What Is Transformational Leadership? A Look at a Model of Motivation

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A transformational leader listens to one of her employees while she sits at a desk.

In a 2017 study of S&P 500 and Global 500 firms, Harvard Business Review identified Amazon.com and Netflix as the top companies leading the most successful transformations. The CEOs of these companies, Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings, respectively, were identified as transformational leaders. They didn’t just launch new products; they created groundbreaking business models that dominated new markets and changed the core of their companies — and they continue to do so.

What is transformational leadership? It’s a core concept that individuals pursuing advanced leadership careers in for-profit and nonprofit organizations should understand. A program like a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership can equip professionals with this foundational knowledge and arm them with the necessary skills for success as organizational leaders.

Transformational Leadership Defined

Transformational leadership involves using communication and collaboration to motivate others toward reaching goals that align with an organization’s strategies. Transformational leaders lead by example, creating new initiatives that inspire employees and colleagues to innovate, collaborate and take risks. They’re likely to support agile work environments over those dominated by a strict hierarchy.

While sociologist James Downton first introduced the concept of transformational leadership in 1973, psychologist Barnard Bass outlined specific characteristics on transformational leaders in 1985. According to Bass, transformational leaders set moral standards in an organization, build a strong workplace culture with clear values and emphasize the importance of authenticity and open communication. They also act as mentors and coaches to help employees own and execute their ideas.

Transformational Leadership vs. Other Leadership Styles

While transformational leadership can be effective, especially as new technological innovations continue to emerge in today’s digital landscape, it’s just one type of leadership style. Those pursuing organizational leadership careers should understand how transformational leadership compares with other models and how they can be successfully applied in different scenarios.

  • Authoritative leadership. This leadership style involves setting clear goals that teams and employees are expected to follow. While transformational leadership provides room for risk-taking and new ideas, authoritative leadership prioritizes structure and rules. Authoritative leadership can be effective in organizations with clear hierarchies and where employees are new to the field or looking for direction and guidance.
  • Servant leadership. This leadership style flips the traditional leader-follower concept on its head. Instead of instructing their subordinates, servant leaders ask, “What can I do for you?” They place the needs of others before themselves, listen to feedback and consistently create ways to be a helpful resource to their colleagues. Servant leadership can help organizations build a culture that values trust, shared ideas and diverse input.
  • Strategic leadership. This leadership style combines scientific analysis with intuition and creativity to identify calculated growth opportunities. Similar to transformational leaders, strategic leaders are open to risks and new ideas. However, they’re known for taking considerable time to weigh their options and research the potential impact of their decisions. Strategic leadership is particularly effective in volatile economics and fluctuating markets where leaders have to make rapid but informed decisions that can change the trajectory of their organizations.

The Skills of Transformational Leadership

With an understanding of what transformational leadership is, professionals can develop the competencies needed to properly use a transformational leadership style. Transformational leaders should have strong interpersonal skills for motivating and collaborating with their employees. They should have communication skills that enable them to convey complex, innovative ideas across an organization. Additionally, they need to be skilled mentors and coaches who can train others to have more autonomy in the workplace.

Transformational leaders should further possess certain personal characteristics, such as loyalty, empathy and honesty. These traits are essential for leading teams through groundbreaking initiatives and remaining reliable and approachable in times of change.

Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership curriculum can help students to gain expertise in the skills needed to make a difference as motivating organizational leaders. Core courses, such as Developing the Human Side of Organizations as well as Strategic and Financial Decision-Making in Organizations, prepare future leaders to responsibly drive change and lead others with care. Additional courses, such as Facilitating Culture and Process Change in Organizations as well as Forms of Diversity in Organizations, help transformational leaders to cultivate inclusive, cooperative and productive work environments.

Build a Rewarding Leadership Career

Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program can help working professionals to pursue their goals and build rewarding careers as leaders. Students learn real-world applications of leadership strategies, managerial competencies and business expertise for organizations of all sizes and fields. Discover more of what Rider University has to offer and start your new career path as an organizational leader and change-maker.

Recommended Readings

Five Key Traits of a Leader

Understanding the Core Leadership Models in Organizations

What Can You Do with a Master’s in Organizational Leadership?


Berrett-Koehler Publishers, “5 Types of Leadership Styles that Influence Business Outcomes” 

CIO, “What Is Transformational Leadership? A Model for Motivating Innovation”

Entrepreneur, “4 Principles of Servant Leadership”

Forbes, “8 Must-Have Transformational Leadership Qualities”

Harvard Business Review, “What the Best Transformational Leaders Do”

Houston Chronicle, “Four Elements of Transformational Leadership”

HR People and Strategy, “What Does It Mean to Be a Strategic Leader?”

Rider University, Online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership

Society for Human Resource Management, “The Art of Servant Leadership”

The CEO Magazine, “How to Adapt Your Leadership Style to Suit Your Staff”

The CEO Magazine, “Leadership Styles: How to Become a Better Leader”