A two-part, practical guide to becoming a transformational leader—based on a talk at the LSE Festival with Dr Rebecca Newton, Professor Sandy Pepper, and Dr Emma Soane
Transformational leadership is a process whereby leaders engage with and influence others—by paying attention to their needs, raising their motivation, and providing an ethical framework for decisions. In so doing, transformational leaders can create change within people, and within organisations too.
We tend to think about transformational leadership in organisational terms—and it is certainly important at this level. Critically though, transformational leaders help people to fulfil their potential: by enabling them to reach their goals in ways that benefit themselves, their colleagues, the organisation, and the societies within which the organisations are operating.
Examples of transformational leaders
We can look to key figures from history such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. We can look at current figures like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who exemplifies her transformational leadership with strong focus on empathy.
In his tenure since 2014, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has transformed the culture there to be more inclusive, more focused on learning and personal growth—and he has tripled the stock price of Microsoft in that time.
Another way to help us define transformational leadership is to consider some contrasting leadership styles.
Leaders focus on the transactions between getting work done and the goal rewards. Goals and rewards still matter, but if you only focus on transactions, then performance will never be exceptional, it will just be ordinary. People need more.
A leader may be charismatic and may seem to have a compelling vision that influences people towards particular goals, but the focus is on the person themselves. It is akin to a cult of personality. These people are more self-interested and may even be willing to exploit people to achieve their goals.
Five Key Skill Areas
Transformational leadership can also be defined as a skills model, with skills that you can learn and hone with practice. The five key areas are:
1. Building trust
A transformational leader is somebody people genuinely want to follow—trusting that leader to take them somewhere that will bring them benefits. Do you have a vision people can understand and appreciate? Are people able to participate in developing that vision?
2. Acting with integrity
Transformational leaders articulate values as guiding frameworks—to support people in the decisions and choices they are facing.
3. Encouraging others
Motivation is always key, but particularly in times of uncertainty. Leaders can enable people by providing resources; helping to educate people; and giving them confidence—not an empty confidence—but a belief in their abilities based on coaching and development.
4. Innovative thinking
Encouraging people to think differently and challenge perspectives—critical to effective decision making.
Transformational leaders coach and develop others, enabling them to learn and grow.
Organisational culture is shaped by leaders—a fact that transformational leaders take ownership of.
Organisations today are very clear about their values. They can be found on their websites, sometimes in glossy writing on the walls or doors of their office buildings. Companies are proud of their values and this is a good thing. It can, however, make people feel as though culture is something that is fixed.
At its core, an organisation’s culture is what happens every day at work—the policies, processes, and behaviours that are seen and demonstrated. Culture is about how people show up, how people engage, how decisions are taken, how much risk people feel they can take, how they work together and complete tasks and projects.
Leaders play a huge role in influencing these factors. They can communicate how they would wish others to behave through their own personal actions, what they say or don't say, how they say it, what they reward, what they challenge, what they celebrate or don’t. Leaders shape culture.
Mentorship, sponsorship, and being an ally
One way in which leaders can drive change is through mentorship, sponsorship and allyship. In recent years mentorship has become much more accessible, however, there is still a significant difference when it comes to sponsorship, and there is a crucial distinction between the two.
Mentorship can be characterised by a leader saying: ‘How are you feeling about this? What are the challenges you are facing? Let me share my experiences with you.’
A sponsor says: ‘I understand that you are interested in X. Would you like me to recommend you for this position?’, ‘Have you met this person? I could connect you—this could be good for your career.’
Leaders need to sponsor everybody. We need equality in sponsorship. In particular, look at sponsorship of non-dominant groups and where there is a need for more equality and inclusion.
Finally, allyship. This is a leader choosing to take on the interests of others, and particularly the interests of non-dominant groups.
Influencing beyond hierarchy
Leaders are not only responsible for influencing the team of people who report to them directly. To drive meaningful change, they also influence beyond hierarchical lines—across and beyond the organisation.
Research[i] suggests there are three things that particularly matter when it comes to successful peer influence:
1. Greater consideration to your peers
Put yourself in their shoes. What are their goals? What is important to them? What are their resources, their challenges?
How much time and effort you spend preparing for influencing encounters makes a difference. We spend a lot of time preparing to influence externally, and not nearly as much time thinking about how we are influencing internally, when it is internal shifts in attitudes and behaviour that may lead to the most significant change.
Influencing techniques—this involves being strategic with how we influence. Are we relying on only rational persuasion or are we also thinking about values and demonstrating shared goals and purpose? Are we using emotional appeals, and a bigger sense of what motivates people?
There is a vibrant debate today around purpose in business. Not only corporate purpose, but our individual purposes, and the purpose of leaders. This is something transformational leaders embrace. Leaders don't motivate employees by talking about maximising shareholder value. They motivate employees with their passion.
Transformational leaders articulate a vision and a purpose that motivates others. They demonstrate character that embodies that purpose. If a transformational leader is able to exhibit character in this way, people will actively choose to follow them.
[i] Enns, H.G. and McFarlin, D.B. (2005) “When Executives Successfully Influence Peers: The role of target assessment, preparation, and tactics,” Human Resource Management, 44(3), 257-278.
Rebecca Newton is an Organisational Psychologist and Senior Visiting Fellow in the Department of Management at LSE, Emma Soane is an Assistant Professor of Management at LSE, and Alexander (Sandy) Pepper is a Professor of Management Practice at LSE. All three are Course Convenors on LSE’s online certificate course Leadership and Change.
At LSE Executive Education, we see the world as interconnected.