Transformational Leaders See the Individual and the Group

What does it take to be a transformational leader? Does it require a broad-thinking leader who rouses the group and inspires the masses? Or instead, a focused, attentive leader who connects with individuals and brings out their best?


According to a recent study by Wang and Howell (2010), two separate but necessary types of skill sets are needed to successfully lead employees. The authors note that most leadership research focuses on leadership behaviors that target only individuals or only groups, and has made little effort to distinguish between these two levels. In this study, the authors do distinguish between them, and found that leading the group is related to positive group-level outcomes while leading individuals is related to positive individual-level outcomes.  

First, they looked at research on the transformational leader. The transformational leader is someone who can articulate a compelling vision of the future, inspire followers, recognize peoples’ differences, and develop their strengths. They found that transformational leadership encompasses four behaviors focused at the individual level and three other behaviors focused at the group level.


Individual-focused behaviors are those that help followers develop their potential or improve self-efficacy and self-esteem. The authors singled out four specific leadership behaviors in this category: communicating high expectations to followers, helping followers enhance their skills or abilities, intellectually stimulating followers (e.g., encouraging creativity or out-of-the-box thinking), and personal recognition (e.g., praising employees for reaching their goals).

Group-focused behaviors are those that develop shared values, communicate group goals, and inspire others to achieve those goals. These include emphasizing group identity, communicating group vision, and team building.


What the authors found is that leaders who exhibit more individual-focused leadership behaviors have followers who perform better at an individual level and have more personal initiative (e.g., doing helpful things that are not explicitly required by their job). Leaders who exhibit more group-focused leadership have groups who perform better and display more helping behaviors, or the willingness to help out other group members on work-related problems.


Why is this important? The authors explain that leaders who strive to be effective must realize that they need to focus on two different missions and possess two different skill sets. The authors recommend that leadership training focus on the ability to distinguish between these two distinct types of skills, and then encourage leaders to develop and utilize each one.    


Wang, X. H. & Howell, J. M. (2010). Exploring the Dual-Level Effects of Transformational Leadership on Followers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1134-1144.