Transformational Leadership: It’s Not What You Think


The idea of transformational leadership sounds good when taken at face value. A transformational leader is someone who instills pride, respect and trust in its followers. They inspire and motivate people beyond expectations, sparking innovation and change. And, if you look up “transformation” in the dictionary, you will see it defined as “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” So, what organization wouldn’t want to introduce some form of transformational leadership to respond to the disruption caused by the current digital revolution?

Although transformational leadership seems like a good idea in theory, it is nothing more than charismatic leadership with a different and more appealing name. A recent study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that there is plenty to dislike about charismatic leadership. In fact, there is little evidence to show that there is a strong correlation between charisma and effective leadership. So, because charismatic leadership and transformational leadership are essentially the same thing, it’s important to understand how this style of leadership has been so widely adopted across the globe.

According to another study published by the Academy of Management, “there is a widely shared consensus that charismatic–transformational leadership is a particularly effective form of leadership.” However, there are some major issues with this assumption, given that this leadership style is fundamentally flawed. There should instead be a shift towards a new and more empirically defined form of leadership, where leaders are appointed based on capability and skill as opposed to charisma.  

First, it is widely assumed that leadership is defined as “a person who has a leadership or managerial title.” The problem with that definition is that it doesn’t address how that person assumed the leadership position in the first place. Organizations across the world are notorious for promoting charismatic and politically savvy employees into leadership roles because they seem leaderlike. Some people can charm their superiors into thinking they would be effective leaders. They tend to be confident, creative, charming, and flashy, which helps them stand out in comparison with their peers. However, although their personality makes them seem “transformative,” in reality they are often ineffective leaders.

Second, there are several inconsistencies when it comes to measuring leader effectiveness. In a 2008 study conducted by Robert B. Kaiser, Robert Hogan, and S. Bartholomew Craig, the authors outlined these inconsistencies. For example, some organizations measure leadership effectiveness through manager evaluations. Others measure it through subordinate evaluations. Some are based solely on financial results. This diversity in methodology has delivered mixed results, essentially making any conclusions on leader effectiveness inconclusive. Therefore, there is often no real evidence connecting hiring or promoting charismatic-transformational leaders with improved organizational results.

Third, because charismatic-transformational leadership has been deemed by so many to be an effective form of leadership, there is a presumed “fear” among researchers to debunk this myth, which is ironic. If there is evidence to suggest that this leadership style is ineffective, yet nobody wants to go against popular consensus, wouldn’t calling out these “experts” be transformative in and of itself?

The bottom line is that charismatic-transformational leadership is prevalent in organizations on a global scale, but there is little evidence to suggest it is effective. This leads us to one crucial question that organizations everywhere should be asking: How successful could we be if we did not assume that charismatic-transformational leadership leads to leadership effectiveness?

This is a complex problem with a simple solution: Define leadership correctly and then identify effective leaders through the use of valid personality assessments.

You cannot define leadership as someone who is in a managerial role or someone who has been promoted simply because he or she is inspiring and socially confident. You have to define leadership as a person who builds and maintains a high-performing team. When organizations do that, they have a completely different view of what makes for an effective leader.

Then, through the use of valid and reliable assessment measures, they can better identify those who will be successful. One of the characteristics that organizations need to look for in leaders is humility. Effective leaders are more modest; they focus on team performance and are willing to admit mistakes, share credit and learn from others. These are the type of leaders that can inspire true positive change and innovation.