“Transforming leadership” is distinct from the simpler and more common expressions of “transactional” leadership, which involves relatively straightforward exchanges between leaders and followers, employers and employees, sellers and buyers, teachers and students, parents and children, even slave owners and slaves. Transactional leadership provides immediate gratification to leaders and followers, but seldom improves upon or changes their goals and aspirations. Transactional leadership is closer kin to “management” behavior than to transforming leadership, which changes followers’ hearts and minds, nurtures their hopes, and sometimes expands horizons for future generations.

Transactional management exchanges generally take the form of rewards promised by a leader with greater power in return for tasks performed by followers with less power, though they can also involve threats of punishment issued by leaders to followers for failure to perform those tasks. The more power leaders wield over followers, the more likely they are to resort to threats of punishment than to promises of rewards. Throughout much of human history, widespread economic progress was based on slavery and serfdom, which required relatively powerless followers to obey their masters for fear of punishment and settle for just enough compensation to stay alive and keep working. Nowadays, under reasonably positive circumstances in any advanced democratic society with a reasonably high level of education, economic and social systems operate reasonably well through transactional leadership, management, and followership relations.

Transforming leadership, however, involves a more complex relationship in which a leader’s example and his or her call to widespread collaboration for the sake of higher goals can lead to new insights, greater awareness of potential progress, and greater empathy for all members of the larger community. The key to understanding the transforming potential of effective leadership is the human capacity for learning, growth, and development under favorable conditions of support and nurturance. In brief, since the middle of the twentieth century, research has confirmed that all normal, healthy people tend to mature from self-centered egoism (“all about me”) to group-centered tribalism (“all about us — but not them”) to empathic concern for all other human beings (“all about all of us”) and perhaps even for all living creatures.

This progression has reflected the shrinkage of geographic distances by technologies of communication and transportation. Now that all human beings live in a global neighborhood and can communicate instantaneously or travel to the opposite side of the earth in one day, the concept of “us” is getting harder and harder to distinguish from “all of us.” As far back as we can see, the greatest leaders in human history — those who have had the greatest influence on the most people for the longest time — have been transforming leaders like the ancient moral prophets and philosophers; founders of world religions; exemplars of democratic self-governance; and pioneers of science, technology, social innovation, entertainment, and education. Transforming leadership ultimately generates large-scale progress in the ways people live, work, think, and play together.

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