Onrec logo The Online Recruitment Resource

The role of gender in transformational leadership

Hilarie Owen, Executive Director, RENEW, Register of Executive and Non Executive Women

In recent years there has been an interest in something called ëtransformational leadershipí. It was a term coined by political scientist James McGregor Burns in 1978. He wrote that: 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 moralityÖtransforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspirations of both the leader and led and, thus, has a transforming effect on both.

The most significant essence of transformational leadership, is then the relationship between leaders and followers. Transformational leaders have the ability to identify their own values, and those of others in the organisation, to guide their actions, thus developing a shared, conscious way of behaving and doing. Power is distributed because these leaders do not see power as limited but expansive. Transformational leaders are concerned with substance and truly empower others.

In business, transformational leaders donít follow the short termism of bottom line or shareholder value, but that of all stakeholders: customers; employees; shareholders; suppliers and communities. By looking after all stakeholders, shareholders also prosper.

How does transformational leadership work?
This question was the basis of the work of Bernard Bass who built on the theory of Burns to describe a process that resulted in high levels of performance in organisations where transformational leadership was expressed.

According to Bass, there are four behavioural components that make up transformational leadership: charisma; inspiration; intellectual stimulation and individualised consideration.

Charisma is regarded as the ability in leaders to arouse emotions in followers that will result in a strong identification of the followers with the leader. This includes the leader providing vision and gaining respect and trust. Inspiration is based on behaviours espoused by the leader to such things as communicating high expectations, the use of symbols to gain the focus of followers and modelling the appropriate behaviour. Intellectual stimulation includes promoting intelligence and rationality, enabling followers to be creative problem solvers. Lastly, individualised consideration, whereby leaders give support and personal attention to followers and express appreciation of their work thus developing their self -confidence.

These behaviours are then supposed to affect followers in a positive way by elevating them to be the best they can be and in doing so are motivated by achievement and self development rather than ëdoing a jobí that provides security. The drawback with this work is that Bass still assumes leadership is a position, ie, ëI am the bossí and omits the moral aspect that Burns regards as an important element of transformational leadership. Recently, Bass has realised his omission and is now bringing this into his model.

Evidence has shown that transformational leadership does result in improved performance. It also aligns everyone around a common purpose and has a future orientation. In addition, transformational leadership encourages everyone to challenge and question assumptions and look at problems from new perspectives. Hence the need for this leadership throughout organisations including boards of directors. For this reason, I have worked at identifying both what is required for boards of successful organisations and how to incorporate this into transformational leadership. It was interesting to discover that this model works regardless of the size of organisation or where, geographically, it is in the world.

However, transformational leadership has its critics especially those who want to maintain transactional leadership (whereby the exchange is based on followersí expectations of reward or avoidance of punishment and the leader expects compliance). It has been accused of being manipulative or even dangerous from those who feel threatened by transformation that could topple their individual power base.

Transformational leadership begins with different beliefs about oneself and others. The first changing belief is that leadership isnít a job but a way of being. The second is that, whereas in the past leadership meant power and control over others, today leadership beliefs begin with a desire to enable others to realise their own power and leadership potential. Thirdly, leadership in the past was based on believing it made people do things that you wanted done whereas, today, leadership is about a mutual relationship where each can transcend to a worthy purpose and behave with moral fibre, courage, integrity and trust.

In 1990 Judy Rosener published an article that showed how her research had found that women tended to be more transformational than men who tended to be more transactional. She argued that women encouraged participation in power and information and sought to enhance the status of employees. If we look at women entrepreneurs, such as Steve Shirley of F1 and Anita Roddick of Body Shop, a different leadership does emerge from that of many men. However, one study is not enough and others have followed.

Bass went on to develop his four elements into a model with Bruce Avolio whereby transformational leadership can be measured. Eighty items were measured to discover if there were gender differences. It was found that women, on average, were more effective and satisfying to work for as well as more likely to generate ëextra effortí from their people. Women measured higher on all of the four elements of the transformational leadership tool, but the difference was closest on intellectual stimulation. Men were better at intervening to correct followersí mistakes.

Bass and Avolio concluded that women were more likely to be trusted and respected and show greater concern for individual needs. Women tend to be more nurturing, caring and sensitive than men and that these characteristics are more aligned with transformational leadership.

Other studies since have found no significant differences in transformational leadership and gender in managers in equivalent positions. Is this because women are now being promoted by taking on male attributes or that men today are changing?

What I have found is that when gender and transformational leadership is studied there is a remarkable difference when the women in the study are entrepreneurs rather than corporate women. Women entrepreneurs were much more likely to be transformational. With many women choosing to leave corporate life for self-employment, it is clear that transformational leadership doesnít always fit the corporate culture.

Why is transformational leadership a challenge for organisations today?
Today many organisations are focused on short-term measures, such as cost cutting and targets, in a world that is hard to keep pace with. In fact, what is required is to ask big questions such as why do we educate? What is a healthy life? What is the purpose of business in the twenty first century? As I see it, the purpose nearly everywhere today is for transformation.

Transformation needs new information and fresh perspectives but the present, myopic managerial cultures are blocking the needed learning required. Kotter states: The combination of cultures that resist change and managers who have not been taught how to create change is lethal. (1996)

Nearly a decade later the requirement is more than change ñ it requires transformation and this, in turn, requires learning not training. Teaching abstract concepts or functional skills is inefficient.

What is required is for women to bring their transformational leadership skills into the forefront and this includes using it on boards of companies and in public appointments. How can women do this?

Firstly, women can draw on their social skills to transform individual self interest into a desire to achieve organisational goals. Secondly, their more participative style of leadership is helpful to employees in new or changing circumstances enabling everyone to respond creatively to change. Thirdly, through transformational leadership, women need to use their work achievements, contacts and power based on their personality, rather than power based on authority or position, to feel confident. Finally, women need to appeal to the intrinsic rewards of employees rather than extrinsic rewards as these are more empowering.

At the same time, company chairmen need to be more courageous in their choice of directors and this means choosing individuals who are different from them. They need to consider not only internal candidates, but individuals with different experiences.

Transformational leadership is needed today because it ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspirations of both the leader and the led and, thus, has a transforming effect on both. Following Enron, Shell, Equitable Life and so on, business needs to assert its ethical standing again to customers and consumers. Women are more likely to adopt this form of leadership. We should value their contribution by now allowing them to use it on the boards of companies.

Spreckley Partners
T-020 7388 9988