand their personal needs and motivators, they’re saying clearly that “we want more of a transformational leadership style.”

Leading with an inspired vision

Obviously, the extent to which employees understand your vision has an enormous impact on the outcome. These are, after all, the people who are going to be living that vision and making it happen. And yet, misunderstanding, misinterpretation and just flat out not knowing what the vision is all are far too common scenarios. Happily, there’s a fairly simple fix. If you want your employees all pulling together towards a shared vision, you have to make certain that they know what they are pulling for. And the best way to test that is to ask them. Specifically, you want to ask them to explain to you your vision, to actually tell you what they think it is. There are a couple of ways to go about this.

One method is incorporating the question into an employee survey. When I advise companies on conducting employee surveys, I often suggest including an open-ended question in the survey that asks: Write down our vision and what you think are the company’s three top strategic priorities in reaching that vision. This is an easy, immediate, and quick way to test if your employees understand where it is you’re trying to go and how you plan to get there.

If you’re not conducting a survey right now, and your team is small enough, you can conduct this test at your next staff meeting. Say you’ve got 8 employees sitting around a table with you. Give each of them a sheet of paper and say, “You all know we’re doing a big strategic overhaul in the department over the next 2 months that clearly changes our vision. Could you please write down for me what that new vision is and what you think the strategy is that we’re embarking upon?” The written responses you collect will quickly tell you whether or not you still have to sell the vision or whether you’ve got sufficient buy-in and understanding to achieve great results. Note that most initiatives that interrupt the status quo and ask folks to make a change require 70% workforce support to succeed.

Once you analyze the data, if you find that folks aren’t on board with your vision, you’ll need to take action. Otherwise it’s going to be like herding cats with employees all moving in different and wrong directions. Even if you have only 3 employees, if they’re all moving in the wrong directions, you’re not going to have the laser focus that you need and your odds of actually achieving your results will diminish significantly.

Examples of transformational leaders and their organizations

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

Showing off the transformational leadership quality of advocating for big visions, the following is an excerpt from an interview he gave on risk-taking and customer value.

…we are going to be bold with our experiments and some of them aren’t going to work. If you know they're going to work they’re not experiments. And if you decide that you are only going to do things that you know are going to work, you're going to leave a lot of opportunity on the table. Companies are rarely criticized for the things that they failed to try. And they are, many times, criticized for things they tried and failed at. And that’s one of the reasons, if you want to be a pioneer, you have to get comfortable being misunderstood. In some ways it's a much more pleasant life, probably, we wouldn’t know from personal experience, to not - you know, once you have something good just to hone it and hone it and hone it and not try anything new.

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla

Showing off the transformational leadership quality of idealized influence, Elon discusses the importance of being a role model and putting his money behind his words (this is also an example of servant leadership as he doesn't ask anyone to do something he would not do himself):

I thought our chances of success were so low that I didn’t want to risk anyone’s funds in the beginning but my own. The list of successful car company startups is short. As of 2016, the number of American car companies that haven’t gone bankrupt is a grand total of two: Ford and Tesla. Starting a car company is idiotic and an electric car company is idiocy squared.

Sheldon Yellen, CEO of BELFOR Holdings, Inc.

Sheldon Yellen is the CEO of BELFOR Holdings, Inc., a billion-dollar disaster relief and property restoration company. He’s a successful CEO and leadership expert, and one of the things that makes him truly notable is that every year he handwrites a birthday card to each of the company’s nearly eight thousand employees. Yes, you read that correctly. Yellon doesn’t outsource this activity to his assistant. Since he started writing cards over three decades ago, it has been his project entirely. Speaking of his assistant, when Business Insider spoke to Gail Kennedy, who has worked with Yellen for more than two decades, she had this to say about her boss and his heartfelt commitment to writing the cards:

Since I started working at BELFOR 21 years ago, I have always looked forward to receiving a birthday card from Sheldon and I think I have saved nearly every single card. It really is an amazing tradition for a company of our size. The cards always include a personalized note or memory shared, demonstrating how much Sheldon personally cares about every employee.

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook 

Sheryl Sandberg is famous not only because she's the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, but also because she wrote the book Lean In, a bestselling guide to women's empowerment and organizational leadership. The following, which is one of the most quoted anecdotes from the book, concerns her epiphany about the internal barriers women face in the workplace. 

A few years ago, I hosted a meeting for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at Facebook. We invited fifteen executives from across Silicon Valley for breakfast and a discussion about the economy. Secretary Geithner arrived with four members of his staff, two senior and two more junior, and we all gathered in our one nice conference room. After the usual milling around, I encouraged the attendees to help themselves to the buffet and take a seat. Our invited guests, mostly men, grabbed plates and food and sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner’s team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. I motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over publicly so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats. The four women had every right to be at this meeting, but because of their seating choice, they seemed like spectators rather than participants. I knew I had to say something. So, after the meeting, I pulled them aside to talk. I pointed out that they should have sat at the table even without an invitation, but when publicly welcomed, they most certainly should have joined. At first, they seemed surprised, then they agreed. It was a watershed moment for me. A moment when I witnessed how an internal barrier can alter women’s behavior. A moment when I realized that in addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft 

Intellectual stimulation is a hallmark of transformational leadership, and Nadella makes this point clearly in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was asked, "What do you think is the biggest source of innovation?"

“What is the most innate in all of us is that ability to be able to put ourselves in other people's shoes and see the world the way they see it. That's empathy. That's at the heart of design thinking. When we say innovation is all about meeting unmet unarticulated needs of the marketplace, it's ultimately the unmet unarticulated needs of people and organizations that...are made up of people. And you need to have deep empathy. So I'd say the source of all innovation is what is the most humane quality that we all have, which is empathy."

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple

Inspirational motivation is a hallmark of transformational leadership, and perhaps no quote better exemplifies that goal than an interview Steve Jobs gave in 1985 to Playboy magazine. While his exact words have been misquoted countless times, what he actually said in reference to the types of people that Apple was hiring and goals for which they were striving is still pretty audacious:

At Apple, people are putting in 18-hour days. We attract a different type of person: a person who doesn’t want to wait five or ten years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe. We are aware that we are doing something significant. We are here at the beginning of it and were able to shape how it goes. Everyone here has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future.

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