Transformational or Servant Leadership?


Leadership is a massive subject. You will find many effective leadership types, studies, and competencies. Transformational and Servant leadership efficacy are well documented. Let’s dig deeper to see which one is most useful for which case scenario to add into your leadership tool kit.


What is Transformational leadership? James MacGregor Burns who introduced this leadership theory in the 70’s is defined as when leaders lead by influencing employees by inspiring them to perform beyond perceived capabilities and achieving unexpected results. Transformational leadership style allows autonomy and authority to make decisions within their scope of training. This approach results in a general positive change in individual attitudes and the organization as a whole. There are four distinct behaviors with transformational leadership: inspirational motivation, idealized influence, intellectual stimulation, individualized consideration. Martin Luther King, Jr. was known for his transformational leadership.


There are common weaknesses with transformational leadership.

  1. Lacks focus: Because this leadership style relies on motivation which can be abstract, this style tends to have no clear structure or guidance. Be sure to have clear expectations and outcomes.

  2. Potential burnout for employees: Relying too much on internal motivation without the external validation and recognition can feel as if we are working too much. External recognition is needed to offset the potential burnout.

  3. Misuse of Power: Charismatic transformational leaders have great influence which, if not well vetted, will drive outcomes that only benefit the leader at the great expense of the employees. Leaders with integrity, honesty, and inclusivity can mitigate the potential risks.


What is Servant leadership? Robert K Greenleaf coined this leadership style and defined it as “a leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader's main focus is the thriving of their company or organization.” This leadership style focuses on the growth of people and the community it serves.


Because Servant leadership’s focuses on upskilling their employees, this style has shown to assist in employees' goal achievement and success. This approach garners many positive effects on well-being, job satisfaction and psychological health. Studies have also shown that Servant leadership's "bottom-up" style, which prioritizes the needs of the employees, has resulted in employees becoming more engaged at work. Generally, employees who feel a sense of support from their leaders, who are prioritizing their needs, develop a heightened job performance.


The common weaknesses with Servant leadership:

  1. It is not a common practice in organizations who want to first drive the success of the organizations.

  2. Leaning on the employees to drive business decisions may prevent taking actions quickly in crisis situations.

  3. Can lead to confusion of who is leading and who is responsible for organizational success or failure.

In summary, as I mentioned earlier leadership is generally a very large topic, especially effective leadership. As you increase your own competencies in leadership effectiveness, clarify and practice implementing your own leadership vision and identity. It takes time to build your leadership style; there’s not a one-way approach and will require experimenting, analyzing, and practicing.

If you need help building your leadership competencies, connect with one of our ICF Certified Leadership Coaches!


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