Bringing Transformational Leadership Practices to the Workplace

Why should anyone learn more about transformational leadership, and what it can do in the workplace? Those are key questions for people who hope to manage organizations with highly trained workforces in rapidly changing markets.

For these organizations, transformational leaders can make the difference between surviving or failing. And more organizations are adopting transformational leadership practices, so it’s a smart move to learn more about a transformative culture that could play a major part in your career.

Because many leadership styles were developed in a research or academic setting, discussing them can seem like academic exercises with few real-world applications. But the true test of a leadership model’s effectiveness is the extent to which it is accepted in the workplace.

Transformational leadership often is a leading candidate for organizations trying to increase their effectiveness. Students of transformational leadership should ask:

  • How can these practices be instituted effectively at work?
  • Does this leadership style work well in all organizations?
  • What are some of the current workplace issues that might lead to an even greater value for transformational leadership?

Workplace trends and transformational leadership

Leadership themes focusing on new ideas, changing workplaces and higher-level employee needs appear likely to increase in importance over the coming years. In an observation directly relevant to transformational leadership, one recent review of workplace trends identified three key areas for organizations:

  • Rising importance of women in the workforce.
  • Companies developing internal brands such as “best place to be inspired.”
  • Employees wanting more consensus and empowerment.

Even organizations that are not currently ideal candidates for transformational leadership could need such help in the future. The need to anticipate change is vital but rarely easy. Doing it successfully can define the crucial difference between an average organization and a great one.

Transformational leadership at work

While the transformational leadership model will not be ideal for every setting, it does have broad appeal for a wide variety of organizations. In the interest of prudent due diligence, any decision about incorporating this approach should be subjected to detailed scrutiny. Enterprises that do not have internal experts who can advise them about a recommended course of action may have to bring in management consultants.

Hiring transformational leadership experts can help organizations find a cost-effective strategy to introduce these practices to an organization. When he originally developed transformational leadership theory, J.M. Burns emphasized that it was essentially a mirror image of “transactional leadership.” Here are several organizational situations in which transformational leadership should be treated as a primary alternative in the workplace:

  • Ideas are considered more important than processes.
  • Change is encouraged.
  • Team members can work in small groups or autonomously.
  • Team members have higher-level needs.

The final point above is perhaps best illustrated by Peter Drucker’s observation about the growing prominence of knowledge workers, who are likely to have different work-related needs than employees primarily providing physical labor.

As a counterpoint, here are some circumstances better served by transactional leadership:

  • Processes are considered more important than ideas.
  • An organization wants to keep things as they are.
  • Predetermined standards and micromanaging are preferred (and perhaps required).
  • Workers have lower-level needs.

Leadership development and training

Organizations fitting the transformational leadership profile need to assess the importance of knowledge workers in their future. Hiring and retaining the right people is always a challenge. As observed by Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great,” it might be the most important goal of all: “Those who build great companies understand that the ultimate throttle on growth for any great company is not markets, or technology, or competition, or products. It is one thing above all others: the ability to get and keep enough of the right people.”

The business incentive for transformational leadership could be a variation of the old wisdom about not taking something personally because, “It’s just business.” Perhaps the new wisdom should be a variation of, “It’s not business, it is personal.”