Transformational leadership… with a twist

In a previous article focused on employee engagement, I shared that employee engagement has become a key competitive advantage for organisations, primarily unlocked by leadership. In this article I share more on a prominent style of leadership, arguably the most impactful of all – transformational leadership – and the impact it has on employee engagement and intention to leave, putting a slightly different and personal spin on things.

Although Transformational Leadership (T.L.) was first noted by J.V. Downton in 1973 (Manning & Curtis, 2015), the theory is widely attributed to the work of Burns (1978). The theory was further evolved by Bass and Avolio (1990) and Kouzes and Posner (2007). As an expansion of Transactional Leadership that maintains or continues the status quo, T.L. is about initiating change in oneself, others, groups and organisations. This is achieved through motivating others to achieve higher levels of performance than intended or that they realised was possible (Raza, 2015). The focus of the followers of transformational leaders thus shifts beyond immediate short-term goals, focusing awareness on deeper issues (Lothian, Desson, & Hudson, 2008).

It is not an exclusive focus on the transactional relationship between leaders and followers but extends to the construction of a compelling and inspirational vision. By applying behavioural practices of influence, consideration, stimulation and inspiration, a conducive empowering environment is created to achieve a shared vision (Pieterse-Landman, 2012). A truly transformational leader will enable followers to feel connected to their own deeper needs and to those of their leader (Lothian et al., 2008).

According to Burns (1978), there are four dimensions of T.L.:

1 | Charisma and idealised influence

Due to the socialized influence, the sense of admiration from followers for the leader makes them feel connected to and inspired by them. Such leaders are role models, consistently demonstrating their values. Followers are inspired to emulate them (Lothian et al., 2008).

2 | Inspirational motivation

This results from an inspiring and appealing vision which followers buy into. Transformational leaders convey an optimistic view about the future and about realising ambition goals, giving followers a sense of meaning and purpose thus motivating them to achieve more.

3 | Intellectual stimulation

Motivating followers to consider innovative and creative solutions.

4 | Individualised consideration or individualised attention

Leaders listen to the needs and concerns of followers, respecting and acknowledging individual contributions thus building confidence and self-respect (Lothian et al., 2008).

Those of us who have worked in and with organisations for several years will no doubt have had the privilege to work with such a leader. Note the deliberate use of the word ‘with’, as opposed to ‘for’. Transformational leaders inspire you to achieve well beyond that which you ever thought was possible. You feel part of something bigger. They understand the power of the “Why” (recently popularised by author, motivational speaker and marketing consultant, Simon Sinek) as an essential component of human motivation, tapping into this well of human conditioning. They resonate personal power not relying on hierarchical position to leverage support. You feel safe, empowered and valued. Free to be yourself. Free to harness the creative genius and unleash the magic inside. McCarthy (2014) notes that the difference between poor and great leadership is ‘at the edges’ – a little more facilitation but a lot less restriction. When sharing such a powerful vision and feeling so empowered and valued, why would you want to be anywhere else?


Transformational leaders inspire you to achieve well beyond that which you ever thought was possible. You feel part of something bigger.


Flynn (in Sinek, 2014, p. xii) captures the essence of the benefits of this leadership style to both leaders and followers in the following quote: “When leaders inspire those they lead, people dream of a better future, invest time and effort in learning more, do more for their organizations and, along the way, become better leaders themselves”. Macey and Schneider (2008) note that certain kinds of work (i.e. work that has challenge, variety and autonomy) combined with working under certain kinds of leader (who set clear and fair expectations and recognize and reward good performance) make employees feel more engaged resulting in unexpected outputs.

In their meta-analysis of the relationship between leadership and employee engagement, Carasco-Saul et al. (2015) found that in many studies, transformational leadership had a positive relationship with employee engagement at an individual level. In examining the effects that T.L. has on building and developing customer relationships, Yuan et al. (2012) found that T.L was significantly related to increases in work engagement. Inspiring leadership enabling autonomy for decision-making, clear goals and accountability and a sense of confidence is a key driver of employee engagement (Robertson-Smith & Markwick, 2009).

Charlton (2000) believes that ineffectual leadership is the primary reason for under-performance of organisations, nations, families and sporting endeavours. He goes further to say that quality leaders will determine our future and quality of life. I whole-heartedly concur. I believe that leadership is the panacea to sustained prosperity and success both within and beyond organisational boarders. The dearth of transformational leadership has never been as evident in this country and through the world.

Why is it so hard then and where are these transformational leaders we crave? I don’t believe it is. Allow me to illustrate with a brief story.

A few years ago, I was asked to deliver an inspirational message to a large group of regional, store managers and support teams just before the start of the Christmas trading period. A pretty vague brief made it a tough gig indeed! My message was simple: In this time of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) in the world, in our country, in our businesses and in our homes, and of local stagnation and regression, the big gap is LEADERSHIP (See Figure 1 below). You are leaders. Now go out and lead!

Figure 1: The Leadership Gap.

My choice of transformational leadership role models may not have been everyone’s first choice, however, I thought that if the most obscure leadership role model could resonate, then that group of leaders could rise up and fulfil their own potential. Even if I reached a handful of people and only one out of many managers embraced the ethos of transformational leadership, my gamble would all have been worthwhile. My leadership role-model was Barney the Dinosaur.

Like the great leader Barney the Dinosaur, all they needed to do was care, share and lead

Linking to current business strategic initiatives – and with the charisma and presence of a televangelist – I convinced the audience (albeit with the help of chocolates randomly flung into the crowd) that, like the great leader Barney the Dinosaur (See Figure 2 below), all they needed to do was care, share and lead! Whether they did or did not, I am not entirely sure, but for a few minutes of mayhem and fun, they believed….and I even believed too!

I still do.

Not all of us are cut out to be transformational leaders, nor should we be. However, those of us privileged to lead should strive to do so embracing the ethos of transformational leadership. Although this is not common practice in many organisations today, the impacts of inspiring leadership cannot be underestimated. In a world where hope is sometimes all we have, even a purple dinosaur can inspire change.

  • Andrew Sonnenberg is an HR consultant, an associate at Yellowtreehub and former Head of HR: Retail Operations at Woolworths in South Africa.



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