Transformational vs Charismatic Leadership

I want to discuss transformational leaders and charismatic leaders. I’m talking about them together as there are similarities between the two, but in my mind one is favored over the other. Hence why it makes sense to discuss them together.

Transformational leadership can be considered one of the best leadership styles that you want to use when you are higher up in a business. This is because as a senior leader, you need to be inspiring your people with whom you want to perform their best for the company as well as themselves. The main downsides to this style of leadership is that while the leader is inspiring other people in your organization, there will very often need support from more detail oriented leaders below them. It’s for this reason that you could well have a transformational leader who’s supported by a group of more transactional and down in the details managers. This certainly isn’t a bad thing. It’s rare that you’ll have a leader who’s considered transformational without the support of other leaders. The more transactional leaders who line into this leader will be there to ensure the other teams in the organization get the work done reliably. The transformational leader is there to spearhead initiatives and ensure the company follows on its missions statement and values.

An excellent example of a transformational leader was Steve Jobs. When he returned to Apple, he needed to change the fortunes of the organization who had been struggling. He first canceled a lot of poorly performing and unreleased products. And then set about designing new products. He didn’t do this in isolation. He had great people behind him to help. What followed was the introduction of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, and other innovative products. Steve didn’t design these products himself. He didn’t write any code, and he didn’t engineer any of the hardware. He had other leaders behind him who ran the departments responsible for those areas. Steve Jobs didn’t need to take on any of those roles. He was the figurehead of the company which promoted the company’s values and the rest of the company lined in behind him to fulfill the vision. It worked as Apple is now one of the most valuable companies on Earth. He transformed the company but he had great, more detail-oriented leaders behind him to help fulfill the vision.

On the flip side to a transformational leader, we have a charismatic leader. The charismatic leader style can very much resemble that of the transformational leader, because they can inspire teams to act and are generally energetic about motivating others. The main difference between a charismatic leader and a transformational leader lies very much in their overall intention. A transformational leader wants to transform an organization and the people within it for the better.

A charismatic leader whilst appearing like a transformational leader, will often be focused on themselves in order to ensure they progress and succeed more than the company or the teams they are trying to transform. This can create a severe risk in that an organization or project could collapse if the leader is focusing on their own short term goals and then leaves. I worked for one organization many years ago that was struggling overall. And there are many changes in the upper leadership of the organization. But a new leader across the whole variety of the organization who tries to turn around the department and its systems to help make them fit for a change in the parent company and market demands. For about 9 months, things were going great. It certainly looked like we had a transformational leader who wanted to help change the fortunes of the company, but suddenly our leader resigned to take on a higher a position elsewhere at a different company in a different industry.

The decision caused a lot of chaos in the department as we were partway through a significant transformation project. But the intentions were clear in that this position was used as a stop gap to go on to a better position. Of course you could say that most people might jump at a new opportunity that arises. But if you are a leader with lots of power taking on a transformational position, then ideally you should think about the situation you are leaving. As in this case, there are many people who looked up to this leader for direction and stability. In this case, the team was suddenly put into turmoil. Which caused unease in the department which result in significant staff turnaround. Which was very difficult to recover from for the organization. To close out transformational leadership, let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages.

The most significant advantage is that transformational leadership aligns a team to a shared vision that is set up by the leader. This should inspire and create a high level of enthusiasm within an organization which is a great motivational tool, if everyone buys into that vision. The level of inspiration and motivation that this causes should mean that team members are engaged in the business and therefore want to stay working there longer. This decreases a high staff turnover rate. A disadvantage could potentially be that a transformational leader might not be very detail oriented as they are more about the grand vision. This is what we discussed with the example of Steve Jobs previously. In this situation, transformational leaders surround themselves with other leaders who look after the finer details such as software engineering, hardware engineering, and design for example. If you are in this position, you need to make sure that your passion and energy for the vision doesn’t get in the way of the finer details that need to be worked through.

As a leader here you need to make sure you are listening to your people and feeding their opinions back into your vision. The other disadvantage that we discussed was more around charismatic leaders, that is very similar to transformational leadership. But they can be more self serving in their goals which could put a team at risk if they decided to jump ship if another offer becomes available.