Spirit-led Followers: Rethinking Transformational Leadership Theory

by Timothy Brubaker

How should Christians think about transformational leadership? Exploring the pros and cons in a Christian context.

Photo courtesy Timothy Brubaker

Transformational leadership has become a management buzzword. Contrasted with its baser transactional nemesis, transformational leadership has been promoted as the optimal paradigm for creating a group of followers who are able to transcend self-interest and achieve more than was originally thought possible. The title of “transformational leader” has been ascribed to some of the world’s best (and worst): Jesus, Gandhi, Hitler, Mao, and Genghis Khan. Even the social networking guru Mark Zuckerberg has been described as a transformational leader.

Transformational leadership behaviors can be found among athletic coaches, parents, and religious leaders. In the eyes of leadership experts, what binds these formidable and familiar figures together is their ability to inspire and mobilize followers by motivating them to transcend self-interest and achieve higher-order needs.    

Missionary endeavors may dismiss the transformational trend as a North American management gimmick. Yet the global impact of the leadership theory is becoming increasingly hard to escape. And, indeed, missionaries may benefit from the extensive cross-cultural research on the topic. For example, the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) Research Program studied implicit leadership theories within sixty-two cultures across the world.  Among the project’s findings, researchers discovered that attributes of transformational leadership are universally embraced across cultures (Den Hartog et al. 1999).

Transformational leadership theory has made a significant impact in almost every corner of leadership practice, including Christianity. A simple Internet search on the topic reveals that it is fashionable within megachurch missiologies, theological education vision statements, and local church leadership tips. The influence of transformational leadership theory is reflected in organizational vision statements with aspirations of reproducing “Christ-like transformational leaders.” 

But is this good? 

If transformational leadership theory actualizes higher-order needs, motivates people to transcend self-interest, and is reflective of universally-embraced leadership traits, why should missiologists and Christian practitioners not embrace it as the optimal leadership paradigm? In this article, I explore transformational leadership theory, consider some of its potential perils, interact with the theory from a biblical perspective, and suggest strategies for training Christian leaders.

Transformational Leadership Theory
James MacGregor Burns first introduced transformational leadership theory in 1978, contrasting it with transactional leadership. Transactional leadership appeals to followers’ self-interest and is built on and motivated by the mutual exchange of benefits (e.g., compensation). Yet in the words of Burns, transformational leadership holds that “whatever the separate interest persons might hold, they are presently or potentially united in the pursuit of ‘higher’ goals, the realization of which is tested by the achievement of significant change that represents the collective or pooled interests of leaders and followers” (1978, 425-426).

Bernard Bass has been the primary leader in laying an empirical foundation for the theory. Bass describes the difference this way: Transformational leadership asks, “What can I do for my country?” Transactional leadership asks, “What can my country do for me?” (1999, 9). According to Bass, transformational leaders demonstrate four broad categories of leadership behaviors (often identified as the four “I”s). Transformation leaders demonstrate:

1. Idealized influence (essentially charisma), arousing followers’ emotions, causing followers to identify themselves strongly with the leader. This influence is reflected in the followers’ attribution of the leader’s extraordinary capabilities, persistence, and determination (Bass and Riggio 2010). German sociologist Max Weber describes the charismatic leader as “set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or least specifically exceptional powers and qualities” (1947, 358).  

2. Inspirational motivation, communicating a desirable future and creating enthusiasm within followers to achieve that shared vision (Bass and Riggio 2010). Some suggest that leaders achieve transformational motivation by linking followers’ goals and efforts to their self-concept, thereby “harnessing the motivational forces of self-expression, self-consistency, self-esteem and self-worth” (Shamir, House, and Arthur 1993, 584). Through positive evaluations, strong communication of vision and values, deep collective identity, and increased follower satisfaction, transformational leaders are able to motivate followers to transcend self-interest.

3. Intellectual stimulation, activating followers’ efforts to be creative and innovative in solving problems, reconsidering traditional methods, and questioning commonly-held assumptions (Bass and Riggio 2010). According to Jay Conger, leaders demonstrate creativity and intellectual stimulation by challenging the status quo and formulating idealized visions of the future (1999, 157). Creativity and differences of opinion are positively endorsed in the pursuit of the collectively-held vision.

4. Individualized consideration, giving special attention to each follower’s unique needs for development and achievement (Bass and Riggio 2010). The leader is a coach and mentor to each follower, responding to needs and differences in ways that demonstrate acceptance and the desire to help all followers achieve their potential. Transformational leaders demonstrate knowledge of each follower and seek to raise him or her to higher levels of functionality and self-efficacy.  

In light of these four behaviors, transformational leadership theory seems to bring together and powerfully promote the kind of leadership that the world desperately needs. Indeed, the GLOBE Research Program suggests that transformational leaders are what the world has been waiting for. The world would certainly be a better place if every leader demonstrated these four behaviors, right?

The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership
Proponents of transformational leadership have openly confessed that the theory’s hopeful prospects co-exist with a “dark side.” Bernard Bass and Ronald Riggio explain the dark side as those leaders “who use their abilities to inspire and lead followers to destructive, selfish, and even evil ends” (2010, 77). 

A brief overview of some of the more unique criticisms of transformational leadership may provide impetus for a better understanding of how Christian leaders should approach and understand the theory. 

First, implicit within transformational leadership theory is the assumption that a moral human leader can overcome self-interest and selfish ambition. The model rests upon the leader’s ability to transcend self-interest for the sake of a higher cause. Yet the biblical portrait of the human heart contradicts this assumption (Jer.17:9). 

According to Paul, the natural inclination of the human heart is toward disobedience and sin (Eph. 2:1-3). Just like the false teachers confronted by Jude (e.g., Jude 10), humanity instinctively follows a course of rebellion and blasphemy similar to the natural impulses of unreasoning animals. One might conclude that the problem of self-centered hearts plagues only people who are distant from Jesus. Yet the example of James and John bickering over seats of honor in the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:35-45) demonstrates that self-disinterestedness is difficult even for those who walk closely with the Lord.  

The implications of this fact are significant for a realistic assessment of transformational leadership theory. Robert Kelley notes that from the followers’ point of view within organizations, “nearly forty percent [of leaders] have ‘ego’ problems,” and this in a culture where transformational leadership is currently a “management god” (1998, 193). Michael Keeley also identifies this optimistic view of human nature as a serious deficiency of transformational leadership (1995). He explains that U.S. President James Madison created the American federalist system with the purpose of ensuring that societal factions would keep each other in check and thereby curb the capacity for capitalizing on self-interest (1995, 74). The multiplicity of competing private interest groups would offset the potentially autocratic power of a single vision. 

Accordingly, the visionary charisma of every leader would be checked and counterbalanced by those of others. Keeley references James Madison’s Federalist Paper, Number 51, wherein Madison writes: 

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to controul [sic] the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay 1982, 316)

The same might be said of leadership in general. The effects of sin-marked selfishness must be recognized as inherent within every transformational leader—even those whose visions have been embraced as moral and virtuous.  

Second, the charismatic charm of transformational leadership mixed with the selfish instincts of human nature is an explosive combination. While some transformational visions appear to be harmless, others are clearly manipulative and dangerous. Consider, for example, the pseudo-spiritual communist vision of Jim Jones, which led to mass suicide in Guyana in 1978. Consider the Kanungu doomsday cult in Kabale, Uganda, that ended in 2000 with the group suicide of hundreds of followers when the Apocalypse did not come. Or consider the Branch Dividian religious sect led by David Koresh whose vision of establishing the Davidic kingdom led to the deaths of dozens of women and children in Texas in 1993.  

Dennis Tourish and Ashly Pinnington probe the nature of transformational leadership, noting that the core behaviors of transformational leaders are remarkably similar to the traits of cult leaders. They explain that the goals of the transformational leader do not necessarily reflect the preconceived goals or interests of the followers; however, the power afforded the leader allows for psychological adjustment of the followers’ goals (2002, 149). In this way, charisma becomes impression management, and transformational behaviors become manipulation tactics. The end result is at best a harmless distraction—at worst, it is tragic. 

Guiding Biblical Principles
How should Christians think about transformational leadership? Certain guiding principles from scripture will help in reframing the theory from a theological perspective. 

First, God alone is the only authentic and legitimate transformational leader. His influence is overwhelmingly charismatic, resulting in strong follower attachment (e.g., Ps. 119:37). 

He motivates his followers to find their fullest existence by living for his purposes (e.g., Rom. 12:1-2; John 10:10). He demonstrates intellectual stimulation by reframing wisdom (1 Cor.1:18-25), sending the Holy Spirit, and giving his followers the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:6-16). 

He individually cares for the needs and development of each of his followers (Phil. 1:6; Matt. 6:26-33). And the purposes and vision into which he summons his followers are both worthy and morally good. Any glimmer of these behaviors in contemporary human leadership should be recognized as a limited reflection of the image of God.  

Second, although devastatingly tragic, Christians must interpret the world and its inhabitants in the dark shadow of the fallenness of humankind. Human failure to conform to the purposes and will of God is consuming and complete, reflected in behavior, heart, and nature. Indeed, to understand the significance of human failure is beyond human capacity, just as it is to understand the holiness of God. Comparing humanity’s fallenness to the stench of animals, the nineteenth-century Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle observes, “The very animals whose smell is offensive to us have no idea that they are offensive, and are not offensive to one another” (2001, 4).  

It is this very oversight that leads people to leadership strategies that grossly underestimate humanity’s capacity for evil. Ryle writes, “If a man does not realize the dangerous nature of his soul’s disease, you cannot wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies” (2001, 1). Any theoretical solution or philosophical postulation regarding the pursuits and capacities of humankind must be framed within a robust understanding of sin’s pervasiveness—not to pour water on the flame of progress, but to kindle the fire with a hefty supply of realism.

Third, a Christian reframing of transformational leadership must recognize the absolute supremacy of God’s will for humanity as the starting point, ultimate goal, and fixed point of reference for every other vision within human endeavors. God’s will or vision for humanity is clearly articulated in scripture. God commands his people Israel, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Paul echoes this command, “This is the will of God, your sanctification…  God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thess. 4:3, 7). Peter also reminds believers of this higher-order vision: “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:15). Gordon Wenham defines holiness as “full and perfect life” (2000, 137).  

Although God’s purpose is to demonstrate his glory (Isa. 43:7; Rom.9:23), his will or ultimate vision for humanity is to reflect his holiness and perfection. Jesus makes the fulfillment of this vision possible; he models what the fulfillment of the vision looks like. Any transformational vision for social change, profitability, economic development, or political influence must be guided by its submission to this supreme vision of God. Anything else is simply a shortsighted waste of time.

Although theoretical postulating and empirical testing of transformational leadership is relatively new, its behaviors and assumptions are deeply embedded within human societies and cultures.  The claims of transformational leaders to activate self and collective efficacy, transform selfishness into selflessness, and motivate followers to pour themselves out to achieve a higher vision hold immeasurable potential to change the world. 

Although theoreticians have acknowledged the dark side of transformational leadership, it has been insufficiently explored from within Christian theology. Of primary concern is the theory’s humanistic tendency to assume that humankind can attain to selfless pursuit of selfless ambition. 

Additionally, the inevitability of competing visions suggests that there must exist higher criteria for determining what is moral and proper for pursuit. Herein the supremacy of God’s will and vision for humanity must be given the power to trump, change, and redefine every human vision. Within the broad guiding principles presented in this article, Christian leaders and educators must be cautious about naively embracing this leadership theory without more fully considering its theological preconceptions.  

Bass, Bernard M. 1999. “Two Decades of Research and Development in Transformational Leadership.” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 8(1): 9-32.

Bass, Bernard M., and Ronald E. Riggio. 2010. “The Transformational Model of Leadership.” In Leading Organizations: Perspectives for a New Era. Ed. G. R. Hickman, 76-86. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Burns, James M. 1978. Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.

Den Hartog, Deanne N, Robert J. House, Paul J. Hanges, S. Antonio Ruiz-Quintanilla, and Peter W. Dorfman. 1999. “Culture Specific and Cross-culturally Generalizable Implicit Leadership Theories: Are Attributes of Charismatic/transformational Leadership Universally Endorsed?” The Leadership Quarterly 10(2): 219-256.

Conger, Jay A. 1999. “Charismatic and Transformational Leadership in Organizations: An Insider’s Perspective on These Developing Streams of Research.” The Leadership Quarterly 10(2): 145-179.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1982. Federalist Papers. Westminster, Md.: Bantam Dell Publishing Group. 

Keeley, Michael. 1995. “The Trouble with Transformational Leadership: Toward a Federalist Ethic for Organizations.” Business Ethics Quarterly 5: 67-96. 

Kelley, Robert E. 1998. “Leadership Secrets from Exemplary Followers.” In Leading Organizations: Perspectives for a New Era. Ed. G. R. Hickman, 193-201. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Ryle, John C. 2001. Holiness. Lafayette, Ind.: Sovereign Grace Publishers. 

Shamir, Boas, Robert J. House, and Michael B. Arthur. 1993. “The Motivational Effects of Charismatic Leadership: A Self-concept based Theory.” Organization Science: 577–594.

Tourish, Dennis and Ashly Pinnington. 2002. “Transformational Leadership, Corporate Cultism and the Spirituality Paradigm: An Unholy Trinity in the Workplace.” Human Relations 55(2): 147-172.

Weber, Maximilian. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. New York: The Free Press.

Wenham, Gordon J. 2000. Story as Torah. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.


Principles for Training Christian Leaders

The pervasiveness of transformational leadership in contemporary Christian leadership jargon illustrates the importance of reassessing the process of teaching and training Christian leaders. Challenges to the theory from the guiding principles of scripture must be used to reconsider how transformational leadership is propagated among believers.

1. Christian leaders must see that the human desire to respond to transformational leadership points beyond itself to a yearning that can only be satisfied by God. The universal affirmation of transformational leadership recognized by the GLOBE Research Program (Hartog et al. 1999) suggests that secular research has begun to identify a deep internal longing common to all people. The Bible demonstrates that only God fully, permanently, and authoritatively demonstrates this kind of leadership. Authority and leadership are responsibilities that God shares with his creation as a gift. Yet like other divine gifts (e.g., sexuality, community, and justice), power is devastatingly corrupted by sin. The gift is good; its exercise is appropriate. But enactment of transformational leadership behaviors must be done in a way that curbs human selfishness and thwarts dangerous manipulation.  

  2. Christian leaders must know that their visions and goals must be grounded and governed by the higher vision of God that people would emerge from the rubble of sin, demonstrating fullness and perfection of life that is only available through life in Christ. Christian leaders are nothing more than Spirit-led followers of a transformational God. A transformational leader may devise a noble vision to “infiltrate Bithynia” with the gospel; but a Spirit-led follower of a transformational God will move on to Macedonia even when it makes no sense.  

3. Christian leaders must embrace the fact that their primary responsibility is to reflect good followership to those whom they lead. In many cultures of the world, leaders are afforded certain privileges, rights, and excuses for breaking norms because of their status or position. Yet among followers of Christ, it must be different. It is difficult to reconcile the elite status offered to pastors in many cultures of the world with the paradigmatic life and death of Christ. Christian leadership is mimetic in nature. The key to reproducing the virtues that Christian leaders desire to see in the lives of followers is for leaders themselves to model those virtues as they themselves follow Christ. Leaders embody the change they seek to reproduce in followers. Paul writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Again, Paul writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Phil. 4:9). Christian leaders must strive to be an example of what they desire their followers to become. 


Timothy Brubaker is a missionary with WorldVenture, serving since 2004 in Kigali, Rwanda, where he teaches and disciples pastors and church leaders with New Creation Ministries. He is pursuing his PhD in organizational leadership at Regent University in Virginia.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 138-145. Copyright  © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events