Saturday, November 12, 2016

Transforming Transformational Leadership: Foundations over Ideology

James Burn’s concept of transformational leadership is in essence a process in which “one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.”[1] This includes a moral commitment to develop followers, especially morally. To Burns, transformational leadership is therefore “an ethical, moral enterprise.”[2] I contend that the term transformation is not inherently ethical, and so it can apply to leadership in an amoral sense. Freed up from the limitations of being viewed primarily or even exclusively as moral, transformation can be seen to apply to leadership in at least two, much more direct—or central—ways than morally: as referring to a leader’s own transformation and to a leader’s vision being transformational.

Regarding a leader’s own transformation, taking on a substantial position of authority can transform a leader. To be sure, such a transformation may include moral development, but the change is much broader so reducing it to the moral dimension would be misleading. Referring to the change in President-Elect Warren G. Harding, Evalyn McLean observed, “He was, more and more, inclined to believe in himself. He cherished an idea that when a man was elevated to the presidency, his wits, by some automatic mental chemistry, were increased to fit the stature of his office.”[3] The solemn deference by others strengthened his self-confidence, which in turn could be expected to fundamentally alter, and thus transform, his capacity as a leader. As to the automatic neuro-chemical changes conforming a President-elect to such a statue as befits the high office, clearly in this way too transformation of a leader is accomplished. Harding himself remarked to his fellow Shriners two months before his inauguration, “I wonder if you know the feeling of a man who has been called to the greatest office in the world. There is an aloofness of one’s friends, and that is one of the sad things; and in me there is a deepening sense of responsibility.”[4] Anticipation of the coming awesome responsibility of the U.S. presidency would surely have a substantial effect psychologically—maturating the person and in this sense lifting him to fit the august office.

Almost a century later, Donald Trump may have undergone a maturating transformation in the days following his election to the U.S. presidency. In spite of the many rash things said during his campaign, he spoke quite effectively at 4 a.m. in New York to calm international markets—Dow futures had plunged more than 700 points. He assured allies that the U.S. would have good—but fair—relations with other countries. Within days, the Dow hit a record high. Then, just two days after election day, a subdued, almost reverential President-elect and President Obama spoke jointly in conciliatory words in the Oval Office to quell anti-Trump protests from escalating—Trump even remarking that Obama is “a good man.”[5] In both cases—assuaging worried investors and allies around the world, and facilitating a peaceful transfer of power—Donald Trump could be perceived as rising to the office—his transformation seeming as automatic as if he were going up one of the escalators in his high-rise “Trump Tower.”

The second way in which transformational can be applied to leadership in a fundamental sense refers to leadership vision. Whereas a vision that merely moves an organization or society along incrementally is hardly transformational, a vision whose basis or foundation (i.e., paradigm) represents a qualitative change from the status quo can be labeled as transformational. In this latter sense, a vision represents a paradigm change, which involves changing systems rather than “tweeking” existing ones.  

I contend that the transformation of a leader and a transformational vision are essential and fundamental to leadership, whereas the moral intent to develop followers and even the leader herself morally or otherwise is not. To be sure, moral development is a good thing, and important; the world could surely use more of it.  It can be in the transformation of a leader and in the development of followers. In his comment on how being President-Elect was affecting him, Harding went on to point to his enhanced realization that untruth “must be guarded against.”[6] Notice, however, that this is just part of Harding’s own account of how he had been changed.

The development of followers, moral or even in a broader sense, is just one of many policies that leaders can adopt as a matter of ideological preference. In fact, Bass’s original notion of transformational leadership as “a process by which followers trust, admire, and respect their leader . . .  may not necessarily elevate followers to higher moral ground but rather, depending on the leader’s vision and personal motivation, may in fact lead followers in negative, unethical and immoral directions.”[7] So even an ethically-tinged view of transformational leadership may not include the moral development of followers (and the leaders themselves). Bass would subsequently coin “authentic transformational leadership” to salvage the full moral connotations of Burns’ transformational leadership, but authenticity only means that motive is in sync with word and deed, rather than that the motive, word, and deed must necessarily be moral in nature, and more specifically oriented to people’s moral development.[8]

Therefore, transformational leadership can pertain to leaders whose visions are transformational yet do not include the development of followers as the leader’s moral task. Transformational leadership may pertain to amoral and even unethical tasks. Transformation is principally a term pertaining to change, rather than morality. It follows that Burns choice to make the moral development of followers and even leaders the way in which leadership is transformational can be viewed as too narrow, even distorted in overstating an element, given the more fundamental ways in which transformation pertains to leadership.



[1] James M. Burns, J. Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1978): 20.
[2] Ken W. Parry and Sarah B. Proctor-Thomson, “Perceived Integrity of Transformational Leaders in Organizational Settings,” Journal of Business Ethics 35, no. 2 (January, 2002): 75.
[3] Francis Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding and His Times (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968): 421.
[4] Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, p. 430.
[5] To be sure, on a brass-tacks political level, Obama and Trump might have made a deal, such that Obama’s Administration would help Trump’s transition team and in exchange Trump may have agreed to amend rather than replace Obamacare and not push for prosecution of Hillary Clinton for corruption. Such a deal would have put the two presidents on “on the same page” such that the Oval Office visit would be viewed as conciliatory. 
[6] Russell, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, p. 430.
[7] Ken W. Parry and Sarah B. Proctor-Thomson, “Perceived Integrity of Transformational Leaders in Organizational Settings,” Journal of Business Ethics 35, no. 2 (January, 2002): 75.  
[8] Bernard M. Bass and Paul Steidlmeier, “Ethics, Character, and Authentic Transformational Leadership Behavior,” The Leadership Quarterly 10, no. 2 (1999): 181-217.