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Transformational leadership – Ezekiel A. Odeyemi

Transformational leadership – Ezekiel A. Odeyemi

Transformational leadership: History, operationalization, and application

The conceptual work of Burns (1978) and the empirical studies on transformational leadership by Bass (1985) and others (Bass & Avolio, 1993; Bass & Yammarino, 1988; Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Kouzes & Posner, 1987; Tichy & Devanna, 1986) have brought the behavior to the front-burners when it comes to leadership scholarship. Researches on leadership entered a dark corridor with the trait theory in the 40s and 50s since the search for the universal traits for leadership effectiveness could not be achieved. In fact Bass (1990) discovered 43 of such traits from different studies while House and Aditya (1997) submitted that the available empirical studies conducted on leadership personality could not “guide the search for leadership traits” (p. 140).

James M. Burns, a political scientist and a leadership biographer, studied the life of various individuals who had influenced the world in different fields and concluded that they manifested one of two leadership behaviors – transactional leadership and transformational leadership. According to Indiana University’s The Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence, “James MacGregor Burns is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Presidential biographer and has devoted his professional life to the study of leadership in American life”. Burns attended Harvard University, where he got a doctorate degree in political science, and London School of Economics. A member of American Society for Arts and Science, Burns, is Distinguished Scholar at the University of Maryland. Burns believed that a transactional leader uses means to achieve results: a sort of carrot and stick situation. A transformational leader, on the other hand, influences the heart and mind of the followers by helping them to achieve what could have been impossible for them to achieve without leadership. A transactional leader operates on the basis of reciprocal exchange while a transformational leader influences others to become people of significance through the outcomes they produced, while such followers are able to uplift the moral capacity of their leader (Burns cited in Diaz-Saenz, 2011).


The credit for the operationalization and integration of the transformational leadership behaviors must go exclusively to Bass as the first scholar to come up with the following components: charismatic leadership, individual consideration, and intellectual stimulation. But Bass and Riggio (2006) improved on this list through the use and feedback obtained from the use of Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ-5X). As of today the components of transformational leadership are idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. These components have been tested in many studies using the operational definitions developed by Bass and other scholars.

Idealized influence is the behavior that spurs the followers to emulate the lifestyle of a leader who shows determination, capability, persistence, and actions that engender trust, respect, and admiration.

Inspirational motivation helps transformational leaders to envision a better future and through inspiration, transport the followers to such a destination. Such action produces meaning, enthusiasm, and optimism; while the follower could stretch to achieve what had seemed impossible.

Intellectual stimulation behavior of transformational leaders equips them to engage the reasoning capacity of their followers. They do not want to lead their team members through blind loyalty but they challenge them to search for innovate solutions. Though transformational leadership is result-oriented but the focus is not limited to organizational outcomes as measured by amount of goods and services produced, but the transformation taking place in the lives of the followers is also of utmost importance.

Individualized consideration – Transformational leaders are equipped with the ability to identify the individual needs and aspirations of their followers because they can connect better with their team members and subordinates, and the behavior enhances their ability to play the role of a mentor and a coach thereby taking their followers to greater heights (Alimo‐Metcalfe and Alban‐Metcalfe (2001).


The theory has been applied to the middle and lower level managers (Bass & Yammarino, 1988, Conger and Kanungo, 1998) and senior executives (Agle, 1993; Conger & Kanungo, 1998). Empirical studies have been conducted in sectors like education (Koh et al., 1991) and the military (Shamir et al., 1998) while both quantitative (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1996) and qualitative (Conger, 1989; Conger & Kanungo, 1998) approaches have been used as well.

Most of the studies on transformational leadership, like other empirical investigations on leadership field, have their focus on the West (Bass, 1997) and Asia (Zhu, Chew, & Spangler, 2005; Palrecha, Spangler, & Yammarino, 2011), with very few studies targeting leadership in Africa (Walumbwa, Orwa, Wang, & Lawler; 2005). The time has come for African scholars to showcase transformational leaders who are shaping various sectors on this continent. While there may not be many political leaders on the continent to qualify as transformational leaders according to the MLQ conception, transformational leadership is not limited to the politics only, and there are individuals who are influencing communities and organizations in various industries, education, civil service and other public and private sectors. It is shocking that an over 1000-page book written on global leadership committed only two pages to leadership in Africa (House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2004). The disparity could be a carry-over of colonial mentality and the care-free attitude of African scholars.


Transformational leadership behaviors are found in every community and nation. The scholars in this part of the globe must contribute more empirical studies to the GLOBE project while philanthropies must set up foundations to sponsor more social researches in the field of leadership. Leadership field will be more enriched with such studies and the next generation will be exposed to a more positive leadership model.


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Article written by Ezekiel A. Odeyemi

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