The Four Keys to Transformational Leadership

You've been around long enough to have heard all the popular management terms come and go, but transformational leadership is one theory with staying power. It works because it requires the one person who is the face of the company to be completely transparent and authentic in his or her service to company values and stakeholders. Transformational leaders do four things that help others develop as leaders. Also known as the 4-Is, the leader who employs them does the following:

  • Leads by example (Idealized Influence, or II). These leaders are not afraid to get their hands dirty and show others how to do the job and do it well. They arrive early and stay late. They epitomize their company's core values instead of just giving them lip service.

  • Motivates and inspires others (Inspirational Motivation, or IM). Together with II, these two traits combine to create charisma. It's what makes followers admire and try to emulate leaders.

  • Cares about the needs of others (Individualized Consideration, or IC). The transformational leader knows every individual they lead, and is genuinely concerned about their needs and feelings. For them, it's personal, and it shows.

  • Challenges their followers (Intellectual Stimulation, or IS). Far from being “soft,” transformational leaders are quick to challenge their followers to get creative and solve challenges. This approach requires trust and autonomy, and is rewarded with increased project ownership, productivity, and innovation.

While transformational leadership theory is much more complex and formal in its usual iterations, the bottom line is that leaders who employ these four actions have followers who are engaged, productive, and satisfied with their jobs. Two of the most well-known transformational leaders were Walt Disney and Martin Luther King, Jr., and to this day, they are seen as two of the greatest influencers in American business and culture because they believed in their mission and put their people first. In turn, their people also believed in the mission, and continue to believe and pursue those leaders' goals to this day, long after the leaders themselves were gone. That's a legacy worth emulating.

If your most important resource—your people—seem lackluster in their drive and performance, take a look at your management style and see if there's a need for a top-down management makeover. Think about the best boss you ever had, and compare your own management style in specific scenarios to see if you measure up. If you see room for improvement, be willing to take baby steps to become a leader you would want to follow. Set daily goals for yourself in each of the four transformational leadership action areas.

Most importantly, get to know your employees and what motivates them, and be willing to get in the trenches and do the work yourself to show them that it's work that is important to you, to the team, and to the future of your company. Your expertise and success inspires your followers to a certain extent, but your humility and personal attention will motivate them to believe that they, too, can succeed with you at the helm.