A scientific approach to transformational leadership

March 6th, 2020 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “A scientific approach to transformational leadership”
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Bernard Bass defines transformational leaders those who stimulate and inspire people to both achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their own leadership capacity.

Transformational leaders help followers grow and develop into leaders by responding to individual followers’ needs by empowering them and by aligning the objectives and goals of the individual followers, the leader, the group, and the larger organization.

Transformational leadership has rapidly become the approach of choice for much of the research and application of leadership theory. In many ways, transformational leadership has captured the imagination of scholars, of noted practitioners, and students of leadership. Research on transformational leadership and related charismatic approaches has grown exponentially.

Why such interest in transformational leadership?

Perhaps it is because transformational leadership, with its emphasis on intrinsic motivation and on the positive development of followers, represents a more appealing view of leadership compared to the seemingly “cold,” social exchange process of transactional leadership. Perhaps it is because transformational leadership provides a better fit for leading today’s complex work groups and organizations, where followers not only seek to be guided through an uncertain environment but also they want to be challenged and to feel empowered, if they are to be loyal, high performers.

The theory of transformational leadership

More than a quarter century has passed since the publication of James MacGregor Burns’s seminal Leadership, which introduced the concept of transforming leadership. Inspired by this, and by Robert House’s 1976 theory of charismatic leadership, Bass and his colleagues developed the model of transformational leadership and the means to measure it. 

More than 20 years of research and development by Bass and colleagues is reviewed in his book, along with research by hundreds of scholars from around the globe. Although the early research draws heavily on leadership research in the military, later research on transformational leadership explored business leadership and leadership in governmental institutions, in education, in health care settings, and in the nonprofit sector. 

The main characteristics of a trasformational leader

Are there certain characteristics—personality, intelligence, temperament—that would predict who might be a more transformational leader?  There are a number of personality characteristics that can be theoretically linked to transformational leadership in general and to its specific components. 


Research has clearly demonstrated that extraverts—persons who are outgoing, talkative, uninhibited, and prefer group settings—are more likely to emerge as leaders in group settings. So extraversion seems to be a characteristic of leaders generally, but it seems particularly relevant for transformational leaders. Ployhart also found that extraversion correlated in the .2–.3 range with ratings of transformational leadership of over 1,000 Asian military recruits being observed in leadership-oriented assessment center exercises.


Ascendancy—the tendency to assume a leadership role in social situations—and dominance are two related constructs that have also been linked to leadership emergence. Avolio and Bass found that ascendancy, as measured by the Gordon Personal Profile, correlated significantly with all of the components of the MLQ. 


Effective leaders generally have high levels of self-esteem and positive self-regard. Particularly, self-confidence should be related to the idealized influence component of transformational leadership. In a study of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, Ross and Offerman found a strong positive correlation between the self-confidence scale of the Adjective Checklist (ACL) and a composite measure of transformational leadership from the MLQ.

Openness to Experience/Risk Taking

Consistent with notions of charismatic leaders being risk takers, creative, and likely to engage in unconventional behaviors, several researchers have explored the relationships between measures of relevant personality constructs and transformational leadership.

Judge and Bono also found a significant correlation between the Openness to Experience scale and the MLQ measures of transformational leadership, suggesting that transformational leaders are creative, have a strong need for change, and are able to adapt to others’ perspectives. 

Locus of Control

Individuals having an internal locus of control—believing that they have personal control over their own lives—should be associated with charismatic and transformational leadership. 

Howell and Avolio found that internal locus of control, as measured by 13 items from Rotter’s scale, correlated significantly with individualized consideration, with intellectual stimulation , and with charisma. 


Transformational leaders might be expected to be psychologically healthy and resilient individuals.  Transformational leadership correlated with all three hardiness measures. There was also a positive relationship between transformational leadership and measures of leader physical fitness.

Social Intelligence

Thorndike defined social intelligence as the ability to think and act wisely in social situations and to understand and manage people. This likely represents a broad range of skills that are critical for leaders, particularly transformational leaders. Southwick found that persuasiveness correlated significantly with all of the MLQ transformational components and that social sensitivity correlated with all but intellectual stimulation. 

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence deals with a broad range of skills related to emotional awareness, emotional knowledge and understanding, emotional communication, and emotional regulation. Groves investigated the role that skills in emotional communication and skills in social role playing, as measured by Riggio’s Social Skills Inventory, play in charismatic leadership. Not surprisingly, emotional expressiveness was predictive of follower ratings of charismatic leadership. In addition, skill in social role playing (similar to self-monitoring) also correlated with charismatic leadership.

Practical Intelligence

Practical intelligence — knowing how to get things done—is a critical determinant of effective leadership. Conceptually, practical intelligence should be important for transformational leaders in knowing how to listen to and respond to followers.

A key component of practical intelligence is tacit knowledge, knowledge that is not explicitly taught but knowledge that is required to succeed in a particular setting or environment. 

Adapted from Bernard M. Bass, Ronald E. Riggio Transformational leadership Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 - Commitment Srl, Via Mascheroni 14, 20145 Milano Italy - Commitment Ltd, 27 Old Gloucester St, London WC1N 3AX | Privacy Policy | Sitemap