Burns Transformational Leadership Theory

1. Introduction

A famous political historian, James MacGregor Burns, is the first person to introduce the concept of Transformational Leadership theory. (Burns, 1978) has defined the mutual help concept between leaders and subordinates to boost and advance motivation level and enthusiasm.

Transformational leaders inspire subordinates to work together on common objectives by changing their beliefs, expectations, etc. Burns also quoted impressive results through his research on Transformational leadership i.e. both leaders and subordinates get positively affected by transformation strategy. In the case of the right direction of the Transformational leadership of leaders, both leaders and subordinates will contribute to the development of each other by increasing morale and motivation level to achieve a common vision.

Under his theory, Burns observed that leaders utilize the transformational leadership style to not only design a long vision but also for the empowerment of their subordinates, training, and development of subordinates to enhance and transform their abilities to the maximum extent, and for cultural change. Bass took research of Burns further and did additions to his concept by adding the psychological aspect of leadership.

2. History

Bass Transformational leadership theory is one of the most important theories of the Transformational leadership approach. He is also known as the father of the Transformational Leadership theory.

A glimpse of Transformational Leadership:

The transformational leadership approach was introduced by James V. Downton in 1973 first, then expended by Macgregor Burns in 1978 and further Bernard M. Bass did additions to this in 1985. James Macgregor Burns had given the concept of Burns’s transformational leadership theory. He is also known as the father of Transformational theories.

This theory works on change factor both in people and social systems. It aimed at developing positive change in subordinates and their development as future leaders. This theory increases the motivation level, performance, and morale of subordinates. A leader can achieve above by doing strength, weakness analysis of subordinates, encouraging them to have a great sense of responsibility and accountability of their work by setting an example of self, etc.

Burns, who witnessed World War II as a warrior, observed that according to people, leadership concept is limited to the qualities of seniors or officers and there was the negligence of the capabilities of soldiers. As per his experience as a warrior, he also noticed that fighting battalions without any officer are most result-oriented and different ranks held the leadership abilities. Burns also stated that both leadership and followership depend on each other for effectiveness. Moreover, leaders are developed from followers only, based on their leadership development capabilities.

Burns defined two concepts i.e. Transactional and Transformational leadership. He named Transformational leadership as ‘Transforming leadership’ which later on changed to Transformational leadership by further researchers though the basic concept was the same as Burns suggested. Burns mainly focused on identifying the differences that separate Transactional leadership and Transformational leadership concept. Burns Transactional leaders are givers and takers like if we buy some product then we give money for that. So, Transactional leadership is a give and take approach. But Burns Transformational leadership is more of value creation and value-added approach to subordinates in a positive way.

3. Assumptions

Burns Transformational leadership theory is based on the following assumptions:

  • A leader with a position of high morals motivates people to a great extent and this makes people follow him/her in full zeal.
  • It is always better to work as a team for a shared or common vision for better results and performance as compared to work as individuals.

4. Broader perspective of the theory

Burn’s Transformational leadership theory states that the leadership process is based on the mutual help of the leader and subordinates to each other for motivation and to increase their morale. This theory is based on an ethical and moral value system that defines leadership in the form of empowering subordinates and change-management in an organization through transforming attributes of a leader i.e. his/her traits, behavior, and being a role model. So Burns took Transformational leadership as a use of power for the betterment and emphasized on ethical values of leadership in the theory.

It is based on the personality of a leader, characteristics, and abilities to set an example by creating a great impact on subordinates. Leaders under this approach don’t believe in micro-management and develop a trustful environment for the staff so that they can take accountability for their decisions in jobs assigned to them. This style of management allows staff to be creative and produce innovative ideas to sort out issues or problems. Training is also provided to potential leaders.

Organizations seeking to introduce new and advance technology in an organization to increase the efficiency of staff and process, minimize cost and time, increase productivity and profit should look for a transformational leadership approach. New technology transformation demands leaders to be employee-oriented in terms of providing motivation, training and boosting their morale to adopt new technology.

According to Burns, a transforming leader is the one who:

  • Increases the awareness of followers for desired outcomes and the process to reach them.
  • Motivates followers to look beyond their interests by keeping the interest of the team, organization, and society on priority.
  • Changes the level of need of followers from lower-level i.e. from safety and security to higher-level i.e. achievement needs and self-actualization on Maslow’s need hierarchy levels.

Burns took the base of Transformational leadership theory from the theory of Abraham Maslow which was based on human needs. As per Maslow, human behavior can be predicted by needs and searching for means to achieve them. Burns did a study on the high-order needs of a Transformational leader and concluded self-esteem and self-realization are the main factors or needs of these leaders to obtain success.

Burns Transformational leadership theory is based on different themes that are as follow:

  • Power and motive: As per the theory, power and purpose are essential elements of Transformational leadership. Power needs to be controlled or restricted because of human purpose.
  • Leadership as a mutual purpose leadership: It is the use of power for a specific purpose and consists of needs, values, and motives of both leader and subordinates. Burns also differentiated Transformational leaders and just Power-rulers. As per him, Transformational leaders take priority to satisfy the motives of subordinates whereas power-rulers look for satisfying their motives and pay very little attention to impart shared vision, values to subordinates.
  • Leadership as a moral attempt: Leadership is not misusing and overuse of power but to support and develop subordinates as a moral attempt. Burns was the first person to introduce ‘Moral purpose’ in leadership style and studies that were not taken into consideration in previous leadership researches.

According to Burns, leaders are also of different types i.e.

  • Reformist: Are the Transformational leaders who transform a big part of society or huge numbers of subordinates for high moral values.
  • Intellectualists: These leaders use their intellect capabilities to transform people i.e. with their intellectual thoughts, values, and vision; they can fulfill the society’s needs.
  • Revolutionist: These transformational leaders transform the whole aspects of society rather than just a single aspect which includes inspiring subordinates for sacrifice for the betterment of everyone.
  • Charismatic or charming: These transformational leaders are considered as role-model or superheroes by their subordinates.

5. Practical implications of the theory with the example

There are lots of examples of Transformational leaders in history who showed exceptional leadership skills to transform a large part of society. One great example of this is Nelson Mandela as he was a great transformational leader who fulfilled the needs of his followers and society. He never over-ruled his leadership power for selfish or own vision. He took care of the needs of all his followers. Nelson Mandela is well known as the first black President of South Africa.


He could satisfy all following themes of Burns Transformational leadership concept, i.e.

1. Power and motive

Nelson Mandela used his power for mankind.  He was a non-violent leader who stood against the racial system of the white minority government of South Africa.  This was the betterment and for freedom from racism for the people of his country. He shared a similar purpose to his followers as well and had set an example of a Transformational leader by transforming the lives of people by succeeding in freedom from racism. He never misused his power for destructive purposes or to overrule his followers. Mandela always had a clear vision and he made others understand the same vision as well.

2. Leadership as a mutual purpose

Nelson Mandela never misused his leadership authority or power as President of South Africa to satisfy his purpose or needs. He had a clear vision to have a racism-free society which was a mutual purpose and need of him and the whole society.

3. Leadership as a moral attempt

Nelson Mandela was a man of moral values and ethics. Despite spending 27 years in prison, he was urged to end the racism in South Africa and was able to pursue his followers and the whole society to fight against racial discrimination. He was a global inspiration. He had all moral values like caring and sharing, humbleness, etc.

As a Transformational leader, he has several qualities like humbleness, morality, excellent communication skills, positive attitude, forgiveness, peace-oriented, powerful presence, clear vision, focus, determination, patience, hopeful, inspirational, etc.

6. Criticism

There are different points on which Burns Transformational leadership theory can be criticized like:

  • Burns Transformational leadership is based on moral values and ideas. It was criticized for its authenticity and lack of supportive evidence.
  • It describes the ideal leaders but failed to describe that power and idealistic approach can be misused by these leaders in the later stage, which is harmful to society.

7. Significance

Following advantages are there of Burns Transformational leadership theory:

  • Burns Transformational leadership theory provides a big map for the development of moral values.
  • Unlike other leadership theories, this theory explains the purpose of leadership and the reason for becoming a leader.

8. Limitations or Disadvantages

Limitations of Burns Transformational leadership theory are:

  • The transformational leadership of Burns is more of an ideal type of leadership approach as it may not be useful where people or followers are not willing or not in a position to go beyond their comfort zone for a change.
  • This theory has a limitation in complex situations and emergencies. It also has constraints if the skills of most of the people are limited than required.
  • Another shortcoming of this theory is the way a transformational leader should deal with a leader not much positive or enthusiastic towards bringing change.

9. Conclusion

To conclude, the main focus of Burns in defining Transformational leadership theory was to explain a leader’s power approach in relation to values and motivations. By adding moral values and ethics in leadership, Burns transform the concept of a general leader of power to a Transformational leader of power and purpose. It was a people-centric approach that was different from the egoistic approach of leadership. Burns defined leadership as a separate identity and aspect of the management concept. He took the concept of a leader ahead to leadership and changed the perception of viewing leadership in philosophical terms rather than only as a mechanism. It helps in understanding the major difference between a leader and a manager.

This leadership theory empowers people to utilize their maximum inputs to gain maximum outputs. In this, the center point is the Transformational leaders and their ability to create a vision and to inspire team members to follow the same by explaining the vision clearly. Further researchers like Bass, redefined and modified this theory by adding the psychological concept of leadership on different key characteristics of leaders. Still, the credit of introducing the Transformational theory approach and Transactional theory approach goes to Burns.

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