The transformational leadership style helps everyone see the big picture. This type of leader is very capable of inspiring others to make big changes by creating a long-term vision.
When an organization needs to make company-wide change, the transformational leader has just the right skillset.
However, there are significant weaknesses with this type of leadership style. No one style is perfect, and the transformational leader has a few faults as well.
For example, one weakness of the transformational leadership model is that it is has low attention to detail because it’s so focused on the big picture. Every company that is going to attempt a big change needs to have a very detailed plan on how to get there.
Transformational Leadership Weaknesses
Inspiring words are not enough. Milestones need to be identified, specifics on new training needs and reorganization must be worked out, not to mention the nitty-gritty of budgetary matters.
Unfortunately, the transformational leader is not inclined to get involved at this level of detail. It’s just not in their DNA. They prefer to leave that work to others.
This may be fine under other circumstances, but company’s often transform because they are in trouble; losing market share or failing to innovate are two frequent causes.
Therefore, an organization not only needs a vision, it also needs someone who will take control of the change process.
1. There’s High Employee Dependency
Because the transformational leader is so charismatic and inspiring, many individuals in the organization will admire them so much that it can almost reach the point of idolization.
The leader becomes so influential that some employees begin to attach their value to the opinion of the leader. This creates a level of dependency on the transformational leader that is unhealthy and unproductive.
As Kark, Shamir, and Chen (2003) suggest:
“Followers of charismatic leaders report that their self-esteem depends on the leader’s evaluation and that their main motivation is to obtain recognition and approval from the leader” (p. 249).
If this approval is not provided frequently enough or in sufficient amounts, then employees may feel that they must be doing something wrong. As a result, morale, productivity and innovation will suffer.
2. The Need for Continuous and Sustained Feedback
The road to transformational change does not end with persuading the top execs that change is needed. That is actually just the beginning.
Unfortunately, some transformational leaders lose interest after that incredible feat has been accomplished.
The road is long and transformational leaders will need to maintain high levels of enthusiasm, not just for themselves but for everyone in the organization as well. This means providing a constant stream of feedback and encouragement. People need to also receive regular updates on the progress being made so they can see that their efforts are paying off.
This means that the transformational leader also needs to have a high level of emotional intelligence, and most do. But it is important that they understand the value of using their EQ frequently during the entire change process.
3. This Leader Sometimes Lacks Patience
One damaging weakness of the transformational leadership style is a lack of patience.
While the leader clearly sees the need to change and knows what needs to be done to get there, they can sometimes become frustrated with others that don’t fall in line quickly enough.
Seeing what needs to be done is easy for a transformational leader, but for others it may not be so easy to change. Employees can be used to old procedures and policies. They feel comfortable with the old ways of doing things, and old habits are hard to break.
The transformational leader can sometimes fail to understand the strength of this obstacle. They expect people to make the necessary adjustments and abandon old ways asap.
Similarly, some people may not accept the change enforced by the leader because they don’t respect the lack of consultation. These people would react better to a servant leadership or participatory leadership style.
4. Cross-cultural Limitations
Although we often see examples of transformational leaders working from the top of the organizational chart, they can exist at any level. Unfortunately, in many cultures, not being at the top is a huge obstacle that severely handicaps becoming influential.
For example, in some Eastern cultures, there is a firm appreciation for status within the organization. Meetings involve leaders speaking and staff listening. The term “staff” can also include top executives. The culture is very hierarchal. In fact, speaking up at a meeting to make a suggestion or ask a question is a serious taboo. It is considered an act of disrespect.
A transformational leader will find it very difficult to be successful in this climate. It requires a completely different set of traits that they simply don’t possess. Of course, this is not the transformational leader’s fault, it is however, a situation which they will be unable to overcome.
5. Leader’s Poor Attention to Detail
The key asset of the transformational leader is their ability to see the big-picture and create a vison for others to follow. They tend to be focused on the broader goals.
That is a great thing, but it is also a weakness. Because the change process is organization-wide and will take a long time, there needs to be a detailed plan in place. And there needs to be someone that will oversee that change, each and every day. This means getting involved in unexciting details. That is just not the transformational leader’s priority.
They can become too focused on the gold at the end of the rainbow and not interested in the details that have to be dealt with along the way. The lack of interest, and attention to detail is the transformational leader’s greatest weakness.
6. Enthusiasm can be Risky
What happens if the transformational leader convinces everyone to do something grand, but they’re wrong?
Although transformational leaders are visionaries, charismatic, and great persuaders, they’re people too, and people can be wrong. Instead of taking the slow-road to change and carefully deliberating circumstances, like companies usually do before taking a big risk, the organization can become too enthralled with the leader’s vision.
One case in point comes from the great Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic. Believe it or not, he convinced his BoD to enter the highly competitive soda market with Virgin Cola. Despite many bold and outlandish marketing gimmicks, such as driving a tank through 3 tons of Coke cans in Times Square, the product failed miserably.
It sold in the U.S. for three years and maxed out at 0.5% of market share. It met similar fates in Canda and the UK.
There’s no denying that Sir Branson is a charismatic transformational leader, but….
7. It can Undermine Innovation
As research on transformational leadership has progressed over the years, scholars have been able to identify the pros and cons to how this style manifests itself in the workplace in much greater detail.
Although the transformational leader is great at inspiring others to venture into new realms of business, they can undermine in-house development of new products and services.
For example, as Gerpott, Bledow, and Kühnel, (2022) found in their research,
“…the inspirational core of transformational behavior is attenuated by the often co-occurring instructional tone of process management” (p. 372).
The term “micro-management” is probably too strong, but their enthusiasm to move forward can sometimes undermine the natural flow of project development and impede its success.
8. It can Cause Employee Burnout
Transformational change is not a walk in the park. It is extremely stressful and the amount of work involved can be exhausting.
Everyone in the organization feels the pressure and will need to work long hours over a sustained period of time. Because the company is probably changing due to lagging profits, or maybe even losing money, no one is going to get overtime or bonuses.
Many people will need to be let go, and that means seeing one’s friends lose their job and source of income. That can be both depressing, and also scary. If that isn’t enough, consider the very real possibility of failure; just planning to change is the easy part.
Although the transformational leader is charismatic and inspiring, that energy may also push people too hard.
All of these factors can lead to employee burnout. Even the most dedicated individuals have limitations, and going through a transformational change can affect everyone.
9. Unidirectional Benefits
When an organization is led by a truly charismatic transformational leader, employees are motivated to do whatever it takes for the good of the company.
This can lead to staff working overtime without additional pay. Some may forego vacation time so that important projects are not delayed.
If the much-needed turnaround takes years, which it often does, then many employees may not receive bonuses or well-deserved promotions for an extended period of time.
Staff will see their income remain stagnant, putting off the purchase of a new home or enduring the high-cost of their children’s college tuition. Meanwhile, top execs are still living well. This can create serious resentment.
In effect, what is happening is that the organization itself is benefitting, while employees are making incredible sacrifices. The benefits are unidirectional, all in favor of the organization.
10. Organization Dependency
The transformational leader is able to convince the BoD, top executives, and employees that change is the only way for the company to survive.
Their influence spreads throughout the organization. They are the driving-force behind everyone’s motivation to push through difficult times and embark on a bold journey to reinvent the company.
But, what happens if the transformational leader leaves?
They were the focus of everything that transpired, which resulted in “…followers who perceive the leader as extraordinary and exceptional and therefore become dependent on the leader for guidance and inspiration” (Kark, Shamir, and Chen, 2003, p. 248).
When that leader is no longer present to provide that guidance and motivation, it will leave an incredible hole in the lifeblood of the organization that no one else is able to fill. It is a huge risk for a company to become overly dependent on one individual.
The more we study the transformational leadership style, the more we are able to understand the effects on an organization. And like just about everything else in the world, there are strengths and weaknesses to consider.
The organization can become limited by the power of the transformational leader’s charisma. Employees and the organization as a whole may become overly dependent on the leader’s vision and driving force. This results in lower productivity and morale, or leads to a company losing focus if the leader leaves.
Because transformational leaders are so focused on the big-picture, they have less interest in details and can lose patience if innovation is slow.
The transformational leader is great in many ways, but presents challenges in others.
Bass, B.M., & Riggio, R.E. (2005). Transformational leadership (2nd ed.). Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781410617095
Conger, J. A., & Kanungo, R. N. (1998). Charismatic leadership in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gerpott, F. H., Bledow, R., & Kühnel, J. (2022). Inspire but don’t interfere: Managerial influence as a double-edged sword for innovation. Applied Psychology, 71(2), 359– 379. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12324
Kark, R., Shamir, B., & Chen, G. (2003). The two faces of transformational leadership: empowerment and dependency. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(2), 246-55. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.88.2.246
Teetzen, F., Bürkner, P. C., Gregersen, S., & Vincent-Höper, S. (2022). The mediating effects of work characteristics on the relationship between transformational leadership and employee well-being: A meta-analytic investigation. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(5), 3133. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19053133
Yukl, G. (1999). An evaluation of conceptual weaknesses in transformational and charismatic leadership theories. The Leadership Quarterly, 10(2), 285-305. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S1048-9843(99)00013-2
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.