WHY you lead = HOW you lead

It was one of the most uncomfortable moments in my professional life.  I was sitting across from a manager in a large organization providing feedback on her leadership style.  As a regular part of our leadership development consulting and/or research we commonly ask employees to rate their leader using a standardized measure of transformational leadership.  In the current case, the employees seem to have two impressions of their leader.  A sizeable group thought that she did nothing and that they didn’t even know her.  An equally large group thought  that they did know her but did not like the things she did. The one thing they did agree on was that she was not a good leader.  Perhaps as an indication of part of the problem, these ratings came as a complete shock to the manager who was now in tears.

Aside from her shock, the thing I remember most about that meeting was her inability to identify anything she could do to improve her leadership and her unwillingness to consider any of my suggestions.  It was if she did not care about being a good leader.

This seems so odd to me.  Transformational leadership is one of the most researched and validated theories we have about leadership[1].  As originally conceived transformational leaders focus on elevating their employees.  They go beyond traditional transactional management techniques to motivate and inspire (inspirational motivation) to articulate values and serve as role model (idealized influence), to get others to think about old problems in new ways (intellectual stimulation) and to show consideration for each employees’ individual needs (individualized consideration)[2]. We know that when leaders engage in transformational leadership behaviors firm performance is enhanced[3], employee well-being is enhanced[4] and even outcomes such as occupational safety are improved[5].  We even know that transformational leadership behaviors are relatively easy to learn and use in the workplace[6]. Why wouldn’t one want to be a transformational leader?

Dr.  Stephanie Gilbert (now at Cape Breton University) and I have been working on this question in several studies that formed part of her PhD dissertation – looking at the question of leaders’ motivation to be a transformational leader. Note that we were not particularly interested in why people take on a leadership role (there are lots of potential explanations including a desire for prestige or organizational rewards).  What we were really interested in is why, having assumed a leadership position, one might be motivated to be a better, more effective (in our definition, transformational) leader.  Drawing on self-determination theory, we suggested that leaders were either not motivated to be transformational (amotivation), were motivated only because they thought it would be instrumental to obtaining other things the leaders wanted (controlled motivation), or because it was intrinsically interesting to them (autonomous motivation[7]).  Although we continue to work on this issue, our results to date show some support for the view that WHY you lead might determine HOW you lead[8].

[1] Barling, J., Christie, A. M., & Hoption, C. (2010). Leadership. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol. 1. (pp. 183–240) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[2] Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. Collier Macmillan.

[3] Barling, J., Weber, T. & Kelloway, E.K. (1996).  Effects of transformational leadership training on attitudinal and financial outcomes: A field experiment.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 81, 827-832.

[4] Kelloway, E.K., Turner, N., Barling, J. & Loughlin, C. (2012).  Transformational leadership and employee psychological well-being.  Work & Stress, 26,39-55.

[5] Barling, J., Loughlin, C., & Kelloway, E.K. (2002). Development and test of a model linking safety-specific transformational leadership and occupational safety.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 488-496.

[6] Kelloway, E.K., & Barling, J. (2000).  What we’ve learned about developing transformational leaders.  The Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 21, 157-161.

[7] Gilbert, S.L. & Kelloway, E.K. (2014). Leadership. In M. Gagne (Ed).  The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation and Self-Determination Theory. Oxford University Press.

[8] Gilbert, S., Horsman, P., & Kelloway, E. K. (2016). The Motivation for Transformational Leadership Scale: An examination of the factor structure and initial tests. Leadership & Organization Development Journal37(2), 158-180.


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