Transformative and Transactional Leadership

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Today’s Los Angeles Times had an op-ed piece entitled “How Obama Lost His Voice and How Can He Get It Back?” I don’t usually read this section of the paper, but a sentence caught my attention. “Abandoning the "transformational" model of his presidential campaign, Obama has tried to govern as a "transactional" leader.”
This blog is not about Obama, but about some thoughts on Leadership. I hadn’t thought about James MacGregor Burns’ concepts since my doctoral program. After all, Burns coined these terms over 30 years ago. They could be briefly summarized as transformational leadership is about changing the ‘world’ and transactional leadership is about maintaining what is. It occurred to me that there might be some relationship to type or to temperament in these terms.
Burns’ wrote his 1978 book, Leadership, as a political scientist and a historian. This book sits on my bookshelf so I opened it up. I don’t think the simple definition above does justice to his concepts so I won’t really comment on those until I reread the book.
On the surface, one might say that transactional leadership would go with the Stabilizer temperament with logistical intelligence or the Improviser temperament with tactical intelligence and that transformational would go with the Theorist temperament with strategic intelligence and the Catalyst temperament with diplomatic intelligence. Or in psychological type terms—a preference for Sensing or for iNtuiting respectively.
Either way is a risky conclusion because it ignores that we are more than a type or a temperament. These models will predict what comes naturally and what we might be inclined to do by nature. They do not limit our behavior. We can and many do develop interpersonal agility. We can gain skill in strategy, tactics, logistics, and diplomacy. We can learn to value and therefore embrace the voices of each temperament.
In addition type dynamics and type development theory tell us that even when we have a preference for Sensing (aka tangible) information, we have the capacity to access and use iNtuiting (aka conceptual) information. In my experience we do both in tandem, but one will be in the foreground and the other in the background so we may not notice what we are doing and we would still privilege our preference. As we mature, we can come to value the less preferred process more and thus make space for it. Hence, type development.
In my view, good leadership will involve being transformative when needed and transactional when needed. A leader needs to engage or at least make space for strategy, tactics, logistics, and diplomacy. If he/she does not, nothing will get done. A wise leader will recognize when an certain approach is more relevant to the situation or context. Perhaps that is the message in the article. Obama had a transformative message. Then he hit the reality of making things happen, which is incredibly challenging in a democratic, highly political system like our government. He may need to find his voice again and yet, the other perspectives have to be met.
What do you think?


  1. Mark Grandstaff


    I agree…  and I think the notion of "cognitive flex" for lack of a better word deserves more study.  Most of what is taught in leadership courses is common MBTI material…with some communication ideas and temperament thrown in (excluding Interstrength, of course).  Teaching a "flex" approach would be cutting edge stuff….  Currently writing an article for the Public Manager on the topic of cognitive thinking for strategic leaders and I have thinking much about function development and why in succession planning all knowledge cannot be handed down.  It takes years to develop the type of functional flexibility that I think you are advocating.  It is somewhat a product of maturity and individuation.  My point is…companies should not be so quick to retire their most senior people as these seniors are the best adapted to use various functions given the right situation.  Well…  I have much more to think about here…but am glad that minds like yours are asking similar questions in terms of the flexibility of functions.

    • Linda


      Thanks Mark. Good luck with your mission. I think ego development plays a part as well as type development, so that’s one of my next areas of study. My guess is that there are other challenges as well with some of the generational issues where those in early stage development have trouble making space for those in later stage development and vice versa. I agree with you that we can help with that through the methods we use for working with type.

  2. Linda


    Jack and Mark, thanks for commenting. I really hesitated to comment on Burns' ideas without being an expert in them. However, I thought we could start a good dialog and am glad you've added in your expertise Mark.

    I think that type development is crucial for good leadership. I think you can get to type development in many ways and temperament and interaction Styles information can help. These two models are not just about identifying which temperament or which Interaction Style is operating, but also about developing the skills to flex and shift perspectives. They can also help to see where the leader is stressed and therefore blocked.

  3. Mark Grandstaff


    Having studied Burns in great detail, I wish the argument for transformational vs transactional leadership could be boiled down into neat categories.  But alas they cannot.  Having conversed with Burns for some time on the topic, he explained how it was FDR who modeled the transformational concept the best…visionary, political savvy (read pragmatist), charismatic and street smart who could "sense" the pulse of the American (or client) people.  Burns should know…he received the Pulitzer for his bio of FDR.  My point is that it may be less about transformational and transactional style than type development i.e. access to a particular function (or combination of functions) that has developed maturely for the current situation.  Temperament and Interaction Styles may help …  but type and cognitive development are areas that absolutely need to be explored in leadership theory.
    Mark Grandstaff
    Former Senior Fellow, James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, College Park and Board Member, Journal of Leadership Education

  4. Jack Speer


    This is a very insightful article on leadership–its transactional and transformational aspects.  I believe that these two are dynamics of a single leadership and are on a sliding scale and we vary between the two poles.  Being iNtuitive I enjoy thinking about the transformational nature of leadership, but I bump up against the Sensor realities and building the infrastructure so that transformation is supported by my everyday transactional actions.  I have to move to the other side of the scale.  That's for a great read, Linda!!

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