Transformational Leadership – Shaping leaders every day

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Dax Marvel
  • 82nd Communications Squadron
People seek leaders who are willing to step-up and lead them to prosperity. One contemporary model of leadership is the Transformation Leadership Theory developed by James MacGregor Burns.

According to Burns, transformational leaders engage their followers in a mutual process to raise each other to higher levels of motivation and morality. On the other hand, Burns describes another form of leadership known as transactional, where the leader motivates his or her followers to achieve the goal through a system of rewards and punishment. While transactional leadership can be effective, the Air Force must embrace the concept of transformational leadership in order to be successful in today's operating environment.

Transactional and transformation are two different styles of leadership. There are many similarities between the two, such as the realization that the using teams or group performance is the best way to meet goals. Another similarity is the leader ensuring the accomplishment of the mission. Although there are some similarities between the two styles, there are significant differences in how each of the leadership styles motivate, develop, and organize their subordinates.

Transformational leaders are more active than the mostly passive transactional leaders; transformational leadership is proactive while transactional is responsive. Transactional leaders can either exhibit an "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" attitude or govern through forced compliance with rules, regulations, and expectations; transformational leaders offer their followers a vision and inspire them to complete the mission. The transformational leader uses these visions to elevate, rather than define performance expectations and inspire their followers to put forth extra effort in order to achieve the vision.

The transactional leadership style is more concerned with individuals fulfilling their self-interest while the transformational leadership style convinces followers to forego their self-interest for the betterment of the organization as a whole. While the transactional leader provides rewards for completing a task to the leaders' expectations, the transformational leader gives each of the followers personalized and individual attention, coaching them to meet the objectives and inspiring them to further their achievement and growth.

The transactional leader sees his or her subordinates as a group of individuals who can achieve the goal while the transformational leader sees individuals within the team with different needs, aspirations, and abilities. The transformational leader nurtures these needs and aspirations and takes advantage of the individual abilities to bring different perspectives on how best to complete the mission.

Transactional leaders are those who administer, maintain and control while the transformational leader motivates, develops and inspires. Transformational leadership fosters innovation while the transactional leader focuses on planning and execution. Furthermore, transactional leaders seek conflict avoidance and ensure meeting of organizational objectives, while the transformational leader accepts and invites conflict and ensure that's the objective of the organization become the same with themselves and their followers.

Transactional leaders thrive on predictability while the transformational leader loves to operate in an ambiguous environment. The operating environment in which the U.S. Air Force operates is anything but predictable. Asymmetric threats coming from unknown actors replace the known enemy acting in expected Cold War scenarios. The transformational leader is best equipped to lead the Air Force through these tumultuous times.

The Air Force teaches the Full Range Leadership Development theory. This model lists five leadership behaviors that range from ineffective to effective and passive to active. The bottom of this model is the Laissez-Faire style of leadership where the leaders view the needs and development of their subordinates as somebody else's concern, which is ineffective and entirely passive. At the top of the model is transformational leadership where the leader promotes positive, meaningful change and inspires followers to exceed their goals and is highly effective and very active. According to this model, Air Force leaders should strive to use transformational leadership styles as much as possible.

The Air Force stresses that transformational leadership behaviors are more active and effective than other leadership models. Transactional and transformational leadership does not oppose each other; they can complement each other as circumstances dictate and if used correctly. A leader who operates at the transformation level can always use the full spectrum of the leadership, such as passive or transactional. However, a person who has not yet elevated himself or herself to transformational leadership limits the styles they can utilize.

One of the largest reasons that the Air Force must embrace the transformational leadership style is the unlimited liability clause. The unlimited liability clause refers to a portion of the contract signed and oath of enlistment in the armed forces. When a person chooses to serve in the profession of arms, he or she is willing to fight for and possibly die for the sake of another. A transactional leader may have some success, and as history has proven by the millions who have laid down their lives in service, in convincing an Airman that a transaction or contract is worth their while in this ultimate endeavor. However, the transformational leader will successfully lead the Airman to seeing why this sacrifice is necessary for the success of the Air Force mission and the nation as a whole.

According to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James, the biggest challenge to the Air Force right now is uncertainty. James states, "This is uncertainty about their careers, about downsizing, about budgets, and about the world environment." To counter these threats, James uses such terms as "maintaining the technological edge, strategic agility," and to "push Air Power into the future." This calls for bold leadership in the Air Force.

In this ambiguous environment, the Air Force will need leaders and followers who share the same values and have the vision to meet these challenges together. The transformational leader operates well in ambiguity, and only the transformational leader utilizing the tenets of the Full Range Leadership Development model has the necessary tools to ensure the Air Force meets these goals. Transformational leaders in the Air Force ensure that both the leader and the led are all working towards the same strategic goal because the leader has articulated clearly the goal so that everyone understands and is moving in the same direction to meet that goal.

Transactional and transformation leadership each have their uses in modern leadership. Each has its own time and place for use depending on the situation. However, transformational leaders are best suited to feel the pulse of a group, communicate on a level so that both the leader and their subordinates are fully understanding, and provide a vision that is not only accepted by their subordinates, but has their buy-in and drives their full effort at obtaining the vision.

Although transactional leadership is appropriate in certain situations the Air Force stresses that transformational leadership must be actively and effectively used to develop the followers of today to become the leaders of tomorrow. Using transformational leadership, the Air Force will be ready to face all challenges and posture itself to continue to be the world's most dominant air and space power in the 21st century and beyond.