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Good Leadership Doesn't Have to Be Transformational

New study questions the corporate quest for transformational leadership.

by Tom Snee - University of Iowa News Office
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A new study from the University of Iowa finds that sometimes, leaders don’t need to be transformational to lead a highly productive group. Sometimes, it might even be better for a solid, stable manager who is seen as just one of the gang.

“Leaders need to take the pulse of their teams and establish the extent to which team identification is high,” says Ning Li, professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business. “If identification is high, transformational leadership efforts will meet with less success.”

Ning LiPhoto courtesy of the University of IowaMore and more, businesses are putting their faith in transformational leaders to bring their firms to new heights, inspiring their employees to produce better work and go beyond their own expectations. Businesses are continually looking for the next Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Sam Walton, leaders whose energy, charisma, and disruptive ideas lead to innovation and corporate growth, and Li says this is considered to be an unquestioned universal good.

But he and his co-researchers find that sometimes, transformational leadership isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Li’s team looked at data gathered from 55 workgroups at two firms in China, with 196 employees and their leaders. They found a transformational leadership style did little to improve a work group’s citizenship and willingness to take charge of their own work, especially when the workers’ team identification was already high.

The study found that employees who are less likely to be influenced by transformational leaders are those who are self-motivated, and also those who have more traditional values. Those workers, Li says, believe that doing a good job is what they’re paid to do, not something for which they need inspiration.

There were times, in fact, when transformational leadership was actually counterproductive, getting in the way of a team that was already functioning at a high level. The study suggests that if employees see the leader as one of their own, their team identification may improve and they may be more willing to help each other, or take charge of their own work. In those cases, Li says a transformational leader, who by definition would not be seen as one of the gang, would do little to motivate employees.

Li says the study findings suggest that firms need to set aside their belief that a transformational leader is a good thing in all situations and instead appoint managers based on the strengths and personality of the team and its members.

“Leaders need to tailor their transformational actions accordingly, rather than use a one-size-fits-all, group directed, transformational style,” the researcher write.

Li's study, “ Spotlight on the Followers: An Examination of Moderators of Relationships Between Transformational Leadership and Subordinates’ Citizenship and Taking Charge,” was co-authored by Dan Chiaburu of Texas A&M University, Bradley Kirkman of North Carolina State University, and Zhitao Xie of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It was published recently in the journal Personnel Psychology and also in the Academy of Management journal Perspectives.