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Transformational leadership inspires and motivates followers toward a common goal and in the process elevates both leaders and followers. This paper examines the history of transformational leadership, the critiques, and current research trends in the theory. Then the paper seeks to make application in a church context by superimposing a biblical worldview onto the secular version of transformational leadership. “The basic premise of transformational leadership theory suggests that leaders use behavioral dimensions such as charisma, ability to inspire, consideration of personal individuality, and stimulation of others’ intellect to motivate followers and bring about personal and organizational change” (Michel, 2014, p. 32).
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The first half of the twentieth century witnessed two world wars. Culturally, there was a renewed focus on meeting the needs of a war-torn, conflict-weary world. Scholars began to focus on the relational rather than the traditional authoritarian processes of leadership.
In 1947, Weber noted that not all leaders operate within the bounds of the traditional leader power paradigm. Some leaders were able to produce optimal results outside of a power structure in a more relational manner. This Weber (1947) called charisma. Charisma in leadership or authority occurs when others perceive a leader’s message and abilities to be the extra human, not normal or common. Therefore, it could be said that every charismatic leader has a new message (Dow, 1969). Another aspect of charismatic messages is the rejection of the past. This type of leadership is associated with creating and this creation manifests as a vision, direction, or even hope. Charismatic leadership is inherently inspirational and invigorating while at the same time often unstable (Dow, 1969). The past lays a foundation of stability within an organizational context. House’s (1976) charismatic theory builds off of Weber’s concept of charisma and stipulates the result of charismatic leadership is greater follower trust in the leader’s vision, shared beliefs, follower-leader identification, and emotional involvement in the stated vision and mission. Furthermore, House (1976) hypothesized that these results would be more evident in conditions of duress where followers might become more dependent on the leader for support, guidance, and direction (House 1976; Northouse, 2016 pp. 174-75). Charismatic leaders display a tendency toward being “dominant, having a strong desire to influence others, being self-confident, and having a strong sense of one’s own moral values” (Northouse, 2016, p. 164)
Northouse (2016) asserts the term transformational leadership is the brainchild of Downton (1973). According to Rafferty and Griffin (2004), Downton conceived inspiration to be the “action or power of moving the intellect or emotions” (p. 332). Transformational leadership as put forth by Burns (2010) has its roots in House’s charismatic leadership. The concept of transformational leadership is a mutually interactive form of leadership that involves both leaders and followers in a shared leadership journey (Hamstra et al., 2014). In other words, transformational leadership entails followers catching and internalizing a storied vision that motivates, moves, and activates intrinsically (Yaslioglu & Selenay Erden, 2018).
Building off Weber (1947) and House (1976), Burns (2010) noted that transformational leadership strives to achieve higher levels of leader/follower morality (Hoch et al., 2018). This leadership paradigm changes organizational culture and group dynamics, by transcending individual needs with an inspiring goal that seeks the common good (Judge & Piccolo, 2004). Initially associated with political leadership, transformational leadership has been adopted in every discipline. In Burns’ (2010) interpretation transformational and transactional leadership represent opposite ends of the leadership spectrum. Leaders were either transformational or transactional. Burns put a name to the process of leadership that fundamentally changes individuals and organizations, in a way that is relational, relevant, and responsive to individual needs and organizational goals. Achieving both individual needs and organizational goals defines transformational leadership.
Bass (1999) disagreed with Burns’ (2010) view of transformational and transactional leadership. In Bass’ view, leadership was not an either-or proposition. The Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) was developed by Bass (1999) to evaluate leaders based on transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership qualities. Leadership, in his estimation, is a combination of all three (Judge & Piccolo, 2004). Northouse (2016) posits individualized influence, inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation constitute the aspects of transformational leadership. Yasioglu & Selenay Erden (2018) note that Bass’ adaptation of transformational leadership is “one of the most practiced and researched areas of management, and most of these studies use the questionnaire form(s) developed by Bass, who also is the father of the concept” (p. 42). The MLQ helps determine the composition of an individual leader’s style. The first iteration of this questionnaire measured the following three aspects of transformational leadership; charisma, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation. Later renditions of the questionnaire measured charisma as two separate leader functions, idealized influence, and inspirational motivation. The current questionnaire (MLQ5x) or “full–range-of-leadership model” (Antonakis, 2001, p. 60) measures the four levels of transformational leadership. The three levels of transactional leadership, contingent reward, management-by-exception-active, and management-by-exception-passive are measured as well. The laissez-faire component measures the non-leadership component on the MLQ questionnaire (Muenjohn & Armstrong, 2008). Bass (1999) initially considered morality to be a factor that could vary in a leader. He eventually concluded that truly transformational leaders all exhibited high levels of morality (Hoch et al., 2018).
Leithwood, Begley, and Cousins (1994) are credited with applying the work of Burns and Bass to an educational administration context. In doing so, these researchers added role modeling, “high performance expectations”, and “foster participation in school decisions” to the elements needed to be transformational in that setting. (Stewart, 2006, p. 15). While Burns (2010) conceptualized transformational and transactional leaders existing at opposite ends of the leadership spectrum, later researchers such as Bass and Avolio (1995), suggest that leaders display aspects of transformational, transactional, and laisez-fair qualities in varying degrees. Leithwood et al. (1994) echo this sentiment. In their estimation, “transformational leadership neglected to include necessary transactional components which were fundamental to the stability of the organization” (Stewart, 2006, p. 15). An integral part of ensuring the stability of the organization is in the act of sharing administrative decisions with others who are equally committed to the success of the organization. This is the concept of distributed leadership. Stewart (2006) notes the Leithwood considered three goals to be descriptive of the work of a transformational leader in educational administration. These leaders see collaborative work as fundamental to an educational culture, they stress and promote continuing education for educators, and they consider problem solving to be a group task.
Gumusluoglu and Ilsev’s (2009) research indicates that psychological empowerment plays a significant role in individual and organizational creativity. Research here suggests that intrinsic motivation and group safety foster creativity. Jung and Sosik (2002) confirm this, noting leaders can be transformational by actively creating non-judgmental environments that are safe havens for creativity. Individual consideration has been shown to encourage creativity by supporting individuals need for distinctiveness (Tse & Chiu, 2014). Leaders inspire followers by translating that creativity into a tangible reality with a myriad of applications that transcends industry and education (Gumusluoglu & Ilsev, 2009). Crafting an inspirational message, practicing inspirational motivation and individualized consideration are important functions that foster creativity. These leader functions also encourage follower’s prosocial and proactive behaviors by building and reinforcing personal connections (Grant, A. M., 2012). Other research identifies that transformational leadership results in increased positive attitudes and behaviors in followers (Barroso Castro, Villegas Periñan, & Casillas Bueno, 2008). Empowering followers with the resources and skills to work independently helps teams and organizations work well together. Strategic encouragement factors favorably into goal completion. This, in turn, reinforces group cohesion and efficacy (Hamstra et al., 2014; Kopperud et al., 2013; Jung & Sosik, 2002). Goal attainment is a necessary part of creating positive momentum toward a greater vision and more difficult tasks. It comes down to celebrating small victories as a way of propelling the team, church or organization forward.
While transformational leadership has been one of the most studied and accepted leadership theories, it is not without critics and inconsistencies. A major criticism is while transformational leadership works in theory, empirical evidence does not support it as a workable theory. The primary reason this leadership theory is empirically challenged is due to the fact that charisma, inspiration, and motivation are subjective qualities that rely heavily on emotion. As part of the behavioral theories that were prominent in the last quarter of the twentieth century, transformational leadership shares in the common weakness of these other theories. Sense-making, story-telling and identifying symbolic motivations are factors that cannot be easily tested empirically. In addition, what is symbolic and motivational for one person, team or organization will vary between people and contexts. The most pressing issue is the ambiguity that permeates every step of this theory. The overlap in inspirational message, inspirational motivation, individual consideration, and intellectual stimulation has led many to question the validity of transformational leadership (Yukl, 1999).
As noted above, Bass (1999) and Burns (2010) affirm the moral quality of transformational leadership. The moral aspect was eventually included as a category in the MLQ. Others suggest that the MLQ needs both moral and ethical components (Hoche et al., 2014). The larger question then becomes what and who determines the standard for those moral and ethical components.
In an attempt to define processes and provide structure to the transformational construct, some researchers have turned to the role of the Big Five personality factors in transformational leadership. Research conducted by Judge and Bono (2000) reflects agreeableness, extraversion and, openness to change were significant in transformational leaders. This raises some interesting questions that cannot be explored here, namely; is transformational leadership able to stand on its own? Or are leaders best viewed as transformational by applying inspiration, motivation, and other emotional qualities to other leadership theories? Additional research would be helpful in this area.
Transformational leadership can become a balancing act as the leader tries to inspire with a motiving vision and at the same time promote the individual development seen in individual consideration (McKinley, 2015). These two goals pull the leader in opposing directions making it necessary to choose the higher purpose. It is impossible to serve two competing interests well (Matt. 6:24).
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Transformational leadership’s stress on the charismatic inspirational aspect is over emphasized. In the research that culminated in the book Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t, Collins (2001) conclusively demonstrates that charisma does not make leaders transformational or great. Many successful leaders who have been recognized as transformational follow a different leadership trajectory. This trajectory consists of getting the right people in the right positions, being realistic about the current situation, developing a narrow well defined vision/mission, refusing to step outside the specific parameters of that vision, and what Collins (2001) calls the fly wheel. The fly wheel is the process of building momentum by staying focused. Level 5 leaders follow these steps and achieve excellence and transformation without charisma.
There are also problems associated with Liethwood’s application of transformational leadership to school administration. Leithwood and his colleagues carried out robust studies of transformational leadership in academic administration, and the effects on teachers. Stewart (2006) concludes the results do not support altering the current instructional method for both teachers and administrators. Sophisticated ways to measure the effects of leadership are continuing to be developed. Stewart (2006) therefore recommends being open to emerging and often conflicting paradigms. Evers and Lakomski (1996) contend schools are more like a network of interrelated contingencies instead of what is considered to be a traditional administration. These researchers see schools as transformational agents in their own right. In addition, Heck and Hallinger (1999) contend that the attention given to the impact of principles promotes the notion that a principle is responsible for leadership. And others argue that lacking substantive evidence of leadership that is transformational, the questionnaires that were used do not carry any weight. Finally, Stewart (2006) adds schools and businesses adhere to the belief that in order to remain relevant, it is imperative that these institutions embrace learning as a primary goal. The call to empirically support theories implies scholarship in transformational leadership is lacking (Stewart, 2006). Yet other researchers such as Judge and Piccolo (2004) refer to how transformational leadership has been documented multiple times in differing contexts as a validating factor. Researchers still do not agree on how to validate this leadership theory.
Recent research on transformational leadership in the two areas of engagement and prosocial behaviors is quite promising. Results of a meta-analytic study conducted by Kim and Kim (2017) provide empirical support to a link between emotional intelligence and transformational leadership. Other researchers observe a symbiotic relationship exists between the leader and followers that impact follower attitudes and outcomes (Zhu, Avolio, and Walumbwa (2009). Furthermore, Caniëls, Semeijn, & Renders (2018) suggest that transformational leadership is equated to positive outcomes when followers have a growth mindset. Schaufeli and Bakker (2004) considered a mindset to be a personal resource which transformational leaders can develop into a growth mindset (Caniëls, Semeijn, Renders, 2016). Results also indicate transformational leadership had little to no effect on outcomes when followers had a fixed mindset.
Meuser et al. (2016) examined leadership theories in an attempt to begin the process of theory integration. This research demonstrates that leadership theory constructs form much larger networks of interrelated theories pointing to the probability that leaders incorporate multiple theories into a leadership style. Scuderi’s (2010) research validates this scenario by demonstrating leaders perceived by followers as being higher in effectiveness and trust were those using a combination of transformational and servant leadership styles.
Looking at transformational leadership through a biblical worldview, Jesus is the first truly transformational leader. Following the example in the Gospels it is possible to observe Jesus’ method of transformational leadership in action. The Kingdom is at hand is a powerfully inspirational message. McKinley (2015) suggests that leadership is evaluated theologically and proposes that this evaluation be conducted at the teleological, ontological, and authority levels. Teleology considers the purpose, motives, and goals. In light of these three areas, transformational leadership does not consider the leader’s personal motives. In this theory, people come after the organizational focus. Calling, character, and competency make up the ontological component. God cares about a person’s character and in the end, only God can weigh a man’s heart (Pr. 21: 2) and bring to light hidden motives (1 Cor. 4:5b). Authority comes down to accountability. Leaders are also followers (Habecker, 2018). Most of the time, leaders are accountable to another person or group of people. But God will hold all men accountable (Matt. 12:16).
Transformational leadership strongly aligns with a biblical worldview. Transformation is at the heart of God’s redemptive plan (Pr. 29:18; Rom. 12:2-4). Jesus clearly demonstrates that this form of leadership is possible. The biggest issue is that the secular world cannot measure unseen, subjective, and inner qualities that nurture inspiration and charisma. To paraphrase Paul, I have been crucified with Christ, the me you see is dead and now Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20). Paul recognized that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).
Research by Church (2012) validates the theory that transformational leadership is positively associated with organizational and church growth. Scuderi’s (2012) research looked at the contributions and effectiveness of both transformational and servant leadership as they relate to leader, organizational and follower outcomes in a Christian church context. The results validate the transformational and servanthood models in the context of church leadership. The gospel message is just as inspirational as it was when Jesus called the disciples to follow him. However, leading a church is hard work. Leaders can become consumed with busy-ness and the needs of the church. Transformational leadership theory reminds leaders in the body of Christ that they are called to be relational. Individualized-consideration, one-on-one discipleship, bearing each other’s burdens, all mean leaders need to be real and vulnerable. Authenticity is necessary in order to be transformational. Without authenticity, the message becomes a pie in the sky dream and no amount of inspiration will motivate another person. One of the criticisms of transformational leadership is that it is first organizationally focused. In a biblical world-view, that translates to being Kingdom focused. And God’s Kingdom is intensely people focused. Christian leaders are Kingdom focused (Matt 6:23), as they should be. This is an inspiring vision for self-motivation that can become the foundation of the charismatic aspects of transformational leadership. Unfortunately, many in the church consider transformation to be an inner journey (Rom. 12:2-4) and forget that Christians are also called to be the church (1 Cor. 12:21). The focus of transformational leadership on the shared leader/follower leadership journey provides the motivation for leaders to be more inclusive. Transformational leadership motivates followers to pursue an inspiring goal that seeks the common good and equips followers with the necessary resources that make it possible for them to work independently and successfully. In a church context, that translates into spiritual development, discipleship classes, Bible study classes or home-groups.
From the perspective of Christian leadership, numerous biblical principles are missing from Bass’ (1999) theory of transformational leadership. Christian leaders display humility that counts others as more worthy than themselves (Phil. 2:3-4). God’s people are precious and being able to lead them by example is a special honor (1 Cor. 11:1). This honor entails being held accountable. While there is an element of human accountability, Christian leaders are ultimately accountable to God (1 Thess. 5:11). Transformational leadership theory never considers this aspect of biblical leadership. In leadership, change is a paradox. Leaders are change agents and in this respect, they must initiate and embrace change. Yet, leaders also need the wisdom and discernment to know when to drop anchor and not jump ship. In times of crisis and uncertainty, leaders are a source of stability by absorbing chaos (Habecker, 2018) and using sense-making to provide meaning to the shared experiences (Morgeson et al., 2010). Wisdom is the correct application of truth. Christian leaders need to courageously trust in the sovereignty of a loving God (Pr. 3:5-6). Finally, Bass’ (1999) transformational leaders may operate out of the wrong reward system (McKinley, 2015). A biblical perspective acknowledges God as the source that meets a person’s needs. But more importantly that God is the source of reward. Understanding this requires faith in God (Heb. 11:6). Wisdom is the correct application of truth. Neither faith nor believing God exists factor into the secular version of transformational leadership.
This researcher concludes that transformational leadership is indeed possible but recognizes that without being transformed by the grace of God, it is extremely hard to be transformational. True hope is found only in God. The gospel message is inspirational, motivating, expresses a concern for every man, and is able to equip. God is the same yesterday today, and tomorrow (Heb. 13:8). However, his mercies are always new (Lam. 3:22-23), and He is our ever present faithful God (Ps. 117:2). His word continues to speak to exactly what His people need to hear and yet His word is always new and fresh. The word of God is intellectually stimulating. And the command to go and make disciples of all nations is engaging and relational. This theory aligns to a biblical worldview. And allowing the God of transformation to lead transformationally is the heart of the gospel message.
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