Can transformational leadership really be taught?

Transformational leaders are seen as the changemakers, the future-leaning navigators who can steer their organisations through turbulent times of flux and disruption. Are these individuals uniquely programmed this way, or can the qualities they possess be taught and cultivated within the business?
Bevan Rees
Aug 10, 2019

I was born in South Africa; I was 12 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Like every South African of my generation, I remember those days clearly: the hope, the uncertainty, the tactile feeling of change. There was also much fear, much anger, and nobody could predict how the dismantling of Apartheid would play out.

When Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he is known in SA, is named among the great leaders of the 20th Century, it is usually for his leadership work during this time of crisis. The country was on a knife-edge. Wrongs needed to be righted and amends needed to be made, but South Africa also needed to move through trauma towards unity.

At times in the early 1990s, the nation was on the brink of civil war. Without Madiba’s direction, that is very likely where we would have ended up.

Though Mandela manifested different types of leadership across his life and career, as the president of the Rainbow Nation, he was the definition of the transformational leader. He was guided by a unifying vision of positive change and was able to motivate and inspire people of all backgrounds to work with him in achieving it.

He led with humility. He had a clear idea of where the country needed to go and enabled the spirit of collaboration and innovation required to get there.

A multiplier effect

Caroline Dunk, Director at cda, calls such leaders ‘multipliers.’

“They develop the capability of their organisation by attracting talent, creating space for best thinking, encouraging debate, extending challenges and instilling ownership and accountability.”

There was something alchemical about Mandela that is regularly associated with transformational leaders. It’s an X factor, and it is often assumed to be a natural talent – you either have it, or you don’t.

That may be true in degrees – some people simply are made for transformational leadership – but it’s certainly not absolutely true. Experts agree that transformational leadership can be taught.

Alison Watson, Undergraduate Business Programme Team Leader at Arden University, offers some detail:

“Techniques for transformational leadership can also be taught. For example, how to execute a two-way dialogue with employees, motivation techniques and collaborative-decision making processes.”

However, experts also agree that learning this approach to leadership requires roots in broader human capacities.

“Workers need broad life experience and empathy to be able to interact with different types of people and enjoy consistent success in leading teams,” says Ragini Sidhu, VP Human Resources at ONVU Technologies.

“The process (of building an amazing management team) starts by determining a clear vision for an organisation and taking the time necessary to identify leaders that embody these principles and can guide a workforce toward achieving these goals through targeted learning and development.”

“The basis of developing a transformational leader is the requirement for a particular mindset…”

Karen Meager and John McLachlan of Monkey Puzzle believe that the essential foundation for building these skills is attitude. “Being a transformational leader relies on a set of beliefs: that you can lead through relationships, that people can be empowered, that you don’t need to control people to get results, belief in continual improvement. If leaders don’t believe this any training and development will fall on fallow ground.”

Kate Turner, Director at Motivational Leadership, agrees: “The basis of developing a transformational leader is the requirement for a particular mindset – one that supports the individual while holding a high challenge for them. This mindset can be both measured and taught.”

Always learning

The transformational leadership mindset includes a natural tendency towards continuous learning.

According to Meager and McLachlan, transformational leaders view continual learning and development as vital for creating an innovative culture.

“These types of leaders will always be open to reflecting and learning in order to grow through every situation and navigate change.”

Jonathan Berry, European Practice Director at Expressworks, echoes this view.

“For the smartest transformational leaders, learning and development are constant, reflecting and predicting the trends that affect their business.”

Kate Turner goes on to explain that such leaders do not view learning and development as a once-off. Instead, they see it as something which happens daily – mostly informally and occasionally formally.

“For the smartest transformational leaders, learning and development are constant…”

“A transformational leader should encourage all individuals to take responsibility and initiative for their own development, rather than it being ‘done unto’ them. This is a key ingredient.”

Transformational L&D

With such a strong belief in learning and development, it may seem evident that the organisation’s L&D team has a vital role to play in building transformational leaders. However, it is often less clear how the L&D team can effectively contribute.

Stuart Duff, business psychologist and Head of Development at Pearn Kandola, argues that L&D’s scope for impact exceeds the long-held expectations of training and facilitation.

“I think the traditional stereotype of an L&D person is someone who can give me training. ‘You’re the experts. You come and tell us how to do this’. But, by far the best L&D functions I’ve ever worked with are, in many ways, transformational leaders themselves.”

Leaders are always leading by example, whether they’re aware of it or not. So, the more consciously they can enact the standard they want to set, the more positive their impact could be.

However, authenticity in purpose and action are crucial, especially in times of change and instability. The leader’s commitment and clarity anchor team members in the mission, instilling confidence and security. This creates space for the psychological safety that is so crucial to innovation.

“Yes, transformational leadership can be taught, but it can’t be faked,” says Jonathan Berry. “The leader who isn’t personally committed to transformation probably can’t bring their team to where they need to be: people follow your example more than your words and the temptations of the status quo will find you out at some point.”

“To deliver a real, sustained shift in organisational leadership culture,” adds Caroline Dunk, “it’s important for senior leaders to be clear about their expectations, role model the transformational, ‘multiplier’ leadership behaviours and support colleagues to move towards this leadership style.”

“When personal transformation is nurtured as a cultural value within the organisation, business transformation emerges naturally.”

Less intuitive, though, is the modelling of transformational approaches that needs to go on throughout the business. Duff believes this applies explicitly to L&D.

“I don’t think you can serve transformational leadership in an organisation and not demonstrate that yourself. So I think effective L&D is about enabling. It’s about exciting people, about what they’re capable of.”

“Nobody has ever said – ‘that leadership program, that’s the reason I’m here today.’ What they do talk about is continuously improving their awareness of who they are and what they are capable of achieving. That’s what L&D really does.”

When personal transformation is nurtured as a cultural value within the organisation, business transformation emerges naturally.

“Humans are inherently averse to change,” believes Tiago Catarino, co-founder and CEO of Lisbon Nearshore, “so the biggest challenge I see in driving organisational transformation is to inspire the need for change within the organisation itself.”

“Nowadays, this can only stem from an organisation truly committed to developing its talent, in which besides an all-encompassing talent development programme, needs to have its leaders focused on overcoming adversity by looking at in-house teams as organic systems needing to be constantly stimulated.”