Words, Just Words

I was asked the following question on the blog: “People talk about the difference between transactional and transformational leadership behaviours. Is this something you could blog about, the associated behaviours and the different sources and applications of consequences?” My raw and unscientific response to this type of leadership literature (transactional vs. transformational) is that it is a lot of academic gobble-de-goop.  In my experience all that changes when people read these books is the way they talk about leadership.  As President Obama might comment, “Words, just words.” Here is a sample from a web article by Iain Hay titled, Transformational Leadership: Characteristics and Criticisms.

“Transformational leaders elevate people from low levels of need, focused on survival (following Maslow’s hierarchy), to higher levels (Kelly, 2003; Yukl, 1989).”

“They may also motivate followers to transcend their own interests for some other collective purpose (Feinberg, Ostroff & Burke, 2005, p. 471) but typically help followers satisfy as many of their individual human needs as possible, appealing notably to higher order needs (e.g. to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy).”

“Transformational leaders are said to engender trust, admiration, loyalty and respect amongst their followers (Barbuto, 2005, p. 28).”

“This form of leadership requires that leaders engage with followers as ‘whole’ people, rather than simply as an ‘employee’ for example. In effect, transformational leaders emphasize the actualization of followers (Rice, 1993)”

In my 40 plus years of working with executives and managers, I have not heard one refer to these concepts or this literature.  Consultants and trainers may talk about them but everyday managers don’t.  The reason is at the heart of the “Ask Aubrey” question.  The associated behaviors and different applications of consequences cannot easily be determined from these theories and literature.  What would you tell someone to do to “engage followers as ‘whole people’”?  How would a leader measure movement from a transactional leader to a transformational one?  It can’t be done with these descriptions. These are labels—attribution after the fact, words looking for a home.

In the book, Measure of a Leader, James Daniels and I moved away from theory to specifying measures of leadership in a way that would allow one to track leadership effectiveness from day to day.  Our experience is that if someone can’t answer the question, “What would that look like?” or “What would I see you doing?,” instruction in these concepts is a waste of time.  Once we stop looking for “transformational leadership” and start observing actions, we discover measureable and repeatable patterns of behavior. While I understand the intent of the books on transformational leadership by Burns and Bass[i][ii],too much is left to the imagination of the practitioner for implementation.  It has been said that the devil is in the details.  The problem here is that there are no details.  

[i] Burns, J.M, (1978), Leadership, N.Y, Harper and Raw.
[ii]  Bass, B. M, (1985), Leadership and Performance, N.Y. Free Press.

Measure of a Leader

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.