Home > How Can a Transformational Leadership Style Benefit IT?

How Can a Transformational Leadership Style Benefit IT?

What is Transformational Leadership for IT blog post
It’s been twenty years since the corporate scandals of Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco. The collapse of these giant corporations ruined the lives of the employees who tirelessly worked for leaders who let greed dictate their decision-making. Laws have been implemented since then to help reduce the risk of another Enron, but laws won’t stop all instances of poor leadership. Poor tone at the top increases vulnerabilities, employee non-compliance, and job dissatisfaction. Corporate leaders at Enron or WorldCom likely used a transactional leadership style to achieve their goals. At Enron, employees were promised large returns if they put their savings back into Enron shares—those employees ended up losing their life savings. Transformational leaders, on the other hand, use non-transactional motivation to help their teams reach collective goals. A transformational leadership style motivates and inspires staff members, resulting in greater innovation. Transformational leaders focus less on making decisions or establishing strategic plans, and more on facilitating organizational collaboration designed to help drive a vision forward. How can you apply this methodology to the IT world? What does it mean to be a transformational leader in IT? What are the benefits? And maybe most importantly: how do you get there?

Defining Transformational Leadership Theory

Transformational leadership is a way of leading by example to inspire employees. Transformational leaders use inspirational motivation techniques, like finding creative methods for solving complex problems. They have strong communication skills and an openness to new thinking. Transformational leadership contrasts with the transactional leadership found in more traditional industrial workplaces—as transactional leadership defines clear leaders with rigid rules and reporting structures. However, some organizations unsuccessfully mix the two concepts. As a manager of network operations for a large managed service provider, I was asked to use a model which, on the surface, resembled transformational leadership. I was told to ensure no outsider could distinguish the manager in my group; however, I was dinged for not being the identifiable leader in my review. The organization rewarded transactional leadership while claiming to want transformational leadership. The company had the trappings of an internet startup. Employees were allowed to play with Nerf guns and wear t-shirts and shorts to work. While the culture was similar to attributes associated with innovative cultures, we were expected to micromanage employees. Rather than directing network engineers in their duties and verifying the results to meet common goals, I was expected to establish rigid guidelines to ensure high standards were followed. Transformational leadership

Transformational Leadership Characteristics

Most attribute the invention of transformational leadership to sociologist James V. Downton in 1973. In 1978, historian and presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns introduced the concept of transformational leadership theory in his book “Leadership.” In 1985, scholar Bernard M. Bass helped build the theory out further by introducing the psychological aspects involved in both transformational and transactional leadership. Though the concept of transformational leadership has been around since the 1970s, we can look at history and see many examples of the components of transformational leadership. These components include:
  • Leadership by example
  • Ethical-based leadership
  • Purpose-driven principles
  • A focus on community vs. self
When defining a transformational leadership model, you’ll often see the term “four I’s.” However, with my IT experience, I prefer the expanded transformational leadership model from Professor Bruce Avolio, who adds a key additional component to create five components (known as “the five I’s”):
  1. Idealized attributes: The character of the leader who leads by example and who goes beyond self-interest for the good of the group
  2. Idealized behaviors: The behaviors of the leader, where the leader acts with integrity and talks about their most important values and beliefs to form close emotional ties with other team members and positively influence them
  3. Intellectual stimulation: The promotion of creativity and innovation and the generation of new ideas
  4. Inspirational motivation: Optimistically talking about the future, articulating a clear vision to staff to raise their expectations and beliefs regarding the goal of the organization, as well as being enthusiastic about what needs to be accomplished
  5. Individualized consideration: How the leader may provide tailored support and assistance to the individual to meet the staff’s needs, especially in relation to personalized training and instruction coupled with coaching
With the addition of idealized attributes, I believe the character of the leader plays a crucial role. In the sometimes dog-eat-dog world of IT, it can be challenging to place egos aside for the betterment of team members. It’s not impossible, though, and those types of leaders stand out, serving as role models of transformational leadership by using idealized influence to instill pride in their teams.

Benefits of a Transformational Leadership Style in IT

So, how does a transformational style of leadership serve a business, and more specifically, what is the effect of transformational leadership on an IT organization? Since the start of the pandemic, workers have exercised their power. As of July 2021, Harvard Business Review reported four million Americans quit their jobs during the “Great Resignation.” As of this publication, more than 10 million jobs remain open. For example, looking at the career page for Amazon Web Services (AWS), you can see tens of thousands of positions are available worldwide. However, AWS competes with other hyper-scale cloud providers for talent. Like many organizations looking to digitally transform via technology, they’re wanting to hire the same talent, which leads to serious competition for the best and brightest. But how does your organization stand out to those candidates? What creates strong job satisfaction? Employees want to work for effective leaders who inspire, empower, motivate, and encourage them in a shared vision of new possibilities. Imagine choosing between having creative autonomy or punching a clock for a transactional leader whose goal is to maintain the status quo and who makes you feel like a cog in the system. It also means encouraging and motivating your staff, which leads to greater employee retention. For a brief time, I worked as a solutions architect, which functions as a field-based CTO. The position’s concept was to interface with CIO-level customer contacts. My conversations ranged from supporting cloud-native transformations to meeting staffing needs for those transformations. These conversations taught me how challenging workers to expand their horizons is a strong motivator. How do you convince the storage architect to transform into a cloud architect? It goes far beyond new training and taking online courses—and offering more money won’t do it, either. You’ll better influence the storage architect using less tangible yet powerful rewards like greater empowerment by fostering intrinsic motivation and a collaborative workspace. Transformational leadership comes from leading by example and inspiring others using means other than transactional benefits. And the benefits will extend seamlessly throughout the organization as more employees feel the effects of a positive and strong leadership style. They include:
  • Greater employee retention, which also means less time and resources spent finding and training new employees
  • Happier, more satisfied employees who will do better work
  • More collegial, collaborative, and productive work environments

How to Become a Transformational Leader

Becoming a transformational leader often starts with education—reading the right books, articles like this, and taking relevant classes. However, I find the most practical path to improving transformational leadership skills is through mentorship. The process of simply searching out and virtually sitting at the feet of a leadership expert is a start. Where do you find these mentors? Your network might be a great place to start. Transformational leadership traits are evident when observing another group. Some leaders may have found this style naturally, while others may have had to work at it. However obtained, it’s essential to learn from these effective leadership skills. Going back to Bernard Bass’ ideas of transformational leadership, this process of becoming a transformational leader can be broken down into four steps:
  1. Create an inspiring vision of the future
  2. Motivate people to buy into and deliver the vision
  3. Manage the delivery of the vision
  4. Build stronger, trust-based relationships with your people
Remember clear communication is essential when trying to build a positive culture and transformational leadership style. Clearly communicate your vision and expectations every step of the way—from fostering the ideas of the future to building a unified team structure needed to manage the delivery. And the best news? You can benefit from learning what it takes to be a transformational leader even if you don’t have a management title. Transformational leadership is more than a buzzword. This way of doing business gives employees a sense of purpose, fostering a work environment valuing creativity and input from all sources. Transformational leaders will create positive change and develop happier and more productive employees. Everyone wins with a transformational leadership approach to IT management. Is your organization spending more time reacting to issues than focusing on impactful activities to drive business? Learn how SolarWinds® Hybrid Cloud Observability can help make your teams more collaborative and efficient through cross-domain visualizations and automation.
Keith Townsend
Keith Townsend is a technology management consultant with more than 20 years of related experience designing, implementing, and managing data center technologies. He holds a…
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