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Transformational Leadership Theories

Technical Details

Name(s): Transformational Leadership Theories
Author: Various
Classification: Theories based on the Transformational influence of the leader
Year: 1970s


  • Transformational leadership theories emphasizes the task and organizational integrity and this helps focus one's attention to more appropriately defining a task.
  • The transformational theories emphasizes cooperation, ethics and community in addition to the higher human values.
  • Long-range goals are emphasized which leads to increasing the survivability of a system.
  • It has been showed in studies, such as in gaming theory, that cooperation, as opposed to competition, is more successful in achieving goals.
  • Transformational leadership theories are adaptive and can be tailored to support the fulfillment of the most pressing of needs in people.
  • There is greater stability of a leader's position, as there is greater support by those who are being led.
  • Transformational leadership theories can bring harmony to a situation that could otherwise be exacerbated by a quarrelsome organization.
  • If one has an educated population, transformational leadership theories are more likely to work.


  • Even if everyone is motivated to do a task it does not assure a successful completion of that task. Over-enthusiasm for the leader may cloud the group's judgment as to whether the objectives of an organization are realistic.
  • There can be over-dependence upon the leader.
  • Members of the organization may resent that their ability to act as individuals has been restricted.
  • People have different personalities, and some may be more ambitious than others may, with the latter feeling as if they are being pushed beyond their capacities.
  • Some individuals may work better as individuals as opposed to collaborating in a team environment.
  • There may be cases when it is difficult to assess whether there is cooperation or mere conformity. People may want simply to "go along to get along".
  • There is the danger of the presence of personality cults, where a leader is so revered that s/he is only the personality that drives activity.
  • The enormity of a task and a fractious or highly competitive environment may compromise the ability of a leader, applying the concepts of transformational leadership theories, to gain consensus.


Transformational leadership theories beleive that people are motivated by the task that must be performed. The more structured an organization is, the greater the success. People give their all to the organization which can be their primary need and they will place their individual interests second. There is an emphasis on cooperation and collective action and stress is included in the long-range goals of an organization. Individuals exist within the context of the community, rather than competing with each other. Accordingly, tasks are designed to be challenging and desirous. The whole system adjusts to place the community above individual egos.

It is odd to regard influential individuals such as Adolf Hitler and Attila the Hun as transformational leaders [1], but one must be aware that these categories of leadership theories overlap. The analytical caveat is that one must not describe the category so broadly as to include everyone. When engaging in a discussion about the focus on the primary qualities of leadership, there should be heuristic categories, but remember that there must be boundary conditions, even though they may be subjective.


How long has cooperation been in existence? Perhaps this can be best exampled in families that are identified as functional, sibling rivalries and spousal quarreling aside. When relating this to larger organizations, one can identify an extended family and as a result, cooperatives. In all cases, everyone has a common objective, with everyone benefitting from its achievement. Everyone realizes that any rivalty or an attempt by a person(s) to dominate the organization will obliterate any possibility of a collective effort. Every individual is significant and it is to the organization's benefit and success to allow each person to develop to the maximum of her or his potential. The Greeks realized this when in promoting virtue advised that one should be doing whatever s/he is "cut out" to do. At least some forms of a transformational leadership situation can be compared to a well-oiled machine functioning perfectly or a healthy organism, where all the components collaborate as intended.

Comparing organizations or social systems to organisms is not a recent concept, as shown by John Jacques Rousseau's observations in "Social Contract":

"I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.
But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert. " [2]

In the 1930s, Oswald Spengler purported that societies were organic and had life-cycles. On a darker side, leaders such as Benito Mussolini [3] argued that the individual's will must be submersed in deference to the will of the State. Of course, Mussolini was not the only one espousing this view. Modern history, especially that of the 20th Century, is littered with the Stalin's and Hitler's, each rationalizing their autocracy by an appeal to the superiority of the state, where individuals benefit more from collectivity than from individualism.

Of course, any thinking underpinning a system can be excessive and transformational leadership theories aren't an exception to the rule. Whereas it can be argued that more can be accomplished through a collective action and this is justification for totalitarian states and one can also argue that any individual development, necessary for social competence, is reason to have a participatory society, such as a cooperative. Aristotle argued in his Politics that a society is strengthened with diversity in ideas and capabilities and as a result, democracy was a better form of authority. Game theory, as exemplified in the Prisoner's Dilemma, supports the view that cooperation produces more results than competition and that the strength of that cooperation is enhanced when people of diverse backgrounds and capabilities are encouraged to participate in achieving the common goals and to make decisions collectively. The simple truth is that if everyone is involved in decision-making, they will be more committed to working to achieve making the ideal goal a reality.

A test of the efficacy of transformational leadership theories could be how a group of island survivors fare. It is clear that if there is no cooperation, the chances of survival are greatly diminished. On the other hand, if the necessary tasks are of an urgent nature, there may be a need for a commanding person. William Golding's Lord of the Flies is an excellent scenario from which to draw lessons such as this. Transformational leadership theories could have brought harmony to this situation that ultimately turned out with the characters fighting each other to the point that some lost their lives because of the turmoil.

The leader strives to exhibit the qualities of a good role model - must be paradigm of good character. S/he is the personification of the ideals of the system, its ethos and motivations driving the organization. The manner in which s/he leads is imbued with desirable human qualities, such as intelligence, compassion, noble ethics and exemplary courage. The leader is a counsel to the rest, lending his/her support to enhance the well-being of each essential member of the organization.


Transformational leadership theories are placed under stress with enormity and urgency of tasks, wartime being an extreme case. A leader cannot wait for decisions based on consensus but needs to act, often immediately. If there are conflicts within the group, it is more difficult to reach a census on what needs to be accomplished. There may be persons who feel themselves to be more capable of achieving an apparent goal and are actually impatient in waiting for others to "catch up" or "get it". For others, there may be peer pressure to conform and organizational members may simply retire, offering no comment; they do not want to be thought of as being quarrelsome and contentious and risking opprobrium from the group.

It is possible that personality sects may emerge from an organization in which there is cooperation and the leader is admired. Numerous examples exist ranging from Fidel Castro to Ronald Reagan, where excessive devotion to a person compromised critical conclusions as to the quality of leadership. In an effort to build consensus, unfortunately mediocrity may result.

A transformational approach may not be as efficient as a more centralized and directive form of leadership. An extreme case of transformational leadership would be anarchy and if the members of an organization have assertive personalities and intelligence, it may take considerable time to arrive at decisions and perform the required tasks. In extreme cases, indecision may lead to the organization's ruin, especially if there are a number of individuals that are more predisposed to being followers rather than decision-makers.

Future of theory

Since the 1950s, there has been a consistent increase of certain individuals wanting to gain power for themselves. Monarchies collapsed in the 19th Century, it was the end of colonialism. The common thread was empowerment and as a result, the beginning of recognition of individual worth. On a local level, people began to distrust authority, especially in the latter quarter of the 20th Century with former President Richard Nixon's impeachment and following with numerous government officials convicted of illegal activities and thus receiving prison terms. The Viet-Nam War, then classified only as a police action, brought people into the streets in protest in addition to a growing movement to spread power to the people. Numerous cooperatives of all types - food, land, and housing - were started. This was followed by a period of narcissism, self-help programs and pop psychology. Now, with world political economies under stress, people once again are questioning authority not only in the United States, but worldwide as well. As a result, transformational leadership theories will become even more relevant, although it may not be recognized as such. Modern communications, especially the ever-increasing of the popularity and availability of the Internet have empowered people with knowledge and opportunities abound for self-development that have never before been seen. Thus, it is incumbent upon leaders to realize and acknowledge that populations are highly capable of thinking for themselves.

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