Transformational Leadership: Characteristics and Criticisms








Iain Hay


School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management

Flinders University










A prime function of a leader is to keep hope alive. (John W. Gardner)

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means.

(Albert Einstein)


Collectively, these three short quotations capture some of the key characteristics of transformational leadership, a form of leadership argued by some (Simic, 1998) to match the Zeitgeist of the post-World War II era. Academic debate about the nature and effectiveness of transformational leadership has developed since key work on the topic emerged in the 1970s.  This short paper sets out to provide summary answers to three main questions about transformational leadership. What is it? How is it applied? What are some of its key weaknesses? In the course of the discussion, the following pages also provide a brief background to the origins of transformational leadership theory and point quickly to a possible theoretical future for a transformed transformational leadership.


Transformational Leadership Theory

According to Cox (2001), there are two basic categories of leadership: transactional and transformational. The distinction between transactional and transformational leadership was first made by Downton (1973, as cited in Barnett, McCormick & Conners, 2001) but the idea gained little currency until James McGregor Burns’ (1978) work on political leaders was published. Burns distinguished between ordinary (transactional) leaders, who exchanged tangible rewards for the work and loyalty of followers, and extraordinary (transformational) leaders who engaged with followers, focused on higher order intrinsic needs, and raised consciousness about the significance of specific outcomes and new ways in which those outcomes might be achieved (Barnett, McCormick & Conners, 2001; Cox, 2001; Gellis, 2001; Griffin, 2003; Judge & Piccolo, 2004). The idea of transformational leadership was developed further by Bernard Bass, now Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior, at the State University of New York (Binghampton), who disputed Burns’ conception of transactional and transformational leadership as opposites on a continuum. He suggested instead that they are separate concepts and that good leaders demonstrate characteristics of both (Judge & Piccolo, 2004, p. 755).

Interest in transformational leadership over the past three decades is the result of two tendencies (Simic, 1998, p. 50). First, significant global economic changes from the early 1970s – which followed on from about 25 years of post-World War 2 stability – meant that many large western companies such as General Motors and AT&T had to consider radical changes in their ways of doing business. Factors such as rapid technological change, heightened levels of competition, a rising flow of products from newly industrialized countries, volatility in OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) pricing strategies, and changing demographic structures created a turbulent, unstable and competitive environment in which significant organizational change was imperative. Changes often included downsizing and the adoption of new forms of organizational arrangement. These amendments took their toll on worker satisfaction and empowerment and broke “the old social contract of long-term employment in return for employee loyalty” (Griffin, 2003, p. 1). Because companies needed to resolve the apparently contradictory challenge of finding new ways of affecting change while simultaneously building employee morale, new approaches to leadership were needed (Conger, 1999).  Second, the theoretical base of work on leadership that prevailed in the 1970s was founded in explorations of traits, behaviours, and situations (contingency theories) and failed to account of some ‘untypical’ qualities of leaders (Simic, 1998, p. 50).

Transformational leadership is that which:

 … facilitates a redefinition of a people’s mission and vision, a renewal of their commitment and the restructuring of their systems for goal accomplishment. It is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents. Hence, transformational leadership must be grounded in moral foundations.

(Leithwood, as cited in Cashin et al., 2000, p.1)


Transformational leadership fosters capacity development and brings higher levels of personal commitment amongst ‘followers’ to organizational objectives. According to Bass (1990b, p. 21) transformational leadership “occurs when leaders broaden and elevate the interests of their employees, when they generate awareness and acceptance of the purposes and mission of the group, and when they stir employees to look beyond their own self-interest for the good of the group.” Together, heightened capacity and commitment are held to lead to additional effort and greater productivity (Barbuto, 2005; Leithwood & Jantzi, 2000; Spreitzer, Perttula & Xin, 2005).

Transformational leaders elevate people from low levels of need, focussed on survival (following Maslow’s hierarchy), to higher levels (Kelly, 2003; Yukl, 1989). They may also motivate followers to transcend their own interests for some other collective purpose (Feinberg, Ostroff & Burke, 2005, p. 471) but typically help followers satisfy as many of their individual human needs as possible, appealing notably to higher order needs (e.g. to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy). Transformational leaders are said to engender trust, admiration, loyalty and respect amongst their followers (Barbuto, 2005, p. 28). This form of leadership requires that leaders engage with followers as ‘whole’ people, rather than simply as an ‘employee’ for example. In effect, transformational leaders emphasize the actualization of followers (Rice, 1993). Transformational leadership is also based on self-reflective changing of values and beliefs by the leader and their followers. From this emerges a key characteristic of transformational leadership. It is said to involve leaders and followers raising one another’s achievements, morality and motivations to levels that might otherwise have been impossible (Barnett, 2003; Chekwa, 2001; Crawford, Gould & Scott, 2003; Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2004).

Though an understanding of transformational leadership predicated on its outcomes appears to have been achieved, Leithwood and Jantzi (2000) observe that despite (or perhaps as a result of) over four decades of work in the field (see, for example, Bennis, 1959), the literature in educational leadership offers no single conception of the processes that constitute transformational leadership. For instance, Gronn (1996) remarks on the close relationship between charismatic and transformational leadership while pointing out the absence of notions of charisma in some work transformational leadership. And most authors in the field propose that four factors make up transformational leadership whereas Leithwood (Leithwood & Jantzi, 2000) suggests six[1]. These are set out in Table 1 below.


The Four Common I’s

Leithwood’s Six

1.      Idealized influence[2]. Charismatic vision and behaviour that inspires others to follow.

2.      Inspirational motivation. Capacity to motivate others to commit to the vision.

3.      Intellectual stimulation. Encouraging innovation  and creativity.

4.        Individualized consideration. Coaching to the specific needs of followers.


Sources: Barbuto (2005); Hall, Johnson, Wysocki & Kepner (2002); Judge & Piccolo, 2004; Kelly (2003); Simic (1998).

1.      Building vision and goals.

2.      Providing intellectual stimulation.

3.      Offering individualized support.

4.      Symbolizing professional practices and values.

5.      Demonstrating high performance expectations.

6.      Developing structures to foster participation in decisions.




Source: Leithwood & Jantzi (2000).

Table 1. Dimensions of Transformational Leadership.

Nevertheless, it is clear that general understandings of transformational leadership are dominated by acceptance of the four dimensions set out in the left-hand column of Table 1 (see, for example, Stone, Russell & Patterson (2003)). These factors have been confirmed by empirical work in the area (Bass, Avolio, Jung & Berson, 2003, p. 208). In 1985 Bernard Bass devised the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ), an instrument intended to measure transformational and transactional leader behaviours. Over the past two decades, and following application in scores of research studies involving military, educational, and commercial organizations (see, for example, Gellis, 2001), the MLQ has emerged as the primary means of quantitatively assessing transformational leadership (Bryant, 2003; Griffin, 2003). An outcome of this work is the isolation of four factors now accepted as being exhibited by effective transformational leaders. Their additive effect is summarized in Figure 1.


Idealized influence (attributes and behaviours)


Individualized consideration


Inspirational motivation


Intellectual stimulation


Performance Beyond Expectations


Source: Hall, Johnson, Wysocki and Kepner (2002, p. 2).

Figure 1. The Additive Effect of Transformational Leadership.



Idealized influence is about building confidence and trust and providing a role model that followers seek to emulate (Bono & Judge, 2004, p. 901; Simic, 1998, p. 52; Stone, Russell & Patterson, 2003, p. 3). Leaders are “admired, respected, and trusted” (Bass, Avolio, Jung & Berson, 2003, p. 208). Confidence in the leader provides a foundation for accepting (radical) organizational change. That is, followers who are sure of the virtues of their leader will be less likely to resist proposals for change from her/him. Clearly, idealized influence is linked to charisma (Gellis, 2001, p. 18). Charismatic leadership is a characteristic of transformational leadership and depends on leaders as well as followers for its expression (Kelly, 2003). The link between charismatic and transformational leadership is clearest during times of crisis within an organization such as when Lee Iacocca took over and resurrected the ailing Chrysler Corporation in the 1970s and 1980s (Kelly, 2003).

Inspirational motivation is related to idealized influence but whereas charisma is held to motivate individuals, inspirational leadership is about motivating the entire organization to, for example, follow a new idea. Transformational leaders make clear an appealing view of the future, offer followers the opportunity to see meaning in their work, and challenge them with high standards. They encourage followers to become part of the overall organizational culture and environment (Kelly, 2003; Stone, Russell & Patterson, 2003, p. 3). This might be achieved through motivational speeches and conversations and other public displays of optimism and enthusiasm, highlighting positive outcomes, and stimulating teamwork (Simic, 1998, p. 52). Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and US President John F. Kennedy’s vision of putting a man on the moon by 1970 stand out as exceptional examples of this characteristic (Yukl, 1989, p. 221). Through these sorts of means, transformational leaders encourage their followers to imagine and contribute to the development of attractive, alternative futures (Bass, Avolio, Jung & Berson, 2003, p. 208).

Intellectual stimulation involves arousing and changing followers’ awareness of problems and their capacity to solve those problems (Bono & Judge, 2004; Kelly, 2003). Transformational leaders question assumptions and beliefs and encourage followers to be innovative and creative, approaching old problems in new ways (Barbuto, 2005). They empower followers by persuading them to propose new and controversial ideas without fear of punishment or ridicule (Stone, Russell & Patterson, 2003, p. 3). They impose their own ideas judiciously and certainly not at any cost (Simic, 2003, p. 52).

Individualized consideration involves responding to the specific, unique needs of followers to ensure they are included in the transformation process of the organization (Simic, 1998, p. 52). People are treated individually and differently on the basis of their talents and knowledge (Shin & Zhou, 2003, p. 704) and with the intention of allowing them to reach higher levels of achievement than might otherwise have been achieved (Chekwa, 2001, p. 5; Stone, Russell & Patterson, 2003, p. 3). This might take expression, for example, through expressing words of thanks or praise, fair workload distributions, and individualized career counseling, mentoring and professional development activities. Clearly then, besides having an overarching view of the organization and its trajectory, the transformational leader must also comprehend those things that motivate followers individually (Simic, 2003, p. 52).

Together, the four main dimensions of transformational leadership are interdependent; they must co-exist; and they are held to have an additive effect that yields performance beyond expectations (Gellis, 2001; Hall, Johnson, Wysocki & Kepner, 2002; Kelly, 2003).


·        clear sense of purpose, expressed simply (e.g. metaphors, anecdotes)

·        value driven (e.g. have core values and congruent behaviour)

·        strong role model

·        high expectations

·        persistent

·        self-knowing

·        perpetual desire for learning

·        love work

·        life-long learners

·        identify themselves as change agents

·        enthusiastic

·        able to attract and inspire others

·        strategic

·        effective communicator

·        emotionally mature

·        courageous

·        risk-taking

·        risk-sharing

·        visionary

·        unwilling to believe in failure

·        sense of public need. 

·        considerate of the personal needs of employees

·        listens to all viewpoints to develop spirit of cooperation

·        mentoring

·        able to deal with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity



Sources: Bass (1990a); Cox (2001); Epitropaki (undated); Hall, Johnson, Wysocki & Kepner (2002); Lussier & Achua (2004); Stone, Russell & Patterson (2003); Tichy & Devanna (1986); and University of Regina (undated).



Table 2. Characteristics of Transformational Leaders.


Table 2 summarizes the characteristics that, according to the extant literature, accompany the four foundational attributes of a transformational leader. Collectively, they do suggest a human being of remarkable capabilities! Nevertheless, on foundations provided by the four dimensions of transformational leadership (Table 1 and Figure 1) and the various associated characteristics (Table 2), transformational leaders are people who can create significant change in both followers and the organization with which they are associated (Griffin, 2003). They lead changes in mission, strategy, structure and culture, in part through a focus on intangible qualities like vision, shared values and ideas, and relationship building. They are able to give significance to diverse activities, illustrating, for example, the ways in which different people and groups might be working towards larger organizational objectives. Transformational leaders also find common ground that allows them to enlist followers in processes of change.

Following Carlson and Perrewe (1995), ERIC (1992), Lussier and Achua (2004), and Yukl (1989) there are four stages of organizational change under transformational leadership. First, it is necessary to make a compelling case for change. The transformational leader helps to bring about change by making a convincing case for it.  This characteristically involves heightening followers’ sensitivity to environmental changes and challenges and questioning the status quo. For instance, the case for change within a school or some other educational environment might be made by inviting government department spokespeople to the school to present an overview of policy and related contexts or by highlighting levels of performance relative to other, similar organizations.

Second, it is important to inspire a shared vision, seeking broad input, and encouraging everyone to think of a new and better future. This needs to be cast in ideological rather than just economic terms. This might be achieved by involving all staff in the shaping and reshaping of the school/department’s strategic plan on a regular basis. Staff might be surveyed to establish their wants and needs. For example, in an educational context, a school principal or department head could also visit classrooms regularly (and encourage others to do the same) to better gauge collective requirements (ERIC, 1992). Inspiring a shared vision will also be achieved through coaching and conscious role modeling strategies.

Third, change needs to be led. A sense of urgency must be instilled. Collaboration has to be encouraged and the self-confidence of followers’ must be increased. In effect, it is vital to create an environment conducive to the creation and sharing of knowledge (Bryant, 2003, p. 37). Public recognition of achievements and successful (shared) initiatives might help serve these ends. Private notes of congratulation to successful followers can also help foster self-confidence (ERIC, 1992). It is also necessary at this stage, to deal with the emotional resistance that typically accompanies change and this may be achieved through careful recognition of the individuals needs of staff or followers.

Finally, change needs to be embedded. This is achieved by, for example, monitoring progress, changing appraisal and reward systems, and hiring staff with a commitment to collaboration. Together these should also empower followers to help achieve the organization’s objectives. What leaders pay attention to, what they measure and how they measure it, and what they control (Carlson & Perrewe, 1995) are critical factors in transforming an organization’s culture and embedding new ways of thinking and acting.

In summary:

“the transformational leader articulates the vision in a clear and appealing manner, explains how to attain the visions, acts confidently and optimistically, expresses confidence in the followers, emphasizes values with symbolic actions, leads by example, and empowers followers to achieve the vision (Stone, Russell & Patterson, 2003, p. 4).


That transformational leadership is successful has been demonstrated by studies in a diverse range of professional and cultural settings, including military, schools and corporations (Bryant, 2003, p. 36). However, in their recent study of ‘traditionality’ in Taiwan and the United States, Spreitzer, Perttula & Xin (2005) make it clear that while transformational leadership is effective regardless of culture, the level of effectiveness depends to some extent on cultural values. People with traditional cultural values see weaker links between transformational leadership and leader effectiveness than those with less traditional values. Transformational leadership has also been demonstrated to result in a “high level of follower motivation and commitment and well-above-average organizational performance, especially under conditions of crisis or uncertainty” (Bryant, 2003, p. 36). As Carlson and Perrewe (1995, p. 834) observe, major changes in the organization’s mission, strategies and level of follower commitment are likely to emerge as a result of transformational leadership. On the basis of their analysis of several legal cases, Odom and Green (2003) argue that principles of transformational leadership (i.e., intellectual stimulation, idealized influence) applied to ethical dilemmas faced by managers offers the prospect of less litigation and better ethical outcomes than the more common transactional approach to ethics. Within educational environments teachers are more likely to collaborate and are held to be more likely to have positive attitudes to school improvement and to new forms of instructional behaviour as a result of transformational leadership (ERIC, 1992).

Successful Transformational Leaders


Although the idea of transformational leadership is relatively recent, people who have demonstrated the characteristics of this form of leadership have existed for many years. For instance, Yates (2002) argues that Genghis Khan was a transformational leader who, during the late 12th and early 13th centuries, united fiercely independent Mongol tribes to ultimately create one of the largest land empires ever seen. Another transformational leader is Lou Gerstner – retired Chairman and CEO of IBM. He turned IBM around from $8.1 billion loss in 1993 after identifying part of the company’s problem as ‘success syndrome’. That is, having been one of the greatest commercial institutions on Earth from the 1960s-1980s, IBM had become insular and rigid (Sheppard, 2002). Gerstner completely transformed the culture of the organization through, for example, modeling desired behaviour and abolishing IBM’s notorious dress code to reflect better the attire of their customers (Sheppard, 2002).

Lee Iacocca is a transformational leader who is credited with saving the Chrysler Corporation. He took over Chrysler when it was on the brink of bankruptcy and set about transforming the ideals of his closest subordinates. In turn, that began to reshape the corporation’s culture. Because a transformational leader encourages others to becomes transformational leaders, soon the entire organization was filled with effective leaders (Kelly, 2003).

One high profile transformational leader from educational environments is Dr Ruth Simmons, the first African-American to be appointed President of an ‘Ivy League’ university (Brown) in the USA. Earlier, as President of Smith College Simmons had started an engineering program - the first ever at a women’s university in the USA. Simmons was a transformational leader who herself attributed her own successes to her kindergarten teacher, Ms Ida Mae Henderson, who had advised her she could do anything in her heart she set out to achieve (Chekwa, 2001).

Within military and government contexts, General Colin Powell overcame entrenched racism (particularly in the US military) and low institutional expectations of African Americans to become chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. He went further, becoming in 1991 the first African American to become US Secretary of State, a position some said he filled with vision and the qualities of a transformational leader (Chekwa, 2001).

Other transformational leaders include Christine Nixon, the current Police Chief Commissioner in the Australian state of Victoria, who is popularly understood to have transformed the culture of that police force for the good, and Sir Richard Branson, responsible for international Virgin enterprises (Lussier & Achua, 2004).

These are positive examples of transformational leaders but as critics (e.g., Yukl, 1989) point out, transformational leadership is not without its dark side and other flaws.

Criticisms of Transformational Leadership

The morality of transformational leadership has been questioned, especially by libertarians and organizational development consultants (Griffin, 2003). A key criticism is that within it transformational leadership has potential for the abuse of power (Hall, Johnson, Wysocki & Kepner, 2002). Transformational leaders motivate followers by appealing to strong emotions regardless of the ultimate effects on followers and do not necessarily attend to positive moral values. As Stone, Russell and Patterson (2003, p. 4) observe, transformational leaders can exert a very powerful influence over followers, who offer them trust and respect. Some leaders may have narcissistic tendencies, thriving on power and manipulation. Moreover, some followers may have dependent characters and form strong and unfortunate bonds with their leaders (Stone, Russell and Patterson, 2003, p. 4). Further, as Bass (1997) notes, transformational leadership lacks the checks and balances of countervailing interests, influences and power that might help to avoid dictatorship and oppression of a minority by a majority. In the absence of moral rectitude it is self-evident then that transformational leadership might be applied for less-than-desirable social ends. Yukl (1989, p. 226) describes this as the “dark side of charisma” and goes on to note (p. 227) that for every example of a positive transformational leader demonstrating charismatic qualities (e.g., Mohandas [Mahatma] Ghandi), there is an equally negative example (e.g., Charles Manson). The Rev Jim Jones, who led the massive Jonestown suicide, is an example of a transformational leader from the ‘dark side’ (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2004). These criticisms about the morality of transformational leadership have been addressed by the argument that to be truly transformational, leadership must have moral foundations (Griffin, 2003). Thus: “To bring about change, authentic transformational leadership fosters the modal values of honesty, loyalty, and fairness, as well as the end values of justice, equality, and human rights.”(Griffin, 2003, p. 8. Emphasis added).

There is an argument that transformational leadership is facilitative of change because it contributes to organizational improvement, effectiveness and institutional culture (Barnett, McCormick & Conners, 2001). As such, it is appropriate in environments of turbulence and change such as those that prevail in many organizations in the mid-2000s. However, this view is contested by Barnett, McCormick and Conners (2001) whose study of twelve secondary schools in New South Wales, Australia revealed that teachers may in fact be distracted from concentrating on learning-and-teaching by, for example, taking time away from students to be involved in the corporate school initiatives an inspirational, transformational principal expects of them.

Leithwood and Jantzi (2000) conclude that transactional leaders more commonly apply teleological ethics whereas transformational leaders deploy deontological[3] ethics. In short, these two approaches to leadership stand on different moral foundations. As some recent work in ethics suggests (Israel & Hay, 2006), ethical decision-making is best founded on both approaches.

Bass (1997) usefully summarizes some of the other criticisms of transformational leadership. It lends itself to amoral self promotion by leaders since it makes use of impression management. He suggests it is anthithetical to organization learning and development involving shared leadership, equality, consensus and participative decision-making. It encourages followers to go beyond their own self-interests for the good of the organization and may emotionally engage followers in pursuit of evil ends. This point is supported by Carlson and Perrewe (1995) who remind us that an organization’s culture socializes individuals into that culture. While acceptable behaviour might be supported in this way, so too might socially unacceptable behaviour. Finally, Bass notes that transformational leadership can see followers manipulated in ways that may see them lose more than they gain.

The Future of Transformational Leadership

And so what is the future of transformational leadership? There seems to be an emerging orthodoxy in the literature favoring a blend of transactional and transformational leadership (e.g., Bryant, 2003; Gellis, 2001; Hoyt & Blascovich, 2003).  However, Sanders, Hopkins and Geroy (2003) propose an extension to both through what they call ‘transcendental leadership’. Their model suggests three structural levels of leadership accomplishment, these being transactional, transformational, and transcendental, and they suggest that a leader’s development along three dimensions of spirituality – consciousness (mind), moral character (heart) and faith (soul) – is associated with these levels of leadership accomplishment. They argue for the need to society and organizations to recognize the need for and embrace spirituality. Traditional leadership theories are said to concentrate on external manifestations of leadership but the model proposed by Sanders, Hopkins and Geroy (2003) indicates that leadership is best understood by adding consideration of the leader’s internal components. While their very new theory is yet to be tested empirically, their intent is to help bring spirituality out of the ‘closet’ (p. 29) and to weave it coherently into new understandings of leadership.Text Box: Knowledge Creating


Through charisma, individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation and inspirational motivation, transformational leaders have great potential to promote performance beyond expectations and to effect enormous changes within individuals and organizations. It appears to a be a form of leadership well-suited to these current times characterized by uncertainty, global turbulence and organizational instability. However, as we have seen from examples such as the horrors of Jonestown, there are some risks associated with this form of leadership, particularly with respect to idealized influence. The capacity for individual and organizational transformation must be accompanied by moral responsibility, for transformational leaders shape powerful social and institutional cultures which may either be liberating or oppressive.





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[1] Reduced to five in the 1995 work of Hipp and Bredeson (as cited in Leithwood & Jantzi, 2000).

[2] In some works, idealized influence is divided into two groups. In idealized influence (attributes), followers identify with and emulate leaders seen to have attainable vision. Idealized influence (behaviour) refers to that behaviour that results in people wishing to follow leaders (Barnett, McCormick & Conners, 2001).

[3] Teleological ethics are those based on scrutiny of the consequences of actions. Deontological ethics give greatest consideration to upholding promises and maintaining universal values or principles (see Israel and Hay 2006 for a full discussion).

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