International Journal of
Sociology and Anthropology

  • Abbreviation: Int. J. Sociol. Anthropol.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN: 2006-988X
  • DOI: 10.5897/IJSA
  • Start Year: 2009
  • Published Articles: 311

Full Length Research Paper

What Transformative Leaders do: Emerging Perspectives in the 21st Century

Allan D. M. Bukusi
  • Allan D. M. Bukusi
  • Africa Leadership and Social Development Center, Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Google Scholar

  •  Received: 19 August 2020
  •  Accepted: 23 September 2020
  •  Published: 31 October 2020


This paper examines the call for transformative leadership in the 21st century. It explores recent published articles on the subject matter in order to establish the expectations of a transformative leader. The turn of the century heralded a call for the adoption of a transformative agenda on the African continent. Nonetheless, the turbulent political, dynamic economic shifts and disruptive global events, such as posed by COVID-19, call for a new form of leadership to tackle these unconventional challenges. As an emerging area of study, transformative leadership is described and interpreted differently by leaders all over the world. This author reviews articles published in 2010 and later, to collate current perspectives and theory to equip leaders with a one stop reference document on the subject matter. The author answers the all-important question of, what do transformative leaders do? According to this study, transformative leaders are expected to do four important things namely; renew institutional vision and performance, advocate for ethical social advancement, empower individuals to make meaningful contribution to corporate goals, and sacrificially commit to realize the interests of those they serve. The paper equips policy makers, institutional leaders and business managers with insights on transformative leadership ethos and its potency to secure the benefits of ethical transformation for the well-being of wider society.


Key words: Transformative leadership, 21st Century leadership, transformative leaders, leadership styles, leadership ethos.


In May 2013, African states launched Agenda 2063, a 50-year transformative vision labelled, “The Africa we want” (African Union Commission, 2015). The vision commits countries to work towards “an integrated prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena”. Before the launch,  no   less    than    seven    African     states    had independently committed to pursue national transformation by the year 2030. These were: Kenya (Government of Kenya, 2007), Egypt (The Arab Republic of Egypt, 2005), Liberia (Government of Liberia, 2012), South Africa (Republic of South Africa, 2012), Mauritius (Republic of Mauritius, 2015), Zambia (Republic of Zambia, 2006) and Namibia (Republic of Namibia, 2004).
Thus, both transformation and transformative leadership encapsulate of a long-term continental agenda well into the 21st century.
On the global front, the turn of the century was marked by calls for a new form of leadership to help the world navigate the turbulent times. Caldwell et al. (2012) citing the disillusionment and the widespread distrust towards leaders and organizations around the world, called for a new standard of ethical leadership labelled “transformative leadership” (Caldwell et al., 2012). In an overview of the global socio-economic environment at the turn of the century, Montuori and Fahim challenge the wisdom of conventional leadership theory to turn crisis into opportunity. They emphasise that, “transformative leadership begins with a drastic rethinking of the who, what, where, when and how of leadership” (Montuori and Fahim, 2010). Though these authors appreciate that transformative leadership is a work in progress and an emerging field of study, they still urge leaders to aspire to realize its ideals that are congruent with the challenges of the 21st Century.
Being an emerging area of study, leaders unfamiliar with its principles, are prone to using conventional (normative) methods to pursue transformative initiatives. Though it may be assumed that transformative leadership is another term for transformational leadership (Burns, 1978), Shields (2011) describes the difference between transactional, transformational and transformative leadership emphasising that it has its own independent philosophy and conceptual framework. Despite the wide-ranging calls for transformative leadership, its principles and practice remain subject to individual perspectives. The absence of cogent theory on the subject leaves a gap that may cause well-intentioned leaders to reject its potency. While the outcome of transformative leadership is institutional transformation or the resolution of complex environmental issues, a common understanding of the subject would give traction to efforts to have its benefits realized in multiple social and economic environments. The object of this literature review is to generate a cogent framework of its core ethos and make recommendations on its application. 


In this literature review the researcher sampled and thematically analysed select publications that discussed transformative leadership. The reviewer conducted an online search of top 100 scholarly articles published between 2010 and the present, making specific reference to “Transformative leadership” in their title or abstract content. A shortlist of 67 publications mentioning or referencing the key word search was drawn up. These articles were assessed for substantive content discussing the subject matter and further narrowed down to a sample size of 51 articles for in-depth study. The sample documents were then further reviewed and categorized into four main themes based on the perspective in which the articles discussed the topic: a) Transformative perspective (24); b) Transformational perspective (6); c) Phenomenon perspective (12); and d) Agency perspective (9).
Each article was then separately analysed to identify the core/ critical descriptions and important statements that captured their authors’ interpretation of transformative leadership. The results were collated in passages that the researcher analysed to identify emergent themes from each passage. The researcher generated tables classifying the emerging thematic styles and common ethos from the four categories before making final reflections, recommendations and conclusion.


The results presented below are in four categories under four broad themes: a) Transformative perspective – this section captures published authors views on the principles, process and specific approaches that define the practice of transformative leadership; b) Transformational perspective- the authors of these articles draw from transformational leadership theory; c)  Phenomenon – authors in these articles highlight a need that should be filled by “transformative” leadership to generate desired outcomes; d) Agency – Authors in this section discuss transformative leaders as a means (agency) that will help leaders of  institutions achieve desired ethical ends. 
Transformative perspective
Caldwell et al.  (2012, 2014) call for a “new” ethical form of leadership that is ideal and aspirational based on a leader’s deployment of six approaches namely; Transformational (Burns, 1978), Charismatic (Conger and Kanungo, 1987), Level-5 (Collins, 2001), Principle centred (Covey, 1991), Servant (Greenleaf, 2003) and Covenantal (Senge, 2006) leadership to achieve excellence in their fields of endeavour (Caldwell, et al., 2012). Caldwell et al. (2014) share a leader centric model that identifies ethical stewardship, covenantal duty and the use of charismatic gifts in the service of others as identifiers of transformative leaders (Caldwell et al., 2014).
“Transformative leadership begins with questions of justice and democracy, critiques inequitable practices, and addresses both individual and public good” (Shields, 2010). The author further describes the following as tenets of transformative leadership: 1) acknowledging power and privilege; 2) articulating both individual and collective purposes; 3) deconstructing social-cultural knowledge frameworks that generate inequity and reconstructing them; 4) balancing critique and promise; 5) effecting deep and equitable change; 6) working towards transformation: liberation, emancipation, democracy, equity, and excellence; 7)  demonstrating moral courage and activism (Shields, 2011).
Langlois ethical frame emphasises the concept of followers who lead and the importance of “other centeredness”     in      the     transformative     leadership transaction. The author urges the principles of reflection, transformative conversations and moral courage as critical to the success and effectiveness of transformative agents. The author suggests that discussing ethics without action is diversionary. Ethics with action is transformative. The inability of leaders to move from known truth to actioned truth raises ethical questions of confidence, competence and integrity (Langlois, 2011). From this perspective it would appear that, Ethics + Action = Transformation
Xu et al. (2015) provide empirical evidence of positive associations between six perspectives of transformative leadership and the five roles of leadership in the Kouzes and Posner (2012) model (Xu et al., 2015). Jun discusses the characteristics of transformative leadership as critique, empathy, democracy, dialogue, courage, justice, commitment and equity (Jun, 2011). Xu et al. find a positive correlation between Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of morality and transformative leadership enabling an understanding of the relationships between leadership and moral behaviour (Xu et al., 2016). Building on the work of Caldwell et al. (2012), Shields (2010) and Roszak (2015) identifies six characteristics that enable transformative leaders to win stakeholder trust as (a) benevolence, (b) transparency, (c) humility, (d) approachability, (e) authenticity, and (f) personality.
Drawing from Shields (2010), Stephenson points out community engagement and service as ideals of transformative leadership; emphasising that it is emergent and dispersed. Communicating effectively is also a critical aspect of transformative leadership (Stephenson, 2011). Hewitt et al. discuss the idea of “transformative sensibilities”. “The transformative leader interrogates and seeks to disrupt that which is taken for granted” (Hewitt et al., 2014).
Sorkin’s qualitative study shows that high school students appreciate the concepts of transformative leadership i.e. humility, faith, hope, love, critical thinking, solidarity and praxis (reflection).  While observing that transformative leadership thinking is in its infancy, the author argues that “Leaders who are truly transformative look to not only transform the group or organization they lead; they look to transform themselves and the very structures that inhibit relationships that foster the dignity and respect of all”. Sorkin observes that, a) service-learning, b) formalized learning of leadership, c) fostering the connection between the spiritual and the real, is critical to the development of transformative leadership competence (Sorkin, 2016).
Wyper drawing from Foster (1986) observes that transformative leadership evokes transformation and is directed towards social change. The author suggests there may be need to introduce flexibility in administrative positions to introduce an element of transformative leadership to better manage institutions, particularly as regards leader-follower relations and social justice modelling (Wyper, 2014).
Montuori and Donnelly (2017) explore transformative leadership as having its own form. The authors call for a departure from the traditional central position of the “heroic leader” to the participatory and alternating role of everyone as both a leader and a follower. The leader position is an office that can be occupied by anyone for the purpose of facilitating the achievement of a goal. The role of a leader is facilitative in form and function rather than preeminent in position, office or title. The authors echo Langlois (2011) on the need for reflection, creative enquiry and creative collaboration. The authors suggest the transformative leader may not fit into any traditional or conventional leadership style or stereotype, but employs emotional intelligence as well as hard and soft leadership approaches, as demanded to embrace and create order out of chaos. Montuori and Donnelly (2017) offer the “transformative moment” as an opportune and ideal time for radical change, advancement and reconstruction of ideals. Transformative leaders “(1) review the past, (2) question and recognize the present, (3) envision alternatives and possibilities, and (4) embody and enact the future” (Montuori and Donnelly, 2017: 15).
Montuori further emphasises the exploration of ways of Being, Doing and Relating in the process of self-creation as a leader. However, there is also a need to unlearn hierarchical stereotypes that hinder the emergence of a transformative leader. Such leaders need a degree of discretion to contribute creativity, much like jazz players, rather than strait jacket office roles and bureaucratic job descriptions. Montuori further explains that leadership is a constructed, contextual-relational, emergent process. It is also paradoxical in that there is no one way of doing things. Transformative leadership is an inquiry driven process rather than discipline driven. It appreciates the plurality of ways in which leadership can be shaped rather than adopting one paradigm. It appreciates that knowledge is a creative construct and that breaking it down into its component parts cannot effectively address the complexity of real-life challenges. Essentially, transformative leadership is a journey of personal growth rather than a clinical acquisition of specific skills (Montuori , 2010). 
Chapmans poem on the transformative leader outlines expectations of a transformative leader describing the form as unapologetic. Drawing from Montuori and Donnelly (2017), the author defines the leader as emotionally intelligent, ever learning and spiritually aware, humble and open to change (Chapman, 2019).
Eisler develops a concept in which the traditional top-down, often male oriented, and leadership stereotype domination form is rejected in exchange for a partnership engagement. The partnership model offers access to transformative leadership benefits harnessed through encouraging staff participation and the feminine voice in particular (Eisler and Carter, 2010). Simons shares an example of a transformative leader taking on the political establishment, challenging local traditions and  calling  for inclusion, acceptance and mediation for sustainable community development (Simons, 2010).
Keeney shares the psycho-spiritual, sensual, social perspective of transformative leadership through the cultural lens of the Bushmen community. In this culture chaos is seen as the norm and a generalizable construct is viewed as a limitation. Creativity is focused on generating outcomes rather than observing specific procedural excellence. The guiding principles of transformative leadership culture are: 1) ownership of the universal life force, that may be interpreted as being at one with nature;  2) theories and models evoke possibilities rather than represent generalizations; 3) Shaking of assumptions, ideas and ideals in order to bring forth more possibilities and creative influence; 4) more absurdity and less seriousness. Being overly serious is toxic to creativity and healthy social interaction; 5) Leadership is momentary and not fixed. It is shared and rotational, much as an expert is assigned to a task and surrenders the leadership role once the task is complete, 6) embracing and transcending dichotomy and differences, promoting both differentiation and integration; 7) mastery of improvisation and creativity in the same way as a musician is able to self-correct and create new jazz sounds in one musical motion (Keeney, 2010).
Ncube, explains that Ubuntu, an indigenous African philosophy, has the capacity to successfully facilitate transformative leadership by 1) modelling the way, 2) communal enterprise and shared vision, 3) change and transformation through consensus rather than democratic polling, 4) interconnectedness, interdependence and empowerment of others, 5) Collectivism and Solidarity where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and 6) continuous integrated development where everyone grows from experience (Ncube, 2010). Bukusi (2017) provides insight into the catalytic nature, participatory process, transformative thinking, entrepreneurial nature and action-oriented competencies of transformative leadership in the corporate context. The author proposes a five-stage implementation of the transformative process consisting of, 1) dissatisfaction with the present, 2) the need for organization culture change, 3) developing new capacity and skill sets, 4) realization of ethical outcomes which result in 5) mass empowerment as a process attained by quantum leaps rather than incremental development.
Several themes emerge from these findings that suggest that transformative leadership is not a conventional leadership approach that relies on set principles, but rather calls for the use of approaches and draws on the ethical disposition of the individual leader. Leaders using this technique are willing to explore and question current reality and are keen to construct and reconstruct a new reality as is required of the situation. Transformative leadership is also a moral and social responsibility that cannot be  left  to  the  leader  alone.  It calls for the participation of all members of an organization to identify and facilitate an organization vision and mission. This approach highlights reflection or praxis as a vital component of transformative leaders’ competencies. This approach also separates the office from the office holder and emphasises that everyone including the official leader has a role to play that they should fulfil. This perspective calls on leaders to be creative and flexible and not autocratic, rather to be more consultative and inclusive as leaders. It strongly believes in change and transformation for the betterment of society as a whole. It emphasises the strong ethical, hands on, change oriented, creative, reflective and inclusive nature of the transformative leadership style. Authors provide valuable insight on the various practical approaches, process and the procedural application of transformative leadership principles that transformative leaders could adopt to facilitate organization renewal. Nonetheless, the overall approach can broadly be described as creative and facilitative as opposed to normative and directive.
Transformational leadership perspective
Many articles use the term transformative leadership based on transformational leadership theory such as KuÄŸuoÄŸlu and Küçük (2012). Regier highlights the need for ethical leaders capable of capitalizing resources and development opportunities in civil service, focusing on the training of transformative leaders based on Burns transformational leadership model. However, the author observes that little is known about the process or progress of the same (Regier, 2017). Regier uses the term interchangeably with transformational leadership and highlights “the need for leaders that transform” (Regier, 2017: 90). Grin et al. put forward transformative leadership as a novel kind of leadership stimulating organization change using Burns (1978) model of transformational leadership and relational leadership (Grin et al., 2018). Based on Burns (1978) and Bass (1985) theory of transformational leadership Tatlah and Aslam  argue transformative leadership is positively related to emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995) indicating that “skill in the area of human relations, decision-making, control of subordinates and conflict resolution are indicators of transformative leadership traits and behaviours”. It is also “leadership that is willing to realign structures and relationships to achieve genuine and sustainable change” (Tatlah and Aslam, 2012). With alternate reference to transformational leadership Sondaite and Keidonite observe that transformative leadership is suitable for helping subordinates to survive organizational changes and allows subordinates to feel secure, empowered and knowledgeable of organization change. Subordinates receive managerial support, individual   attention,    share    acquired  knowledge  and collectively aspire for common goals (Sondaite and Keidonaite, 2020). Brito observes that it enables leaders in technology-enabled educational settings to motivate constituents to acceptance, participation, and engagement inspiring a sense of ownership and achievement (Brito, 2017).
This approach focuses on people development and human resource empowerment. It seeks to maximize and harness the full value of human and institutional capacity to pursue and achieve corporate goals. It facilitates change by being supportive, exercising high emotional intelligence and moral stewardship. This transformative leadership style focuses on strong managerial responsibility with a bias to leveraging interpersonal relationships to create a sense of individual ownership of corporate goals. These transformative leaders use a “people and performance” management rather than relying on “production and policy” administration.
Phenomenon perspective
Another perspective of articles using the term transformative leadership view it as a “deficit”, a “need” or a harbinger of meaningful change (Tettey, 2012). Transformative leadership is also seen as a “liberator” and “realizer” of dreams and aspirations free from oppression, a culture of hope and equal opportunity advancement (Hoppers, 2013). It is also perceived as appreciating the role of Women as mentors and coalition builders working for the greater good in society (Simpson, 2012). It is used to discuss the problems of institutional reform in the contexts of transformational leadership (Quantz et al., 1991). Galluccio refers to the nature of Obama’s leadership as transformative in terms of speaking in inspiring ways and avoiding causing dangerous global economic and political imbalance (Galluccio, 2011). Emison suggests that transformative leadership is about pursuing excellence in complexity (chaos), connectedness of reality and contextualising solutions to find the best acceptable outcome (Emison, 2011). Watson and Rivera-McCuthen (2016) suggest that critical reflection is important for the engagement of transformative leadership practices (Watson and Rivera-McCutchen, 2016). Bieneman sees transformative leadership with collective efficiency and deficit thinking as critical to filling a justice and achievement gap in education systems. Leaders need to be resilient and spiritually grounded (Bieneman, 2011). Archambault and Garon, relate transformative leadership to active engagement in social justice (Archambault and Garon, 2011). Schaaf et al. highlight the elements of collaboration and spirituality to transformative leadership (Schaaf et al., 2011). Ngunjiri refers to radical transformative leadership as “engaging in transformative actions toward the common good in spite of the personal cost” (Ngunjiri, 2014). Clarke et al. translate their practice models to leadership as a natural transition to transformation (Clarke et al., 2014).
This approach emphases the role of the transformative leader to be a bridge builder, problem solver and altruistic saviour who comes in to save the day bringing about change or reform as is needed. Such a leader is an expert at balancing interests and navigating a middle road through crisis. This transformative leadership style brings about change by remaining attuned to social needs or a spiritual cause and personally identifying (embodies) with a cause through personal sacrifice. Leaders using this approach may be broadly considered as idealists leading by example rather than heroes wielding executive power.   
Agency perspective
The agency perspective of transformative leadership favours a strong advocacy orientated form of leadership for the empowerment, participation and advancement of women at the grassroots in Africa (Muiru et al., 2012). Hollingshead et al. discuss transformative leadership as processes that reflect on culture, institution and narratives for sustainable futures. Sustainable development outcomes are achieved through an emergent adaptive process within a local context, changing how society lives at the family, community, national and global levels (Hollingshead et al., 2014). Pavlik describes Transformative leadership as a model that will help the journalism industry to reinvent itself through innovation, entrepreneurship and ethical practice incorporating freedom of speech, rigour, independence and critical enquiry (Pavlik, 2013). Rylander says, “This calls for transformative leadership that can set visions, provide selfless and capable leadership to turn the fortunes of the continent around” (Rylander, 2010). Jones et al. refer to transformative leadership as providing an ethical frame of care, sustainability and reflective practice in which to drive change in organizations (Jones et al., 2015). Graham and Nevarez advance transformative leadership as an agency for securing equity, social justice, and fairness to empower marginalized communities and inclusivity in education (Graham and Nevarez, 2017). Kong and Kim found that transformative leadership had positive direct effect on organizational learning in SMEs (Kong and Kim, 2014). Based on transformational leadership theory, Kagema suggests that transformative leadership empowers principals to differentiate between administrative duty and management task to effectively achieve academic goals (Kagema, 2019). Drawing on Burns, Shields and others, Kovačević discusses transformative leadership as a cross-cultural lens that can be used to integrate refugee students’ in schools and societies (Kovačević, 2016). 
This view of transformative leadership calls for strong empathy, listening and advocacy driven change; adopting a cause and pioneering a change initiative to achieve higher levels of excellence and service. This transformative leadership style is attuned to wider environmental issues and seeks to maintain ethical balance within the operative environment. This transformative leadership approach is other and environmental centred, supporting public and ethical causes, rather than pursuing competitive private interests.
The findings from this study reveal four distinct approaches or styles derived from the thematic evaluation of each perspective. About 47% (transformative) of the articles dealt with principles and process of driving creating organization renewal; 5% (transformational) of the articles highlighted people empowerment; 24% (phenomenon) addressed the issue of salvation, while 18% (agency) have a strong advocacy leaning. While all authors provide an interpretation of their perspective of transformational leadership, they may also represent the broad understanding of transformative leadership in wider society. Thus, leaders who drive organization renewal, provide salvation in an area of need, support the moral well-being of others and provide voice to an ethical cause are considered transformative.  Table 1 classifies the emergent perspectives into specific approaches or styles of expression that create social value and facilitate transformation. A global assessment of the sample documents reveals the core ethos captured in the nine elements outlined in Table 2.


While this study set out to isolate the core ethos of transformative leadership as outlined in the nine   descriptions above. It has also generated insights on four expectations of a transformative leader that may also pass as the desired competencies of an effective 21st Century leader. The transformative leader is expected to a) facilitate institutional renewal and successfully navigate challenging environmental conditions, b) lead advocacy initiatives to raise societal awareness on ethical issues, c) provide salvation in seemingly hopeless situations and d) enable the moral empowerment of people to participate effectively in the pursuit of corporate goals.
Given the substantive distribution of the four themes among the reviewed articles it appears that these styles are shades of emphasis of a transformative leader’s roles and responsibility. In other words, at one time a leader may be pursuing institutional renewal, at another time the same leader may have to take on advocacy roles. At another time the same leader may be called on to provide salvation or empowerment to an underprivileged or ignored group. The transformative leader thus balances his or her role according to the needs of the day.
This article began by highlighting the call for transformative leadership to realize Agenda 2063. While the object may be to transformation the continent, leaders will need to determine how they are best positioned to realize these aspirations. For example, institutional leaders need to determine whether they are able to aid transformation by empowering staff to contribute to the broader vision or whether they will be called upon to engineer the renewal of the institutions they lead. While sacrificial service and advocacy calls for individual commitment to a cause, renewal and empowerment call for more strategic inclusive engagement. Nonetheless, while Agenda 2063 calls for transformative leaders, there is need to invest in the intentional training and development of such leaders rather than expect them to emerge naturally from society (Montuori, 2010).
The global call for new leadership is based on a dynamic, disruptive if not chaotic environment. In this context the transformative leader is called on to satisfy ethical public demands, navigate dynamic markets and grapple with disruptive environment such as imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic on societal health, trade and travel. The transformative leader is called upon to be creative, empathetic, ethical and supportive of a broad range of interests and stakeholders. The scope of this study did not allow for the development of operational transformative leader principles and practices. However, the authors cited under the section subtitled “Transformative perspective” provide a rich reserve of practical techniques and methods transformative leaders use to facilitate transformation in various situations.
Nonetheless, the emergent dataset in this study is a fertile   field    for    further    empirical    research   for  the
development of transformative leadership theory and practice. The findings of this study highlight the nature of the crucial role society has invested in and expects of transformative leaders in the 21st century. It may not be practical to expect these leaders to simply emerge from society.
There is a need for substantive numbers of such leaders at all levels of society. The author recommends that specific training and development programs be designed to equip leaders to competently respond to the call for transformative leaders in the 21st century (Montuori, 2010).
Leaders working in different environments should not assume that everyone knows what “transformation” means. Transformation, in each case, needs to be described and communicated in terms of deliverables, and more importantly, in terms of aspirations people can identify with. This will allow transformative agents, working on many different fronts, to participate meaningfully   and   collaborate   harmoniously  to  create desired outcomes.


Findings from this study suggest that transformative leaders do four things; renew institutional vision and performance, advocate for ethical social advancement, empower individuals to make meaningful contribution to corporate goals, and sacrificially commit to realize the interests of those they serve. Transformative leadership is a process of learning from the past, challenging the present and creating a new future. The process requires humility to learn from the past, observing “respect” when challenging the achievements of today, and having the courage to create a new future in changing and turbulent times. This article contributes the emerging body of knowledge and global understanding of the principles of Transformative leadership. It empowers today’s leaders to confidently  select  suitable approaches that deliver the expectations of stakeholders they serve.


The author has not declared any conflict of interests.



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