Chief Executive Officer Hogan Assessments
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Transformational leadership: it’s not what you think

22nd Aug 2019
Chief Executive Officer Hogan Assessments
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female manager talking to large group of colleagues
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Don’t be fooled by the name - transformational leadership is charismatic leadership with a fancy title.

The idea of transformational leadership sounds good when taken at face value. A transformational leader is someone who instills pride, respect and trust in their followers. They inspire and motivate people beyond expectations, sparking innovation and change.

If you look up ‘transformation’ in the dictionary, you will see it defined as “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance”.

What organisation wouldn’t want to introduce some form of transformational leadership in response to the disruption caused by the current digital revolution?

Although transformational leadership seems like a good idea in theory, it is nothing more than charismatic leadership with a different and more appealing name.

Charisma isn’t always a good thing

A recent study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that there is plenty to dislike about charismatic leadership.

In fact, there is little evidence to show that there is a strong correlation between charisma and effective leadership.

Since charismatic leadership and transformational leadership are essentially the same thing, it’s important to understand how this style of leadership has been so widely adopted across the globe.

Organisations across the world are notorious for promoting charismatic and politically savvy employees into leadership roles because they seem leader-like.

According to another study published by the Academy of Management, “there is a widely shared consensus that charismatic–transformational leadership is a particularly effective form of leadership”.

There are some major issues with this assumption, however, given that this leadership style is fundamentally flawed.

There should instead be a shift towards a new and more empirically defined form of leadership, where leaders are appointed based on capability and skill as opposed to charisma.  

Where are recruiters going wrong?

First, it is widely assumed that leadership is defined as a person who has a leadership or managerial title.

The problem with that definition is that it doesn’t address how that person assumed the leadership position in the first place.

Organisations across the world are notorious for promoting charismatic and politically savvy employees into leadership roles because they seem leader-like.

There exists and long-held belief in the business world that successful CEOs must be charismatic.

There is often no real evidence connecting hiring or promoting charismatic-transformational leaders with improved organisational results.

Some people can charm their superiors into thinking they would be effective leaders.

They tend to be confident, creative, charming, and flashy, which helps them stand out in comparison with their peers.

Personality assessments show that these candidates score highly in dramatic flair (colorful), self-confidence (bold), readiness to test the limits (mischievous), and expansive visionary thinking (imaginative).

Although their personality makes them seem ‘transformative’, in reality, they are often ineffective leaders.

Inconsistencies

There are several inconsistencies when it comes to measuring leader effectiveness.

In a 2008 study conducted by Robert B. Kaiser, Robert Hogan, and S. Bartholomew Craig, the authors outlined these inconsistencies.

For example, some organisations measure leadership effectiveness through manager evaluations. Others measure it through subordinate evaluations. Some are based solely on financial results.

This diversity in methodology has delivered mixed results, essentially making any conclusions on leader effectiveness inconclusive.

Therefore, there is often no real evidence connecting hiring or promoting charismatic-transformational leaders with improved organisational results.

Since charismatic-transformational leadership has been deemed by so many to be an effective form of leadership, there is a presumed ‘fear’ among researchers to debunk this myth, which is ironic.

By adopting a data-driven approach to talent management, recruiters and HR professionals reduce the risk of favouring charismatic candidates over more suitable ones.

If there is evidence to suggest that this leadership style is ineffective, but nobody is willing to go against popular consensus, wouldn’t calling out these ‘experts’ be transformative in and of itself?

The bottom line is that charismatic-transformational leadership is prevalent in organisations on a global scale, but there is little evidence to suggest that it is effective.

This leads us to one crucial question that organisations everywhere should be asking: how successful could we be if we did not assume that charismatic-transformational leadership leads to leadership effectiveness?

This is a complex problem with a simple solution: define leadership correctly and then identify effective leaders using valid personality assessments.

What to look out for

You cannot define leadership as someone who is in a managerial role or someone who has been promoted simply because he or she is inspiring and socially confident.

You must define leadership as a person who is capable of building and maintaining a high-performing team.

Companies can identify such candidates by incorporating personality assessment into their recruitment strategy and searching for certain characteristics.

By adopting a data-driven approach to talent management, recruiters and HR professionals reduce the risk of favouring charismatic candidates over more suitable ones.

For example, recruiters and management should be on the look out for individuals who score high in humility and are highly driven when it comes to results.

Humble leaders are less focused on their own personal gain, and instead invest time, energy and resources into the success and wellbeing of their workers.

Recruiters should be on the lookout for humble leaders who prioritise the results and interests of the company at large as opposed to their own personal goals and reputation.

These individuals will minimise status differences, listen to team members, and admit when a decision was made in error or is not working out.

This is particularly important when a large proportion of decisions in business turn out to be wrong or risks that do not pay off.

Another characteristic to look out for in candidates is modesty. Effective leaders focus on team performance and are willing to admit mistakes, share credit and learn from others.

These individuals are results-driven when it comes to improving employee performance and are willing to share their victories equally with the team.

They are less concerned with fame and status, and instead wish to uplift team members and create a culture of learning and development for their employees.

Building and developing the talent and potential of an entire team is clear by-product of truly effective leadership.

By abandoning the myths surrounding transformational-charismatic leadership and incorporating valid personality assessment into your recruitment strategies, organisations can better identify the type of leaders that can inspire true positive change and innovation.

Interested in this topic? Read People management: why introverts make great leaders.

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