The transformational leadership approach encourages, inspires, and motivates employees to innovate and create the change necessary to shape the future success of the company. This is accomplished by setting an example at the executive level through authenticity, a strong sense of corporate culture, employee ownership, and independence in the workplace. Transformational leaders are change agents in the business, who can identify innovative and shifting trends in technology, and then help the organization embrace that change.
Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their workforce without micromanaging — they trust trained employees to take authority over decisions in their assigned jobs. It’s a management style that’s designed to give employees more room to be creative, look to the future, and find new solutions to old problems. Employees on the leadership track will also be prepared to become transformational leaders themselves through mentorship and training.
Transformational leadership theory
The concept of transformational leadership started with James V. Downton in 1973 and was expanded by James Burns in 1978. In 1985, researcher Bernard M. Bass further expanded the concept to include ways for measuring the success of transformational leadership. This model encourages leaders to demonstrate authentic, strong leadership with the idea that employees will be inspired to follow suit.
While Bass’ transformational leadership theory dates to the ’70s, it’s still an effective leadership model practiced today — this style of authentic leadership never changes, just the environments it’s used in. It’s applicable across every industry, but it’s especially vital to the fast-paced tech industry where innovation and agility can make or break a company.
For a deeper look at the transformational leadership model, see “How to apply transformational leadership at your company.”
Transformational leadership model
Four main elements define the transformational leadership model and style. These factors were developed by Bass in 1985 to help define what transformational leadership looks like and how to be successful as this type of leader:
Transformational leadership characteristics
Businesses want transformational leaders who display an “executive presence,” according to David E. Ulicne, senior director of executive education at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.
“The most important attribute for the success of the CIO would be their ability to articulate their vision and gain support of key stakeholders.” It’s a skill that takes practice, and you’ll need to “build your storytelling skills” by presenting at conferences and symposiums, and even recording yourself delivering speeches and asking your PR or media team for “constructive feedback.”
For a deeper look at leadership traits, see “7 leadership traits major enterprises look for in a CIO.”
According to Bass’ model, transformational leaders set themselves apart from other types of leaders by doing the following:
For a look at how to draw attention to your transformational leadership qualities in your resume, see “IT resume makeover: Highlighting transformational leadership.”
Transformational leadership examples
Harvard Business Review analyzed companies on the S&P and Fortune Global 500 list to uncover the best examples of transformational leadership. These businesses were judged on “new products, services and business models; repositioning its core business; and financial performance.”
Transformational leadership in IT
Although the concept of transformational leadership can apply to every industry — including healthcare, education, and government agencies — it’s increasingly important in IT as companies embrace digital transformation. Adapting to rapidly changing technology requires innovation and strong leadership to stay ahead of the curve and to remain competitive.
As leaders in IT, CIOs are responsible for setting the example as transformative leaders — especially considering they’re largely responsible for the digital transformation of the organization. Gartner reports that 40% of CIOs are leaders of digital transformation in their organization, while 34% say they’re responsible for innovation. Inspiring and motivating employees is an important aspect of digital transformation success, as everyone must buy into and embrace growth and change.
Digital transformation has become an even bigger priority since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way companies operate across every industry. According to the Digital Leadership Report 2021 from Harvey Nash Group, the pandemic sparked a “time of unprecedented change and transformation of digital at the majority of organizations.” While this digital shift began years ago, the pandemic only accelerated it through an increased demand for remote work and significant changes in supply chains and customer behavior.
In 2021, 50% of digital leaders said they expect major or radical changes to products and services, 47% planned to unlock new value through digital, 43% were tasked with supporting innovation, and 48% had expectations to transform and digitize the enterprise, according to data from Harvey Nash Group.
While there is certainly a growing need to keep an eye on the future — whether it’s security, new technology, or shifting platforms — not every part of IT will benefit from transformational leadership. Some processes, procedures and development projects require more structure, consistency and reliability; this is called transactional leadership.
To read how CIOs are making good on transformational leadership, see “Transformational CIOs juggle innovation and operations.”
Transactional vs. transformational leadership
Transactional leadership is the exact opposite of transformational leadership — it relies on motivating employees through rewards and punishments. It requires supervision, oversight, organization, and performance-monitoring. This leadership model doesn’t try to innovate. Instead, it’s rooted in keeping things consistent and predictable over time. Errors and faults are closely investigated, and the overall goal is to create efficient, routine procedures.
This style is best suited to departments or organizations that require routine and structure — areas where businesses want to reduce chaos or inefficiency. But it doesn’t allow for innovation or future planning the same way transformational leadership will.
Transformational leadership, on the other hand, supports agile environments, especially where failure carries less risk. You want the development and maintenance of a current product to remain consistent and error free, but you don’t want that to hinder the progress and growth of future updates and improvements.
Transactional leadership takes care of creating a consistent development process, while transformational leadership leaves people free to come up with new ideas and look at the future of products, services and ideas.
Training and certification
Although transformational leadership skills are considered soft skills, there are still plenty of resources, certificates, and training programs aimed at developing transformational leaders. Here’s a short list of online resources to earn training and certifications in transformational leadership. However, it’s likely you can find an in-person training course at a local college or university in your home state.
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