Four Pillars Of Transformational Leadership: How To Lead

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Last updated: December 18th, 2023

Transformational leadership

Last updated: December 18th, 2023

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Transformational leadership is the most talked-about leadership style in the 21st century. And, thanks to the accelerated pace of technological change afoot right now, it’s also the most sought-after leadership approach in the corporate world today.

In this post, I’ll consider all angles of transformational leadership:

  • How it’s defined.
  • The theory behind it.
  • How it differs from transactional leadership.
  • Its advantages and disadvantages, as well as…
  • Tangible examples.

But beyond those basics, about which endless academic articles and corporate guides have been written, I’ve made it my personal mission to give you more substance.

Specifically, relevant examples and proven tips not from the same hackneyed sources you’ll find elsewhere on the internet.

What’s my ultimate goal? To coax out the transformational leader in you.

Grab a fresh cup of coffee.

I’m going to need your full attention, and an open mind. We’re starting with a trip back in time.

(Related: Is An MBA Worth It?)

What Are The Origins Of Transformational Leadership?

Picture this.

It’s the early 1970’s in Northern California.

James Downton just finished his PhD in Sociology at Berkeley. The topic of his thesis was quite controversial for the time: Charisma in leadership and its influence on religion.

In said thesis, Downton postulated that the transformational leadership abilities (i.e. charismatic skills) of certain religious leaders created the New Religious Movement.

Think Krishna Consciousness, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Jim Jones cult. You get the idea.

In 1973, his thesis was published as a book: Rebel Leadership: Commitment and Charisma in a Revolutionary Process.

And for the first time, the words “transformational leadership” were written side by side and put forth as a theory. With roots that were, for some, a tad bit contentious.

From Downton To Burns.

Downton was more or less ignored as a radical, and the concept of transformational leadership didn’t gain traction until it was uttered by someone far more sensible.

A Harvard and London School of Economics graduate named James MacGregor Burns

Burns’ book Leadership came out in 1978. His exposition on the different leadership models of the day concluded that most leadership was a transactional process.

Meaning, there were clearly defined transactions or exchanges between the leader and his / her subordinates.

On the other hand, Burns defined transformation leadership as a process in which:

Leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation.”

And you may as well throw the word “morals” in there, too, since Burns stripped all of Downton’s alternative radicalism straight out of the deal.

This clear distinction between transactional and transformational leadership was Burns’ big A-HA moment.

One might even mark it as the start of his own inner transformation from academic striver to leadership expert.

What Is The Transformational Leadership Framework?

According to Burns, the leader’s role model behaviour is the transforming power that ignites change in employees and, by extension, in organisations.

Forget the cults. Deny the despots.

In pure Luke Skywalker fashion, Burn’s transformational leader is a force for good, linked to strong ethics and a high moral ground.


Speaking of lofty ideals, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Theory of Human Needs, shown below, heavily influenced Burns.


Burns believed the transformational leader dwelled toward the top of the pyramid, floating in the sweet elixir of self-esteem and a powerful sense of self, thus inspiring a committed relationship between him/herself and subordinates.

transformational leadership

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In contrast, transactional leadership thrives in the zone of the status quo at all costs.

At the bottom of the rung, both leader and employee strive to have their base needs met: shelter, security, order, stability, freedom from fear.

(Related Article: Transformational vs Transactional Leadership).

The 4 Pillars Of Transformational Leadership.

Congratulations, time travellers – we’ve made it to the 1980’s.

Where, in 1985, industrial psychologist Bernard Bass defined the four basic elements of transformational leadership, or the still famous “Four I’s”.

These “Four I’s” were solidified into their more current from in 1997. (Hold tight, we’re almost through the 20th century!)

More details can be found below the image.

transformational leadership

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1. Idealised Influence.

  • Hearkening back to Downton, one can’t help but make the connection between idealised influence and individual charisma. Transformational leadership works because the leader leads by example. Without going too religious on you, they practice what they preach.
  • Trust and respect, in the best of circumstances, grow from this behavioural foundation.

2. Inspirational Motivation.

  • Key qualities a transformational leader must convey are confidence, motivation and a clear sense of purpose. These must be promoted consistently to the team to inspire behaviour change.
  • A clear sense of leadership and organisational purpose, according to the theory, translates into a strong sense of personal purpose.
  • Fueled by this shared destiny, collaboration ensues because everyone is willing to do what it takes to meet the goal.

3. Intellectual Stimulation.

  • In what approaches an oxymoron, this “I” promotes individual innovation combined with shared decisions.
  • Instead of making decisions for their teams and dictating prescriptive instructions, the transformational leader calls for a unique combination of creativity and tenacity.
  • The challenging piece of this “I” is that, since it encourages creativity and autonomous thinking, a true transformational leader must have the guts to switch up the framework if, at any point, it’s no longer working.

4. Individualised Consideration.

  • This “I” recognises that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to motivating and mentoring employees.
  • This means a transformational leader must be willing to take the time and expend the effort required to identify, satisfy and link each team member’s distinct personal and professional goals.
  • Because, after all, a true transformational leader desires for their employees an entry into the upper realms of Maslow’s pyramid. So that one day, they too can be self-actualised.

(Related: Psychometric Testing: Survival Guide For Managers & Executives).

At Long Last, An Acronym.

I promise you, this is our last prolonged jaunt around the 20th century.

Once Bass had established the framework for transformational leadership, he developed the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ).

Launched in 1985, the test measures the components of leadership and its effectiveness within the leader’s organisation.

The current version of the test—MLQ 5X—includes 26 items divided into 9 scales:

  • Inspirational motivation. Tests the leader’s articulation and actualisation of the vision.
  • Idealised influence (attributed). Examines how much charisma is attributed to the leader.
  • Idealised influence behaviour). Looks at how the leader activates a collective sense of purpose.
  • Intellectual stimulation. Tests how followers’ beliefs are challenged and helped to analyze their problem-solving.
  • Individualised consideration. Examines how individual needs are taken into consideration.
  • Contingent reward. Studies the leader’s ability to reward followers for achievements toward the vision.
  • Active management-by-exception. Measures how actively the leader looks for deviations from the rules and determines their relevancy and impact.
  • Management-by-exception. Only applies if the leader intervenes after mistakes have been made.
  • Laissez-faire. Tracks whether leadership is lacking.

An article on the Langston University website poked holes in the test stating that…

“Most items in the scale of charismatic leadership described the result of leadership, instead of specific actions of the leader that can be observed and that, in turn, lead to the results.” 

After Bass worked to modify the test, we finally made it into the 21st century.

In 2003, organisational behaviourist John Antonakis studied the viability of the test and deemed it to be a reliable measurement of transformational leadership.

Welcome to the end of our time warp, my friends. There’s nowhere to go from here but forward.


But first, it’s been a long trip and a lot of words to get to this point.

I think we could all use a break.

Stand up. Stretch.

And then watch this Ted Talk with Canadian entrepreneur Lesley Hayes, whose team gave her a fridge magnet: I’m not bossy. I just have better ideas.


Her story is proof that transformational leaders don’t always start their journey as a force for good.

But the transformers with staying power eventually make their way from the dark to the light.

Advantages And Disadvantages Of Transformational Leadership.

Since most of the world can’t say enough about the benefits of transformational leadership, let’s go back to its rebel roots and look at the dark side first.

Last year, I wrote a piece that explored a disturbing yet rising, trend: CEO corruption.

While you may be suffering from a syndrome I’ve coined “Uber fatigue”, (I mean, enough already about their fall from grace, right?) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Travis Kalanick in this context.

There’s a more detailed analysis in the link above, but it’s undeniable that Kalanick possesses the charisma and visionary ability that qualify him as a transformational leader.


But the positive went hand-in-hand with the toxicity that earned him the near-cult status.

This raises an important, yet often elusive, distinction:

When is a leader leading as a force for good, or as a force for their own ego?

Self-esteem and confidence are critical to a transformational leader’s success, fair enough. But how do they know when they’ve gone to the dark side?

For Lesley, in the example above, the refrigerator magnets were the gifts from her team that saved her from going full-blown ego-maniac.

And she, in case you skipped the Ted Talk, references our next concept.

Transformational Leader As Hero.

No doubt, charismatic leaders create a cult of personality around them. This was Downton’s original point back in the 70’s.

But this view of a leader as a hero goes back much, much further.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero’s Journey, outlines the trajectory, as it shows up repeatedly in myths from all over the world.

The “revelation” and “transformation” at the bottom of the cycle is where Uber is right now.

disadvantages of transformational leadership

(Image credit:

Sheelah Kolhatkar, in her New Yorker piece on Dara Khosrowshahi, wrote that:

“Khosrowshahi is now tasked with transforming this unwieldy, ambitious enterprise into a more traditional company, without sacrificing the attributes that made it successful in the first place..

An Uber investor told me, “One of the words that was common parlance at Uber was ‘fierce.’ I love that word. But it can absolutely be taken too far.”

The question, he said, is “How does Dara preserve the positive aspects of the culture and change the aspects that are in desperate need of changing while still competing fiercely?””

Clearly, Khosrowshahi’s role as transformation leader is to be Uber’s hero and to somehow maintain Kalanick’s dark-side success while moving the company out of Campbell’s abyss and into the light.

Whether or not he will receive the gift of the goddess (immortal status, in this case reputational) remains to be seen.

Can All Workplaces Be Transformed?

World-renowned leadership consultant Simon Sinek, in this video, tells a simple story about a personal experience.

“I was flying on a trip, and I was witness to an incident where a passenger attempted to board before their number was called, and I watched the gate agent treat this man like he had broken the law, like a criminal…

He was yelled at for attempting to board one group too soon. 

So I said something. I said, “Why do you have treat us like cattle? Why can’t you treat us like human beings?” 

And this is exactly what she said to me. She said, “Sir, if I don’t follow the rules, I could get in trouble or lose my job.”

Ever insightful, Sinek’s interpretation of this event was that the woman didn’t trust her leaders enough to bend rules.


If the conditions for transformation aren’t right, or aren’t present, people won’t feel safe to collaborate or to pursue their own purpose as a force for good.

They won’t have the space to think for themselves.

So, how do transformational leaders foster the right environment for change?

Transformational Leaders Start With A Vision.

Fear of redundancy is a primary obstacle to transformational change within an organisation.

It happens when leaders who aren’t truly transformational rely upon the advice of transactional HR and Finance partners in their business to determine that there is only one solution to achieve their goal: Cut the headcount budget.

And indeed, sometimes reorganisation is part of the answer. However, it shouldn’t be the only answer.

True transformers look for more creative solutions.

But the hook is—the strategy needs to be grounded in a vision larger than the current state.


When former McKinsey consultant Jørgen Vig Knudstrop became CEO of Danish-based toy company Lego in 2003, the company’s future wasn’t looking too bright.

The company had nearly gone off the rails under the leadership of a so-called “turn-around expert” with no background in the core business.

Tacky theme parks, bad cartoons, macho mini-figures…the end was near.

Fortunately for Lego—and for kids everywhere—Knudstrom had a clear vision to transform the company:

That Lego continue to create innovative play experiences and reach more children every year

Then, Knudstrom backed the vision up with an investment in innovation and an environment that put the engagement of more children front and centre.

In 2013, Knudstrom reported this about his shareholders:

“They are not pushing us very hard on the financial target…What they like about, say, Lego Friends is that we’re engaging more children. They see growth as one testimony of whether we’re sufficiently innovative.”

Transformational Leaders Put Their People First.

In 2017, when the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Championship in America, their coach Steve Kerr was thrust into the leadership spotlight.

However, Kerr made it clear that the win was not about him.

He is famous for refusing the microphone and trophy when the Warriors won. But when he did speak, it was about everyone else who made the win possible:

In his work as a coach, Kerr is known for his study of leadership styles. As part of his evolution as a transformational coach, he set about defining his core values: joy and empowerment.

Kerr shows up and leads with joy every single day.

This infectious quality has enhanced the collaboration of his team and has ensured that his other core value of empowerment happens organically.

Superstar player Draymond Green summed up the Warrior’s culture under Kerr:

“So he [Kerr] built a culture to where, one man down, the next man has to step up. And it’s not just on him, it’s on everybody to come together and empower that next man and have his back through whatever the situation is, and ride for him just like you’d ride for coach Kerr.”

Best Examples Of Transformational Leaders.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, much of this post has featured examples of different transformational leaders.

I did this intentionally.

Because most of what’s written and circulating out on the internet on transformational leadership rests solely on theory for the first 5,000 words.

And then, like the Hindenburg disaster, those “guides” crash land on examples from the height of the Industrial Age.

So, since you’ve been such patient time travellers, I’ll spare you the write-ups of Ford, Rockefeller and Perot.

Instead, enjoy these real-life examples offered for your transformational leadership inspiration:

Final Thoughts On Becoming A Transformational Leader.

We’ve journeyed from the 1970’s to 2018. Wound our way from Downton to Burns to Bass.

Traversed the ins and outs of the “Four I’s” and the MLQ. And we did that because we had to.

Because without understanding where you’re coming from, you can’t fully envision where you’re going.

Which, we trust is toward those multiple, stunning current-day examples of transformational leaders in action we’ve shared throughout.

As our time machine powers down, these salient points emerge from the dust of the past: Transformational leadership is both a choice and a privilege.

  • We’ve all known those leaders who, despite their title, are absolutely not leading by example.
  • On the flip side, we’ve all known those leaders who, despite a lack of title or authority, lead naturally and from the heart.

True transformational leaders are a force for good.

They nudge anyone who comes into contact with them a little closer to the light.

And now, I’ll close with a humorous quote from Ross Perot on snakes:

“If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”


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