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Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

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1 Transformational leadership: origins and main features

James MacGregor Burns coined the phrase ‘transformational leadership’ in his seminal (1978) book, simply titled Leadership. He differentiated between transactional leadership, which he saw as leadership focused on self-interest and exchange, and transformational leadership, which dealt with people’s ethics and beliefs. Burns saw transformational leadership as an interplay, with leaders and followers engaged in leading one another to higher levels of ambition and moral development. If you have ever worked in an organisation where such leadership happens, you will know that these are energetic places, where colleagues challenge and support one another in equal measure and where there is a tremendous commitment to the goals and values of the organisation (rather than the leader).

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Figure 1 Transformational leadership

The central core of transformational leadership was subsequently picked up and adapted by business school scholars from the United States. Starting in 1985 and continuing over several years, Bernard Bass and colleagues reworked transformational leadership so that, in the course authors’ view, it became yet another traits and behavioural model of leadership. Bass and colleagues’ version of the theory suggests that individual leaders could be regarded as on a continuum of the transformational to the transactional. They proposed that transformational leaders do certain things, namely: offer intellectual stimulation to followers; tailor their approach according to the feelings and preferences of particular followers (individualised consideration); offer inspirational motivation with their words and deeds; and, act as a role model for followers, known as idealised influence.

Worryingly, Burns’ earlier emphasis on ethics was omitted (see Delaney and Spoelstra, 2015). In its place was an emphasis on a weak form of charisma. Leaders were supposed to work on the emotions and desires of followers, not just their material needs. Transformational leaders were to be the masters of their followers’ feelings. We now move on to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of transformational leadership in relation to Kids Company.