What Have We Learned from the 100-Year History of Leadership Research? (Part III)

Dr. Timothy Judge and his team at Fisher Leadership Initiative of the Ohio State University recently conducted a leadership landscape survey on 58 leadership scholars. One of the survey questions asked participants to write down as many as eight findings that they believe we have learned from the 100-year history of leadership research. We will pick some of the most frequently mentioned findings, explain to you what they are and how they helped advance the field of leadership research.

Transformational Leadership

Do you want to become a better leader? Perhaps you want to dial up your ability to communicate with or influence your employees.

There are a lot of articles about leadership development available. And if you go through them, you’ll start to find some similarities. Many of those ideas come from academic research – and they can directly benefit you and your job.

Have you heard of “transformational leadership theory”? It’s currently the most popular leadership topic among leadership and management scholars because decades of research evidence have revealed that transformational leaders tend to be more effective and have great relationships with their subordinates.

Many key elements of this type of leadership have been adapted into various leadership products on the market. Learning a little more here may spark an important realization within you about your own leadership style — or perhaps that of your superiors.

First introduced by MacGregor Burns in 1978, transformational leadership, along with what’s called “transactional leadership,” were initially identified as two types of political leadership.

Transformational leaders focus on using personal characteristics and ideals to shift people’s beliefs, values and needs to gain votes. Their goal is to have people accept their ideology. They want to transform people in a way.

On the other hand, transactional leaders approach others by promising or giving what they need or desire in exchange for votes. This for that.

Professor Bass (1985)1 later adapted this idea from politicians and handed it over to managers. According to Bass, transactional leaders are more results-oriented. They know what outcomes their subordinates should achieve and what will help them reach their expected performance by making their roles and requirements clear. These leaders will also tell their employees how they will be satisfied or rewarded if they make necessary efforts from the very beginning.

Two factors of transactional leadership were later identified by Bass and his colleagues:

  • Contingent reward: This means providing rewards in a consistent manner and always keeping your promises.
  • Management by exception: This is where you carefully monitor the execution of tasks for problems that may arise and correct employees’ mistakes to maintain performance.

Sounds like what most managers will do, right? But we offer a word of caution about using only the transactional leadership style: In the end, followers may only try to achieve the minimum level of acceptable performance to get what they are promised. To motivate subordinates to exceed expectations, we need to mix it with transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership focuses on values and emotions. It consists of three major aspects2:

  • Charismatic leadership describes leaders who use personal charisma to inspire, arouse and heighten motivations among followers. They provide followers with a clear sense of purpose that is energizing, which can help followers identify with the leaders’ visions and values.
  • Individual consideration focuses on understanding the needs of each follower and works continuously to get them to develop to their full potential. Leaders will also use methods—such as caring about employees on a personal level, serving as role models, delegation and open communication—to lead and develop followers.
  • Intellectual stimulation encourages followers to always wear their thinking hat. The idea is to have subordinates constantly invent new ideas and solve old problems in new ways. It enables followers to generate new thoughts and insights, to bring new blood into the organization.

Because of its inspirational and people-oriented nature, transformational leadership starts to gain more recognition than its transactional counterpart. It’s been revised and adapted into many different leadership principles. It also became very popular in both the academic and practice fields. But, again, we don’t use that alone. It is always suggested by leadership experts that a leader should use both leadership styles in order to be highly effective.

The significance of transformational leadership theory is that it looked beyond the traditional managerial role of a leader. Instead, it focused on a leader’s abilities to inspire and motivate employees, translate to them the group’s value and vision, care for them on individual level and help them develop and grow.

The research by academics can play a powerful role in how leaders manage their day-to-day employees.

Perhaps it’s now also affected you.


  1. Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.
  2. Avolio, B.J., Bass, B.M., & Jung, D.I. (1999). Re-examining the components of transformational and transactional leadership using the multifactor leadership questionnaire. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72, 441-462.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.