Transformational Leadership Theory: How to Inspire and Motivate

People who have transformational leadership possess four attributes to varying degrees (Bass, Avolio, & Atwater, 1996).

They are idealized and charismatic (highly liked role models), demonstrate inspirational motivation (optimistic about goal attainment), are intellectually stimulating (encourage critical thinking and problem-solving), and are considerate (show empathy and purpose).

Transformational leadership inspires positive changes in those led and is invested in the success of every single member involved in the process.

Transformational leaders are full of energy, passion, and drive. It’s not a surprise that these qualities can be the things that can make or break an organization.

This kind of leadership is very popular—it can be seen in board rooms, hospitals, schools, and in the entertainment industry. Suddenly, as we look around, transformation seems to be everywhere.

What most people overlook is the time and effort required to fully understand and apply any leadership style, let alone one as dynamic and powerful as transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership style is characteristic of leaders who focus on supervision and organizational goals achieved through a system of rewards and punishments; maintenance of the organizational status quo.

What is transformational leadership?

  • Transformational leadership is a model of leadership that relies on the encouragement of a team to realize overall success. By raising a team’s morale and self-confidence, the team can then align itself to an overall vision or common purpose.
  • This purpose, however, must be established early on for it to be effective. Transformational leadership, when properly applied, can take a struggling or stagnant team, and completely transform it into a productive and dynamic group of individuals.
  • This starts by identifying the struggles and strengths of each individual member. Next, it is up to the leader to define a new common goal and guide the members of the team towards this new vision.
  • Practically, transformational leadership is used to inspire team members to work together as a single unit, rather than many individual parts. For a stat so dynamic, it is no wonder that many researchers and experts had a hand in its development.

In their seminal work, Transformational Leadership, authors Bass and Riggio explained:

Transformational leaders…are those who stimulate and inspire followers to both achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their own leadership capacity.

Transformational leaders help followers grow and develop into leaders by responding to individual followers’ needs by empowering them and by aligning the objectives and goals of the individual followers, the leader, the group, and the larger organization.

Origin and Development

Transformational leadership was started by James V. Downton in 1973. He was the first to coin the term. This was later added to by James Burns in 1978.

Burns was a leadership expert and biographer and proposed that it was only through the strength of the vision and personality that team members could be encouraged to follow.

After agreeing to follow, members then are inspired to change their expectations, perceptions, and are invited to a higher level of morality and motivation.

A few years later, Bernard Bass (1990) added even more to the concept. This is known as “Bass’s Transformational Leadership Theory”. Bass added ways to measure and rank the success of transformational leadership as well as the idea of leaders expressing authentic and focused energy to inspire the other team members to become more like them.

Bass felt that measuring the impact inspires more authentic community. He also explained the psychological mechanisms that are the basis of the theory. According to Bass, the followers of a leader must feel not only trust and admiration, but also loyalty and respect.

These emotions create an environment where the followers are willing to work harder than they originally thought they were capable. This is because transformational leaders offer followers something beyond self-gain—an inspirational mission and self-identity.

Even though it dates to the 70’s, Bass’s model looks much more like transformational leadership today. The basis of the transformational leadership style never changes, only the environment in which it must be applied. Therefore, it can apply in every industry, especially team-focused work environments.


Bass also suggested that there were four primary elements to transformational leadership (also known as the “four I”s”): idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration.

Each of these four components is valuable to the leadership style and helps to transform its followers into better, more productive people. When these factors are combined, they help transformational leaders radically change the course of their following.

1. Idealized Influence / Charismatic

Idealized influence describes leaders who have charisma, are curious, and deliver messages with simplicity and tact. These leaders are exemplary role models and are readily trusted and respected by all members of the team.

Charisma is one of the essential pieces of this characteristic. Charisma is essential because it is how leaders can rally their followers around a shared vision. Charisma is most often expressed by their ability to listen actively to each team member and focus on the present moment.

Charismatic leaders give praise to individual members of the team with each success, and they are the first to take responsibility when things go wrong. They also provide constructive feedback to each individual team member. Intended influence is also represented through their curiosity.

Curiosity, not intelligence, is the driving force behind the success of these leaders. It is their job to find innovative solutions to problems and create new and dynamic paths for a team to follow.

Displays of charisma make others want to be more like that person, and as a role model, members will strive to mimic this leader.

2. Inspirational Motivation

Inspirational motivation describes leaders that are motivating and willing to commit to a vision. They encourage team members to also commit to this vision by raising team spirit, fostering community and a sense of purpose.

To do this, there must be simplicity in communication. This means their communication style must be best suited to the needs of the team. Leaders speak clearly and concisely to easily articulate their vision to the members.

This provides structure and order so that members can execute tasks without confusion. Leaders articulate a clear plan for the future and communicate expectations in the beginning before the work starts. Leaders must also express their messages with a sense of authority, in order for members to respect their thoughts and trust in their vision.

Along with this, leaders must be upbeat and positive, bringing energy to a room with their enthusiasm. As a visionary, transformational leaders use these skills to look toward future goals and have the foresight to see the small obstacles that may hinder this vision.

They recognize the smallest things that can turn into larger issues. Leaders have intuition towards the things that help to push their team and goals forward. These actions begin to instill trust in their followers and confidence in their leader.

3. Intellectual Stimulation

Intellectual stimulation describes leaders who encourage their members to think outside the box and be innovative. Stimulating followers promote critical thinking and problem-solving skills in order to improve the group or organization as a whole.

This challenges the normal beliefs of a group and encourages the team to perform better than they ever thought originally possible. Encouraging innovation involves each team member in the decision-making process and fosters a sense of importance and a stake in the organization’s over-all success.

The important thing about this is a leader must not criticize the thoughts or opinions of the members. Premature shutting down of ideas can create a climate of distrust and hurt.

Leaders must, therefore gently change the way followers problem-solve and brainstorm new and innovative ways to achieve their teams” goals. In short, leaders must recognize that there are many ways to achieve a goal, and no ordinary path to innovation.

Being a transformational leader requires risk-taking, creativity, curiosity, and openness to new ideas from each individual member.

4. Individual Consideration

Individual consideration is the degree to which a leader attends to each follower’s personal needs. Transformational leadership encourages members by focusing on the way each person effects the overall goal.

This means recognizing and valuing the motivations, desires, and needs of individual members. Upon recognizing the motivation behind the drive of the individual, leaders then provide opportunities for customized training.

This allows team members to grow and learn in an environment they feel comfortable in. Engaging individuals requires emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence includes showing genuine compassion, empathizing with the needs of individuals, and encouraging the on-going personal growth of individuals. When a leader takes into account the emotions of their followers, they then learn how to best engage with them.

Emotionally intelligent leaders connect with members, and build a bond based in trust. Leaders act as mentors, or a coach and are willing and open to listening to their followers’ concerns.

What are the effects of transformational leadership?

Transformational leaders are those who inspire their members to achieve beyond their presumed potential. In the same way, these transformed members then go on to become leaders in their own right.

Transformational leaders’ personalized response empowers individuals and helps them to develop their potential. The effects of transformational leadership have a lasting and positive impact.

Research evidence from Psychology Today reported that teams led by transformational leaders have higher levels of performance and report overall high satisfaction than teams led by other styles.

Members develop positive psychological states and find greater meaning in their work. In addition, they also learn to think positively about themselves and the tasks that they are meant to complete.

This results in decreased burnout, social loafing, and increased individual motivation.

Leadership expert Ronald Riggio suggests that this is because of transformational leaders’ unflinching belief that each and every member brings unique talents and skills to a team, and that the voice of each member is important.

He also suggests that the leaders’ strong belief in the vision of the team has a significant impact on the overwhelmingly positive results of the leadership style. By creating a common goal, or vision, leaders enhance the quality of their relationships and create environments that are fair, respectful, and supportive.

It is important to recognize that while this leadership style is extremely effective, there are some team members who will not respond as favorably to transformational leadership. Leaders must adjust their efforts as needed in order to meet their goals.

Examples of transformational leaders

Transformational leaders are all around us. Because of their marked positive impact on productivity and success, they are at the top of each of their individual industries.

Below are 5 examples of transformational leaders, their stories, and ways that you can begin to apply this leadership style to your own team.

Oprah Winfrey: Media Mogul

Oprah Winfrey was the host and producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show from 1986 to 2011. It is one of the highest rated talk shows in American history, so it is no surprise that Winfrey quickly became one of the richest women in the 20th century.

Winfrey was the continent’s first black multi-billionaire and was among Time Magazine’s most influential people for 6 years straight. Winfrey’s amazing communication skills, beginnings in poverty, and charismatic persona have enabled her to connect with people from every background and inspired people everywhere to dream big.

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos

In 1994, Jeff Bezos took the first step to creating the world’s first online bookstore. Bezos spearheaded the first initiative to create an online eBook reader, where digital eBooks could be stored in an eLibrary for later consumption.

This was introduced as the Kindle. Kindle sales, in addition to multiproduct sales, have contributed to Amazon’s current market value of 1.14 trillion as of April 2020.

Nike Corporation

Nike is one of the most famous footwear companies of the 20th century. With their slogan, “Just Do It,” it is one of the most obvious examples of transformational leadership and motivation.

Nike connected with customers through this focused marketing and created exclusive membership opportunities. By motivating its entire customer base to be the best, most healthy versions of themselves, Nike increased its product development cycle, quickly responding to changes in trends and customer feedback.

This resulted in Nike’s stock price increased from less than $50 to nearly 100 dollars in two years.

Netflix’s Reed Hastings

Reed Hastings founded Netflix in 1997, with a handful of team members. The subscription-based video streaming service offers popular movies and TV shows as well as original content.

When it first launched, despite its large competitor, Blockbuster, Hastings had a grand vision of Netflix replacing this company. He came up with the novel idea of user-friendly streaming that became the starting point of this dream’s actualization. Today, Netflix has nearly 200 million subscribers world-wide and is the largest online streaming service.

Apple’s Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is one of the best examples of transformational leadership in the 21st century. From wearing pairs of the same clothing each day for increased productivity, to designing the break-through idea of the iCloud, Steve Jobs was the brain behind the success of Apple.

With Steve Jobs’ legacy guiding the company, the company shifted from product-based identification to more services and brand loyalty services. Apple is a 2 trillion-dollar company today, and in the next few years, this is only expected to expand.

Implications for managers

While it is important to look at the success and growth of companies and entrepreneurs, it is important to recognize that most of these companies and people did not start out successful.

It is important to recognize that these people and companies were mentored and guided by a transformational leader. The stories here show that this leadership style can help to transform you, your team, and your mission.

What can you do to become a more transformational leader? One of the critical ways to start is by having belief. You must believe in the vision and path you have created, so that you can inspire others to believe in your vision as well. Being charismatic, motivating, and focusing on each individual team member can help you accomplish this through transformative leadership.

Yukl (1994) draws some tips for transformational leadership:

  1. Develop a challenging and attractive vision, together with the employees.
  2. Tie the vision to a strategy for its achievement.
  3. Develop the vision, specify and translate it to actions.
  4. Express confidence, decisiveness and optimism about the vision and its implementation.
  5. Realize the vision through small planned steps and small successes in the path for its full implementation.


Bass, B. M. (1985) Leadership and Performance beyond Expectations. Free Press, New York.

Bass, B. M. (1990) From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics 18, 19-31.

Bass, B. M. and Avolio, B. J. (1989). Manual for the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. Consulting
Psychologists Press, Palo Alto.

Bass, B. M. and Avolio, B. J. (1994) Improving Organizational Effectiveness through Transformational
Leadership. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Bass, B. M., Avolio, B. J., & Atwater, L. (1996). The transformational and transactional leadership of men and women. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 45, 5–34

Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. E. (2006). Transformational leadership.

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. NY: Harper & Row.

Downton, J. V. (1973). Rebel leadership: Commitment and charisma in a revolutionary process. New York: Free Press.

Yukl, G.(1999). An evaluation of conceptual weaknesses in transformational and charismatic leadership theories. Leadership Quarterly, 10, 285-305;

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Chioma Ugochukwu


Harvard Undergraduate

Chioma Ugochukwu is president of the Harvard Foundation of the International Medical Relief of Children.