7 Ways Transformational Leaders Are Different

transformational leaders are different

Some leaders are…different. They have this certain something that resonates with us, and that certain something may be hard to describe and will likely vary from person to person. They’re not perfect, but somehow that’s part of their charm. They possess the ability to motivate people, but it’s often not in the traditional ways.

Like I said — they’re different.

They talk a little differently about organizational life. They appear to cling to this unflappable belief in the potential of people of all sorts to do amazing things together.

We’re drawn to folks like this precisely because they’re different than what you might normally picture in your mind when someone uses the word manager or executive. To say they inspire us sounds so dreadfully cliché, but they do appeal to different parts of our hearts and minds than the “typical” leader.

If we wanted to get all fancypants about it, we would say we’re talking about transformational leadership as opposed to transactional leadership. What’s the difference?

1. Transformational Leaders are Different: Instead of pushing self-interest, they promote group gains.

Transactional leaders appeal mainly to employees’ self-interest. “If you do this, you’ll get this good thing. If you don’t do this, you’ll get this bad thing.”

Transformational leaders help employees connect to each other and the organization’s mission, and the good of the team takes priority.

[bctt tweet=”Transformational leaders connect people’s work to a broader purpose. #leadership”]

2. Transformational Leaders are Different: They believe culture is an organic, constantly evolving thing.

Transactional leaders are largely content to work within established culture and norms, rarely seeing a need for change.

Transformational leaders believe that culture is constantly evolving; and its evolution is propelled by the growth, ideas, and accomplishments of people — humans.

[bctt tweet=”Transformational leaders see #companyculture as organic and constantly evolving. #leadership “]

3. Transformational Leaders are Different: It’s envelopes, not pencils, that they push.

Transactional leaders don’t really push the envelope. The pencil maybe; but not the envelope. They don’t try things. They rarely mess up big-time because they don’t attempt anything big.

Transformational leaders feel a burn to effect positive change on both human and organizational levels, and are always looking for ways to make that happen.

[bctt tweet=”Transformational leaders desire to effect positive change. #leadership #companyculture”]

4. Transformational Leaders are Different: They focus the majority of their energy on what’s right instead of what’s wrong.

Transactional leaders focus far more time on locating problems, finding faults, measuring all deviations, and completely eliminating each of those things.

Transformational leaders are generally more concerned with building on an organization’s unique identity and strengths. That’s not to say they ignore operational or cultural deficiencies; they just focus more of their energy on really tapping into their organization’s mojo.

5. Transformational Leaders are Different: They prefer shaping the future, not reacting to it.

Transactional leaders take the hand they’re dealt.

Transformational leaders want to deal the cards.

6. Transformational Leaders are Different: Instead of promoting a sense of panic when things go sideways, they provide a sense of purpose.

Transactional leaders often incite panic and demand fervent activity as a sign of improvement.

Transformational leaders work to inspire passion and provide a greater context and purpose for performance.

[bctt tweet=”Transactional leaders promote panic. Transformational leaders provide calm. #leadership”]

7. Transformational Leaders are Different: They know (wh)Y people do what they do.

Transactional leaders tend to buy into Theory X, which is the assumption that people will do everything they can to avoid working hard. To oversimplify it, they believe that without their transactional style, nothing will get done.

Transformational leaders more often than not subscribe to something more like Theory Y. Theory Y essentially postulates that people inherently want to do good and meaningful work, and are likely to do so given the right conditions.

[bctt tweet=”Transformational leaders know people want to do meaningful work. #leadership”]

So what’s the point? I think different is good, and that’s especially true in regards to the distinctions we’re drawing here between the typical management-by-carrot-and-stick and leadership that transforms people and organizations.

What about you? What would you add? In what other ways are transformational leaders different?

(A version of this article originally ran here at CU Insight.)

25 thoughts on “7 Ways Transformational Leaders Are Different

  • From what I understand and numerous coaching books I have read that transactional is about performance and transformational is about change. This post is only short. I do think that those 7 items you refer to tend to share this viewpoint.

  • I’ve worked for leaders EXACTLY like this. It was an amazing and exhilarating ride. One of the best n most successful companies I ever experienced. This puts into words what I could not. Thank you for sharing!

  • Hey Matt,

    I would be interested to see your definition on the difference between Transformational leader and charismatic leader.


    • Hey Devin,

      Good to hear from you~

      The two terms are used interchangeably an awful lot, and there are some similarities and overlap; but yeah, there are some differences.

      The basic idea with charisma is that it’s attributed to leaders by followers who perceive those leaders to posses qualities or traits that are exceptional or extraordinary in some way. Perhaps they’re visionaries or something. Whatever it is, people are drawn to it. Those leaders are…well…charismatic.

      There are three or four theories on charisma and how it works, but the short version is this. They usually appeal to a big vision or idea, use really strong and/or epressive forms and methods of communicating that vision or idea, take risks to make progress toward that idea, have high expectations of those who would come along for the ride, imply that they have confidence in their followers, shape their followers’ impressions of them, and seek to provide followers legitimate ways to contribute to the vision.

      It seems to work a bit better in some sort of crisis situation, or at least within a scenario where the status quo is being challenged or changed. That’s why you’ll often see a charismatic leader be extremely popular during a particular period, but then quickly fall out of favor once that period is over. (Think Winston Churchill after WWII).

      It’s also important to note that charismatic leadership is by no means always a positive thing. An interesting contrast might be FDR and Hitler. Both of them lived at the same time, and both were charismatic in their own right; but one was a more positive charismatic while the other was a pretty terrible human being. There are so many really great things that charismatic leaders can bring to the table, but there are also potential pitfalls to be aware of.

  • Further (now you’ve got me going),

    One of the bigger distinctions seems to be that part about the charismatic leader having that charisma attributed to him/her by followers who believe him/her to be extraordinary and feel in many ways dependent on him/her for inspiration, direction, and so on.

    The essence of transformational leadership is different. It’s more about inspiring, developing, empowering, etc. In some ways, those things might even reduce the amount of charisma a leader is perceived to have. You could almost think of it this way: some sort of charisma is a necessary component of transformational leadership, but a leader can be charismatic without being transformational.

    Another difference might be that transformational leaders would tend to act in ways that would enable followers to act more independently, while charismatic leaders might spend more time fostering a particular image. Not every charismatic or transformational leader will exhibit all of these or even any of them in the same way; I’m just speaking in generalities.

  • I think a critical characteristic of transformational leaders is genuine care for the success of others. This is not to be confused with low expectations but it is my opinion that transformational leaders exemplify the quote, “You get what you expect.” Transformational leaders hold an authentic commitment to attempting to do the right things for the right reasons.

    • That’s a good point, Gayle. I like to think of it within the context of “human leadership,” for lack of a better term. We have this crazy privilege of serving human beings.

  • Really enjoyed this post, Matt. Thanks as always.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some fantastic leaders in my time and the thing that stands out for me echoes that comment that Gayle makes; transformational leaders have a genuine care for the success of others. They want to support their colleagues and grow them, nurture and empower them – to coin a phrase that we use here at Bromford; “inspiring people to be the best that they can be”.

    • That’s great, Andy. Sounds like I need to visit Bromford. 🙂

      Your point is spot-on though too. It seems like one of a leader’s great responsibilities is helping folks become more appropriately “themselves.” I think it was Matthew Kelly that said something about organizations becoming better versions of themselves as people become better versions of themselves. I like the concept, but I think he’s got it a little reversed. Let’s worry about the human piece of it; the organizational stuff tends to take care of itself when we do that.

      • I’d have to agree with you there Matt, I think Matthew does have that the wrong way around – get the people side of things right first then the success of the organisation naturally follows suit.

        If you plan a trip to the UK in the near future we’ll have to arrange for you to visit us, that would be ace 🙂

  • Well said, Matt.
    My findings in literature elucidated four pillars of human characteristics for transformational leadership:
    1. A compelling vision coupled with a gift to promulgate it to many different types of people,
    2. A sincere desire to see people become the best versions of themselves,
    3. A humble self-contrual and a willingness to learn and grow, and,
    4. Genuine character traits.
    I further submit that truly exceptional transformational leaders have a “spark,” or, a gift that is not given to every leader. I think all leaders can strive to be better transformational leaders, but only a given few can achieve true greatness in that capacity. Just like an olympic athlete or a prima ballerina needs a gift or talent to be the best in the world, so do truly remarkable transformational leaders. Figuring out one’s unique gifts in this world is a challenging task indeed; we are so often shaped by our parents, peers or necessity of having an income. But for those who recognize they have the gift, and then set out to share it via leadership, the results are truly remarkable.
    Whether one has a gift or not, I believe authentic transformational leadership is something every leader should aspire to become. Although transactional, management -by -exception and even laissez-fare styles can generate results, it is by transformational leadership that the people are truly changed for the better, and, the world is left in a little better place than it was found.

    • Very cool, Melinda. You were starting to get into the charisma thing too. Transformational leaders are often charismatic in some way, yet charismatic leaders aren’t always transformational.

  • Great conversation here. I think the true knack of transformational leadership is that inner sense that everyone has a knack, or gift, for greatness. They subscribe to ‘leadership by declaration’, choosing epic aspirations rather than transactional logic built from cause-effect analysis. A transformational leader is in touch with the universal oneness we all are, sees our ‘holographic’ nature and honors our collective awesomeness.

  • Great insights on transactional versus transformations leaders Matt. In addition, transactional leaders fail to see the bigger picture (what overall impact will this have?)because they are hypnotized by the transaction at hand. They also think short term and are often willing to sacrifice what’s best later for what they want now. (Unrealistic expectations from followers to “make it happen now” without thinking about losing followers from burnout.)

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