Transformative Leadership

by Scott London

Some thirty years ago, historian and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns introduced the concept of “transformative leadership.” It was a powerful idea, one that continues to shape how I think about great leaders — in politics, certainly, but also in organizations, in communities, and even in small and informal groups. Burns observed that most leaders approach followers with an eye toward exchanging one thing for another — a swap of goods for money, for example, or a trading of votes between candidate and citizen. He called these leaders “transactional.” But there was a more complex and at the same time more powerful kind of leader that was “transformative,” he said. These individuals engage the full person of the follower and strive to satisfy some higher need on his or her part. The result of transformative leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation, one that converts followers into leaders and often convert leaders into moral agents. At its best, Burns observed, transformative leadership advances the common good while at the same time appealing to the highest good of both leaders and followers.

Here is an excerpt from Burns’s 1978 book, Leadership:

Transforming leadership … occurs when one or more persons engage with each other in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality…. Their purposes, which might have started out as separate but related, as in the case of transactional leadership, become fused. Power bases are linked not as counterweights but as mutual support for common purpose.

Various names are used for such leadership, some of them derisory: elevating, mobilizing, inspiring, exalting, uplifting, preaching, exhorting, evangelizing. The relationship can be moralistic, of course. But transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.

Perhaps the best modern example is Gandhi, who aroused and elevated the hopes and demands of millions of Indians and whose life and personality were enhanced in the process. Transcending leadership is dynamic leadership in the sense that the leaders throw themselves into a relationship with followers who will feel “elevated” by it and often become more active themselves, thereby creating new cadres of leaders. Transcending leadership is leadership engagé. Naked power-wielding can be neither transactional nor transforming; only leadership can be. [...]

Woodrow Wilson called for leaders who, by boldly interpreting the nation’s conscience, could lift a people out of their everyday selves. That people can be lifted into their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership.

For more, please see my book review of James MacGregor Burns’s Leadership.