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Why transformational leadership does not always work...

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Companies invest a lot of time and money in recruiting and developing their leaders.

You only have to look on LinkedIn to see how many companies/coaches/trainers are focused on training people to become better leaders.

The emphasis is often on developing transformational leaders.  Leaders who are able to inspire their team members to go beyond what’s required of their jobs, prioritise the group rather than the individual needs, show more motivation at work and maintain an intellectually stimulating work environment.

A recent study, however, has shown that transformational leaders are not effective all the time.  In some cases, transformational leadership simply does not have the impact that is expected. 

Recent research by Phillip Gilmore and his colleagues from George Mason University (Virginia), argues that transformational leaders are effective because they know what their team members feel and are able to influence those feelings.  

They suggest that transformational leadership has an “intense emotional component” and those who have it generally exhibit helping behaviours, are authentic and show a personalised concern towards others, have a genuine selflessness, encouraging others to think positively and give an assurance of safety to people who think outside the box. 

Transformational leaders motivate employees into a positive state which enable them to go beyond what they usually accomplish. 

Gilmore’s research examined the impact of transformational leadership on employees who are already motivated and positive. Specifically, would their performance still be improved by the transformational leadership style of their leaders? 

Gilmore's researchers surveyed over 200 pairs of employees and leaders in a pharmaceutical company in China. The leaders were asked to rate their employees' creativity and helping behaviours, while the employees were asked to rate their own positive affect (tendency to see the world positively) and their leader’s leadership style.

Results showed that transformational leadership did not significantly predict creativity or helping behaviours in employees who already were motivated and positive. Gilmore concluded that employees who are already motivated and positive do not appear to need what the transformational leaders offer. 

As a consequence, he suggests that transformational leaders turn to those employees who are low on energy, sluggish and melancholic, because for them, the leadership style really makes a difference.

However, this may not always be easy because research also found transformational leaders to tend to be extroverted and thus, higher on positive affect by nature.

Therefore, they may prefer to turn their attention to those who they are similar to (those who are already high on positive affect and energy), instead of those who need their attention. 

The EBW View

Historically, leadership experts have pushed the benefits of transformational leaders and for good reason. Transformational leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., played crucial roles in transforming peoples' identity and aspirations. 

However, what this research suggests is that leaders need to tailor their transformational actions accordingly, rather than use a one-size-fits-all, group-directed, transformational style.

Leaders need to understand and assess their followers and the situational context in which they work.

To do this leaders and managers need to understand their most authentic leadership style and how to change their leadership style to suit the nature of the workgroup/team they are working with to ensure they get the best out of them.

Discover how EBW provides leaders and managers with the skills and tools to inspire and change how people work together. PowerfulLeadership.

Gilmore, P., Hui, X., Wei, F., Tetrick, L., & Zaccaro, S. (2013). Positive affectivity neutralizes transformational leadership’s influence on creative performance and organisational citizenship behaviors. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34, 1061-1075.


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