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Extract from Jay A. Conger’s “Transformational and Visionary Leadership”

Further to my post of this morning about Leslie Burger, here’s an introduction to “Transformational and Visionary Leadership” by the well-known leadership scholar Jay A. Conger’s article in Berkshire’s Encyclopedia of Leadership.

In his seminal book Leadership (1978), the scholar James McGregor Burns concluded that there were two types of leaders: transformational leaders and transactional leaders. This taxonomy was built around the notion of an exchange between the leader and the followers. For Burns, both the leader and the follower had something to offer one another. It was in the nature of what was exchanged, however, that Burns’s model came into play. For Burns, transformational leaders offered a transcendent purpose as their missiona purpose that addressed the higher-order needs of their followers and themselves. In the process of achieving this mission, both the leaders and the led were literally transformed as individualshence the term transformational.

Burns explained: “The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents” (Burns 1978, 4). At the other end of the spectrum was the transactional leader. The more prevalent of the two types, transactional leaders established a relationship with followers that consisted of more mundane and instrumental exchanges: “The relations of most leaders and followers are transactionalleaders approach followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another: jobs for votes, or subsidies for campaign contributions. Such [instrumental] transactions comprise the bulk of the relationships.”

The underlying idea, that leadership is an exchange, has been around at least since the early 1970s. The thesis is that the relationship between a leader and followers depends upon a series of trades or bargains that are mutually beneficial and are maintained so long as the benefits to both parties exceed the costs. Burns would characterize these types of exchanges as transactional rather than transformational because they do not satisfy higher-order needs and they do not result in the elevation of both the leader and the led to a more evolved state of being. Burns’s delineation of a more transcendent type of leadership that would satisfy those higher-order needs was his critical contribution to leadership theory. What Burns added, then, is not so much the notion of leadership as an exchange but the idea that certain forms of leadership create a cycle of rising aspirations that ultimately transform both leaders and their followers.

Burns’s conceptualization of these two leadership forms has profoundly influenced the thinking of many scholars in the leadership field. For example, in the 1980sa period of great competitive unrest in the global business worldBurns’s ideas appealed to management theorists grappling with the twin issues of organizational change and empowerment. The transformational leader appeared to speak to both those issues, because transformational leaders were concerned both with transforming the existing order of things and with directly addressing followers’ needs for meaning and personal growth.

(c) Berkshire Publishing Group 2004

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