Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Transforming or Transformational Leadership: Does It Matter Which Phrase We Use?

The difference between TRANSFORMING LEADERSHIP (via Burns) and TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP (via Bass) is significant.  Richard Couto’s chapter, “The transformation of transforming leadership” in the Leadership companion:  Insights on leadership through the ages (Wren1995), details these distinctions and is the most accessible text I have found on the matter.  This entry provides a summary of Couto’s chapter.  I want to be clear that I am not proposing that one of these is better than the other; what I am proposing is that we be thoughtful about which one of these we are actually doing or talking about. Each of these approaches, "transforming" or "transformational", provides different possibilities for action and reflects a values base depending upon the setting and purpose for which they are used.  In my own work I lean more towards transforming leadership because I believe its meaning closely aligns to my values and the purpose of my work.  

Why does making a distinction between these two words matter? Maybe it does not to the “average Joe” but for those of us who engage in leadership development directly or indirectly, I think we are beholden to understand the distinction between the concepts communicated in the words we use.  Clearly, I believe language is generative; it carries the energy of the historical discourse from where it derives and unconsciously has influence over our thoughts and actions.  As social change workers it is beneficial to know that we are promoting a certain type of leadership that can only be understood when we ask, “leadership for the purpose of what, for whom, and by whom?” This level of intentionality is fundamental to our work.

Most importantly, for me, is that transforming leadership is focused on changing conditions, culture, and larger social systems change.  Transformational leadership is intent on changing the conditions and culture alone.  The differences between these two terms, as Couto remarks, are in part due to the context in which leadership is studied.  For Burns, his context is leadership within social movements and politics.   For Bass, his context is about leadership within formal organizations. (105)  I am more predisposed to Burns, because Bass’s work has changed the “test of radical transformation from social change to the achievement of institutional goals, including preservation” (105) and for me this is a lot of what is wrong in the nonprofit sector – we measure success by institutional goals and not necessarily meaningful social change. 

All of the references, except where noted, are directly from the chapter “The transformation of transforming leadership” by Richard Couto; page numbers follow in parenthesis. 

Transforming Leadership (via Burns)
Leadership is a process in which one participates. (103)
Transforming Leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents(p.1). (103)
Transforming leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality(103).  
Transforming leadership changes some of those who follow into people whom others may follow in time (103).  
Transforming leadership assists a group of people to move from one stage of development to a higher one and in doing so to address and fulfill better a higher human need (103).  
The transforming leader shapes, alters, and elevates the motives and values and goals of the followers (103).  

Transformational Leadership (via Bass)
Leadership is a condition or state of being that one holds (103).
Transformational leaders transform followers.  The direction of influence is one way—from leader to follower.  This is unlike transforming leadership where a follower could transform leaders by the interaction (which is a process) of leaders and followers (104).  
Transformational leaders may expand a follower’s portfolio of needs; may transform a followers’’ self-interest; and may elevate a follower’s need to a higher Maslow level.  (106)
Transformational leaders may elevate followers’ expectation of success for the purpose of enabling followers to recognize and realize an organization  goal that exceeds past accomplishments.(106)
In transformational leadership, followers remain subordinates of the transformational leader, regardless of whatever else might be transformed. (106)

Author’s Note:
This entry is an extension of my ongoing commitment to be precise with language in social change work. One of my longest standing critiques of leadership literature derives from my experience that there are many words within the leadership development, organizational development, and social movement literature that, when applied in the framework of social justice work, take on different meaning because they are used for different ends.  The difference of leadership "for what end or purpose" often reveals theoretical, moral, economic, political, and social conflict between how words and concepts are applied in the field. Throughout my professional career, I have consistently felt uncomfortable that context and end purpose are not more readily referenced, or are often ignored altogether when applying words and concepts originating in different fields (e.g., education, business, or public service). As such, I have developed a commitment to raising awareness about the distinctions that "break the chain of inference--from conjunction to categorization to commonality--[as] the norm" (Lakoff, 1987, p. 5). 

(1) Burns defines morality in terms of human development and of a hierarchy of human needs.


David Holzmer said...

Hello Raquel and thanks for the provocative and well-reasoned posting!

I particularly agreed with your point that when discussing leadership we need to be more careful about the language we use. Even terms such foundational terms as "leader" and "leadership" have become quite loaded and, as such, call for a more discerning turn of inquiry.

Likewise, I found myself strongly agreeing with your points on "transforming" and "transformational" leadership as well. These days I am reading Western's "Leadership: A Critical Text" along with several related scholars (Uhl-Bien and Crevani, Lindgren, & Packendorff for example) who favor a social-process view as opposed to a solitary-actor model of leadership. Your posting helped me to realize that Burns' work is, no doubt, a vital precursor to this line of thinking.

I really resonate with where you are coming come and I'll be sure to keep your blog in my "always read" list.


PS: I will also admit to some bias: Dick Couto is one of my key advisors at Union Institute. A brilliant man whose intellect is overshadowed only by his warmth and generosity. :-)

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly worded. Thanks for the clarification between transforming and transformational leadership!