By Jacques du Plessis, Managing Director NeoSpine and Prime Surgical

In 2019, I conducted a research study on transformational leadership in the organization that I work for –  SA Biomedical – a South African medical device distributor. Evidence of transformational leadership in the South African medical device environment is limited, especially in distribution companies like SA Biomedical, and from my examination of the existing literature, it was clear that transformational leadership is positively associated with business performance.

At the time, it was just something that interested me, but I had no idea how relevant it would become in the months to follow. COVID-19 necessitated an elevated level of leadership, beyond the challenges that we were accustomed to. It’s one thing to lead people with whom you can interact within a normal, physical environment, but it’s something completely different when all those people are sitting behind computer screens, where body language is not fully perceivable, engagement is questionable, and internet bandwidth is unpredictable.

Although the business world is changing and we’ve already seen a plethora of content written on employee motivation and leadership in the era of online meeting platforms, it would be a good idea to remind ourselves of the principles that govern leadership (transformational leadership in particular). People follow leaders whom they trust, whom they believe in, and who are influential, regardless of the methods of communication. How do leaders motivate their followers if, due to a pandemic, for example, the usual transactional rewards no longer exist? This is the task of a transformational leader.

What is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership is the process by which a leader enables organizational performance beyond expectation “by virtue of his or her strong emotional attachment with his or her followers combined with a collective commitment for a higher moral cause” (Diaz-Saenz, 2011: 299).

Why Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership is currently one of the most popular leadership approaches and has been the focus of considerable research efforts since the 1980s (Northouse, 2018). According to Northouse, transformational leadership is a process that changes and transforms people, and Bass (1999) suggested that these types of leaders have the ability to move followers beyond their immediate self-interests. Bass noted that transformational leaders articulate a compelling vision of the future, stimulate their followers intellectually, recognizes individual differences, and help their followers develop their potential (Bass, 1985 in Wang & Howell, 2010).

From his adaptation of Bass and Avolio’s (1990) research on the implications of transactional and transformational leadership, Northouse (2018) derived that transformational leadership has an additive effect: it moves followers to perform beyond their usual expectations, beyond the achievement of the expected outcomes that transactional leaders usually facilitate through contingent reward or management by exception. In other words, although transactional leadership could facilitate expected accomplishments, transformational leadership could move followers beyond that, by motivating them to transcend their self-interests for the greater good of the organization (Bass & Avolio, 1990).

Characteristics of Transformational Leadership

Idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration, are generally accepted as the four characteristics, or the Four I’s (Avolio et al., 1991), that constitute transformational leadership (Bass, 1999; Hay, 2006; Northouse, 2018).

Idealized influence

Often substituted by the term “charisma” (Northouse, 2018) refers to transformational leaders as behaving in ways that result in them being role models for their followers (Bass & Avolio, 1994).  Followers identify with these leaders and aspire to emulate them (Bass & Avolio, 1994). Transformational leaders consider the needs of others over their own and share risks with followers (Bass & Avolio, 1994).  These leaders avoid using power for personal gain and only use it when required (Bass & Avolio, 1994); they can be counted on to do the right thing, demonstrating high levels of consistency (as opposed to arbitrary behavior), moral conduct, and ethics (Bass & Avolio, 1994); and, they provide followers with a vision and sense of mission (Northouse, 2018).

Inspirational motivation

This factor describes leaders who clearly communicate high expectations to followers, inspiring them through motivation to become committed to the organization’s vision (Northouse, 2018; Bass & Avolio, 1994). They provide meaning and challenge to their followers’ work and arouse team spirit, display enthusiasm, and optimism, and involve followers by envisioning attractive future conditions (Bass & Avolio, 1994).

Intellectual stimulation

This involves leadership that “stimulates followers to be creative and innovative and to challenge their own beliefs and values as well as those of the leader and the organization” (Northouse, 2018: 172). By questioning assumptions, reframing problems, and approaching old situations in new ways, transformational leaders encourage creativity (Bass & Avolio, 1994). Individual mistakes are not criticized in public, and solutions and new ideas are solicited from followers, who are encouraged to try new approaches (Bass & Avolio, 1994).

Individualized consideration

Describes leaders who provide a supportive climate to create learning opportunities, who listen effectively to the individual needs of followers, and act as coaches and mentors while trying to assist their followers in developing their potential (Northouse, 2018; Bass & Avolio, 1994). These leaders recognize and demonstrate acceptance for individual differences in terms of needs and desires, and they encourage a two-way exchange in communication while interactions will followers are personalized (Bass & Avolio, 1994).

How does the Transformational Leadership Approach Work?

Kouzes and Posner (2010) proposed five best practices for exemplary leadership – behaviors that leaders could put into action to catalyze the best in themselves, and those they lead. These include (1) modeling the way; (2) inspiring a shared vision; (3) challenging the process; (4) enabling others to act; and (5) being empathetic to the needs and personalities of individuals. These correspond closely with the transformational leadership method, which Northouse (2018) described in five distinct steps, explaining how transformational leaders can initiate, develop, and implement significant changes in an organization. Although the steps are difficult to define, Northouse (2018) proposed the following rationale:

Step 1: Transformational leaders empower their followers and nurture them in change. These leaders attempt to elevate the consciousness of their followers to enable them to transcend their self-interests for the sake of others.

Step 2: By being competent and confident, and their clear articulation of robust organizational objectives, transformational leaders become role models for their followers. Avolio and Gibbons (1998) suggested that these leaders have a self-determined sense of identity and a developed set of moral values. Interestingly, Mulla and Venkat (2011) found that the leader’s values related to transformational leadership and transformational leadership related to their follower’s values.

Step 3: Transformational leaders listen to followers and welcome different viewpoints. Followers often learn to trust these leaders and aspire to emulate them, while a spirit of cooperation develops between leader and follower.

Step 4: Transformational leaders create a vision, which often emerges from a collaborative interest from various units or individuals within the organization.

Step 5:  Transformational leaders become social architects. They articulate and define the values of the organization, and they emerge themselves in shaping the meaning of the organizational culture. These leaders outline their followers’ roles and ensure that people understand how they contribute to the higher purpose of the organization.

Northouse (2018: 178) suggested that throughout the process – transformational leaders are effective at working with people. They build trust and foster collaboration with others. Transformational leaders encourage others and celebrate their accomplishments. In the end, transformational leadership results in people feeling better about themselves and their contributions to the greater common good.

In addition to the steps described by Northouse, Bennis, and Nanus (1985 in Strukan et al., 2017) added the importance of the leader’s own evolution through positive self-respect, based on the development of his/her knowledge of self-competencies and the organizational strategy.


Following a tumultuous 2020 in which the vulnerability of the South African healthcare environment became even more evident, business leaders were challenged to foster new ways of communication, motivation, and employee engagement. These challenges undoubtedly tested leaders’ limits and necessitated innovative management styles, a process which improved productivity and efficiency in many ways, but we need to constantly remind ourselves that it’s one thing to manage systems and processes, but something completely different to lead people. People are the greatest asset in any organization, and motivating them in a year that may have required transcendence of self-interest, has certainly been unprecedented.

The role of an effective leader is to enhance organizational sustainability and business performance, a result that transformational leadership has proven to facilitate, and improving one’s ability to articulate desired leadership behavior could raise leadership sophistication and efficacy.


Avolio, B. J. & Gibbons, T. C., 1998. Developing Transformational Leaders: A Life Span Approach. In: A. Conger, R. N. Kanungu & & Associates, eds. Charismatic Leadership: The Elusive Factor in Organizational Effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 276 – 308.

Avolio, B. J., Waldman, D. A. & Yammarino, F. J., 1991. The Four I’s of Transformational Leadership. Journal of European Industrial Training, 15(4), pp. 9 – 16.

Bass, B. M., 1999. Two Decades of Research and Development in Transformational Leadership. European Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology, 8(1), pp. 9 – 32.

Bass, B. M. & Avolio, B. J., 1990. The Implications of Transactional and Transformational Leadership for Individual, Team, and Organizational Development. Research in Organizational Change and Development, Volume 4, pp. 231 – 272.

Bass, B. M. & Avolio, B. J., 1994. Introduction. In: B. M. Bass & B. J. Avolio, eds. Improving Organizational Effectiveness Through Transformational Leadership. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, pp. 1 – 9.

Diaz-Saenz, H. R., 2011. Transformational Leadership. In: A. Bryman, et al. eds. The SAGE Handbook of Leadership. London: SAGE, p. 299.

Hay, I., 2006. Transformational Leadership: Characteristics and Criticisms. E-Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership, 5(2).

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z., 2010. The Leadership Challenge: Activities Book. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Mulla, Z. R. & Venkat, R. K., 2011. Transformational Leadership: Do the Leader’s Morals Matter and do the Follower’s Morals Change?. Journal of Human Values, 17(2), pp. 129 – 143.

Northouse, P. G., 2018. Leadership: Theory & Practice. 8th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Strukan, E., Nikolić, M. & Sefić, S., 2017. The Impact of Transformational Leadership on Business Performance. Technical Gazette, 24(2), pp. 435 – 444.

Wang, X. & Howell, J. M., 2010. Exploring the Dual-Level Effects of Transformational Leadership on Followers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), pp. 1134 – 1144.