Transformational Theory – Leadership Theories Series

Use transformational theory as a means of energizing your staff by aligning their goals with yours and those of the organization.

James MacGregor Burns provided the basic transformational theory which was later expanded upon by Bass and Bennis and Nanus. To understand the developed theory and how to use it you should read this and the following two entries.

Burns was a political sociologist who was interested in how politicians attracted and energized their followers/voters. He identified two types of political leadership behavior. Transactional politicians promised people something in return for voting for them, e.g. tax cuts.

Whereas transformational politicians appealed to the voter’s higher order wants and needs, e.g. Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ slogan .

Burns’ fundamental insight was that:

… before a leader can appeal to people’s higher order needs they must identify and understand the beliefs, dreams and ambitions of the people. Only then can they package or mould their message to appeal to their target audience and followers.

Burns emphasizes that genuine transformational relationships are not based on exploitation or manipulation, but on trust and integrity which increases the level of motivation and morality of both parties and leads to personal growth and development for all involved.

Burns believed that transformational leadership could be used with one person or thousands. Transformational leadership deals with the relationship between leaders and followers in a way that no other theory does.

How to use transformational theory

Start by finding out what makes your staff tick if you want to use TL.

Use MBWA, performance review meetings, team meetings, daily conversations and informal observations of staff to build up a picture of their personalities, interests, ambitions and beliefs.

Identify common ambitions, beliefs, views and wants. If you manage a large staff you may have to use sampling to get a handle on these.

Once you understand what your people want from work, package your message in a clear and unambiguous way which will allow them to make their own connections between your agenda and their own wants/needs.

Remember the old advertising adage, ‘most people don’t know what they want until someone tells them’. As a transformational leader that’s what you have to do, offer followers something that they have always wanted but only recognize when you present it to them.

Questions to ask

  1. If TL is used in my organization, what do I need to do to align my team’s aims with the organization’s mission and values?
  2. If TL is not used what aspects of it can I use with my team?
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