Transformational leadership: A political science theory transformed by management studies. How did this happen, and why does it matter?
Transformational leadership is one of the most popular approaches to leadership today. These leaders stimulate and inspire followers to go above and beyond for their organisations with the hope that this will generate higher levels of performance, commitment, and satisfaction. While this can improve organisational performance, there is also a dark side. Transformational leaders can be narcissists who wield excessive power and can negatively impact organisations. I explore how this problem can be addressed by looking deeper into the origins of transformational leadership theory, which came from political science. The theory’s originator James MacGregor Burns believed in the value of inspiring leaders with compelling visions, but he also argued these leaders needed to be held accountable by followers using democratic mechanisms. So, why was this overlooked by those who introduced transformational leadership to management studies? I explore this by employing the framework of intellectual history to bring a critical historical perspective to the translation of transformational leadership theory from political science to management studies. Investigating the social, economic, and political context surrounding this translation uncovers several explanations why this democratic component was overlooked by management scholars. I also propose implications for leadership education and practice today and in the future. If we teach transformational leadership in a way that is closer to Burns’ original thinking, alternative and more democratic approaches to organisational leadership could emerge.