Transformational Leadership: How to Inspire Innovation in the Workplace

Industry Advice Leadership

It’s no secret that an effective leadership strategy can be the difference between an organization that flourishes and one that fails. What most do not consider, however, is the effort that goes into identifying which approach a leader should take in order to make the biggest impact.

There are eight primary theories of leadership, according to Les Stein, PhD, assistant teaching professor in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Leadership program. Each leadership methodology operates on a different set of priorities and can be equally effective when applied to the “correct” situation.

While Stein believes in utilizing different leadership approaches depending on the circumstances, he is partial to employing transformational leadership because the broad and inspiring principles the paradigm is based on have the potential to make a difference in a larger context.

“Transformational leadership offers a little bit of everything,” Stein says. “And [it] is generally considered to be extremely effective for leaders who want to get the most from their followers.”

What is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership is a model of leadership used across the spectrum of politics, education, entertainment, finance, technology, and other industries.

“When you look at people that are good examples of transformational leaders, you think of the people that have had an impact, whether that’s on an organization or on the country,” Stein says. “These are the people that can rise to any challenge and bring everybody together collectively to make a difference.”

This transformational approach to leadership relies on encouraging and motivating followers to participate in molding a successful future for an organization. This often includes establishing a group’s common purpose—a concept rooted in an organization’s official “vision” and “mission,” which are two aspects leaders use to help define and outline goals. As Stein explains, “[Vision] tells me where I want my organization to be in the future and why. [Mission] explains the reason for my organization’s existence—its purpose.” He argues that no organization can succeed without a clear vision and mission and that both are vital aspects for leadership to establish early on.

In fact, Stein believes a truly transformational leader can enter a struggling or stagnant organization, analyze the circumstances, and articulate needed improvements almost immediately. He or she should then be able to guide the organization in defining or redefining its core values in a way that unites the group in a common effort.

At the most basic level, transformational leadership is used to inspire employees to look ahead with a focus on the greater good and to function as a single unit with a common goal in mind. It is not until a leader can accomplish these steps that a successful transformation can begin.

Qualities of Transformational Leaders

Stein considers transformational leaders to be people who can bring an organization together “to understand a common purpose and motivate in a way that creates an organizational culture focused on success.” He has found these types of leaders commonly possess a particular set of traits and characteristics.

A transformational leader is:

  • Visionary
  • Team-centric
  • Engaging
  • Inspiring
  • Inclusive
  • Emotionally Intelligent
  • Collaborative

Leaders who have these skills are also commonly charismatic, empathetic, motivating, Stein says. On a personal level, they possess strong ethical values. They strive to put their teams before themselves without ever thinking about their own power or how their actions will benefit them personally moving forward.

As part of a team, transformational leaders have an innate ability to understand people, define each team member’s goals and aspirations, and bring everybody together to make a difference. They are also likely visionary in their own way of thinking and possess communication skills that allow them to not only articulate their thoughts clearly, but to do so in a way that is inspiring to others.

“You hear a lot of people called ‘transformational leaders,’ and I would question that,” Stein says. “[Transformational leaders are] unique individuals with real, honest personal skills [that allow them] to get the job done far better than anyone else.”

Transformational leaders must also be able to create a positive work culture for their employees. This requires they assemble the right group of people on a team and create a collaborative environment in which individuals are free to work together, express their thoughts and opinions, and feel safe to share any creative and innovative ideas that might benefit the organization.

Stein describes an effective transformational leader as one who is, “always focused on making the organization the best that it can be.” This includes asking for opinions, gathering ideas, and making sure that every person on the team feels included, heard, and valued.

Most transformational leaders are found at the executive levels of organizations because, “they have to be in a position of responsibility to impact the success of their organizations,” Stein adds.

Examples of Transformational Leaders and their Organizations

Although it may seem that transformational leaders only come around once or twice in a lifetime, it is likely that you can recognize the names of many of the famous transformational leaders that have made an impact on today’s society.

Well-known transformational leaders include:

Companies that have thrived under transformational leadership include many of the most famous names in our culture today, including Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Walmart, and Google.

Some may even argue that—led by President Joseph Aoun—Northeastern University is operating under a transformational leadership model.

“[Aoun] has a very strong vision for the university and is successfully challenging it to change and meet the many social and technological challenges of tomorrow,” Stein says. “He has one of the most important skills any leader can possess—the power to influence.”

Which Organizations Benefit Most from Transformational Leadership?

Stein believes that every organization, no matter how successful they are, can benefit from the guidance of a transformation leader. After all, he stresses, “Transformation doesn’t have to always be from bad to good. It can be from good to great, or simply good to better. The point is, [a transformational leader will] change their institution in a way that’s always positive.”

Stein recognizes that organizations with a poor culture will gain the most from this type of positive interference, however.

“Organizations will benefit most from a transformational leader when their culture is such that people aren’t sure if they buy into the vision of the organization, [or they don’t] seem to have that collective enthusiasm for their product.”

How To Embrace Transformational Leadership in Your Workplace

Given the many benefits of a successful transformational leadership strategy, it is no wonder so many employees feel inspired to practice these skills and incorporate these values into their work. Academics in the leadership community, however, are divided on whether “choosing” to be a transformational leader is that simple.

“The ‘Great Man Theory’ is based on the idea that people are born with leadership skills,” Stein says. For this reason, many in the community operate under the belief that the qualities required to be a successful transformational leader are not ones that can simply be taught.

Those on the opposite side of the argument, however, believe that society has, “since transitioned to the idea that leadership can be learned,” Stein says. From his view, Stein believes that “The transformational leadership model challenges a bit of both.”

Stein explains that while many believe the core qualities of a transformational leader—such as charisma and empathy—are ones that people are either born with or are not, with hard work and an honest desire to improve an organization, there are some transformational leadership skills that many individuals can learn to embrace.

Use the following tips to explore transformational leadership and learn the ways you can apply its methods to your workplace.

1. Work on Yourself as a Leader

Before you can start making changes to your team and your organization, it’s important to look at how you function as a leader. Successful transformational leaders are empathetic, charismatic, and inspirational. These traits may not appear to be learnable, but there are steps you can take as a leader to develop them.

Empathy–Take the time to sit down and get to know the people you work with on an individual level and in a context that’s broader than just their role in your organization. Ask about their backgrounds, their personal goals, and even the concerns that weigh heavy on their minds from day-to-day. You may walk away from this exercise with a better understanding of how they will react to change in the organization, how to approach feedback with them, or even what tactics and tools can be used to motivate them. At the very least, taking time to connect with them on a personal level should allow you to put yourself in their shoes much more easily, a necessary factor when determining how best to inspire them.

CharismaIn leadership coach Olivia Fox Cabane’s book titled “The Charisma Myth,” she outlines a set of tactics anyone can use to become a more charismatic person. These tactics include being present in every situation, neutralizing negative thoughts, dressing to impress, mirroring body language, and more. Books like this, while not fool-proof guides, do offer future leaders struggling to find their natural charm a starting point for improvement.

InspirationThere are dozens of guides on how to inspire and motivate, and each offers a variety of viable tools and methods for doing so. For example, this piece outlines nine creative approaches to inspiring people—listing everything from actively listening to using high-powered talent when trying to motivate. However, at the center of all this advice is simply the idea that you must approach every situation with the greater good of the organization in mind. Leaders who truly conquer this skill naturally create a level of trust and accountability among their team, which allows those being led to feel safe and secure in choosing to follow.

2. Create the Proper Culture in Your Workplace

Company culture is an increasingly important aspect of an employee’s overall work experience. For that reason, employers tend to put a lot of time and energy into establishing a work environment that their employees can enjoy, incorporating perks, events, and benefits in an effort to make each individual feel appreciated by the organization and thus motivated to work harder.

Putting a similar emphasis on culture from a transformational leadership perspective can go a long way in your workplace. Not only is it important to make sure your team feels appreciated and respected, but those wishing to utilize transformational methods must also take the time to ensure the environment is one which encourages collaboration, innovation, and communication. Establishing each of these will help to create the collective enthusiasm among your team that is necessary for a successful transformation.

CollaborationTransformational leadership is based on the idea that all employees should be working together towards a singular, common goal within an organization. It is vital that leaders create a collaborative environment in their workplace to accomplish this. Whether this means working as larger groups on projects very clearly tied to the achievement of that common goal, or simply ensuring employees can see how their own daily work contributes to the greater goals of the company, establishing these methods of collaboration early on will help set your organization up for success.

InnovationMore often than not, the most creative ideas will come from employees within your organization who are spending the most time with your product or services every day. Embrace the transformational leadership method by making sure your workplace culture encourages the sharing of suggestions, improvements, and ideas from team members at every tier of the company. Other methods for inspiring innovation in the workplace include embracing failure, offering incentives, and training employees in “design thinking.”

(Learn more about these methods by downloading our full guide to introducing innovation in your workplace.)

CommunicationEnsure that every member of your team not only feels comfortable enough to voice their opinions and share their innovative ideas, but that they know what they have to say will be heard and valued. This starts with you, as the leader, establishing a flow of open communication with your employees.

3. Practice Identifying and Facilitating Core Values

The first (and often most significant) impact a transformational leader can make occurs by defining and clarifying an organization’s values. This may come in the form of cleaning or updating its mission and vision statements or simply ensuring there is a clear difference between the two. Transformational leaders can step into a new organization, identify what isn’t working, and come up with a strategy and set of recommendations to solve it.

In order to begin to formulate these skills, aspiring transformational leaders should simply begin to familiarize themselves with this type of process. Identify the vision and mission of your current organization and begin to draw conclusions to determine if, from your position, those values are being supported by every division within the company. If they are being supported, try to identify what strategies executives are utilizing to accomplish this. You may also consider these leaders as potential coaches and mentors and work to mirror their leadership styles. If they aren’t, consider ways you might approach rallying the organization together to reach those common goals. While it is important to be wary of your company’s leadership infrastructure and how they may react to such suggestions, Stein encourages aspiring leaders to remember that, “transformational leaders don’t wait for change to happen—they create it.”

Still looking to gather more leadership skills to implement positive change in your organization? Consider enrolling in a Master’s of Leadership program like Northeastern’s.