Transformational Leadership Can Depend on the Followers

Transformational leaders inspire others with a mission and vision for the future, and motivate their followers to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible. Traditionally, the bulk of research in the area of transformational leadership has focused on transformational leaders’ personal qualities and how they drive change. Less has been known about the conditions under which a transformational leadership style is most successful and when it has the most impact on followers.

The researchers (Li, Chiaburu, Kirkman, & Xie, 2013) examined follower characteristics and perceptions that influence the effectiveness of transformational leadership. They found the following:

  1. The more prototypical of the group the leader is, the less necessary transformational leadership is to stimulate followers to take action.
  2. Transformational leadership is less effective when followers strongly identify with their teams. Team members of cohesive teams gain inspiration laterally from each other and are less reliant on inspiration from their leader.
  3. Traditionalist employees’ value of conventional hierarchal structures predisposes them to defer to their leaders, regardless of the leader’s leadership style, thereby reducing the impact of transformational leadership on their likelihood to perform organizational citizenship behaviors (anything that helps the organization and is not included in formal job descriptions).
  4. Followers with proactive personalities are naturally inclined to take charge and bring about positive change, with or without transformational leaders’ support.
  5. High learning goal oriented employees are less likely to need the motivation of transformational leaders to achieve their goals and are less subject to their leaders’ influences.

The bottom line is that it is not all about the leader. Followers’ responsiveness to a leader’s transformation effort is influenced by perceptions of the leader as well as followers’ individual characteristics.


Li, N., Chiaburu, D. S., Kirkman, B. L., & Xie, Z. (2012). Spotlight on the Followers: An Examination of Moderators of Relationships Between Transformational Leadership and Subordinates’ Citizenship and Taking Charge. Personnel Psychology, 66(1), 225-260. doi:10.1111/peps.12014