Scott Gregory: Do recruiters really want a transformational leader?

Transformational leadership has long-been heralded as the way forward when it comes to top-level management. But what exactly transformational leadership, and is it really the most effective style of leadership?

A transformational leader is one that instills pride, respect and trust in their followers. They inspire and motivate people beyond expectations, sparking innovation and change. The word ‘transformational’ alone suggests something extraordinary, captivating and even rare. When worded in such an appealing way, it is easy to understand why companies across the world seek out transformational leaders when hiring and promoting candidates. However, recruiters and decision-makers should be wary not to become too enthralled by this definition, especially when it carries with it several fundamental flaws.

Transformational leadership sounds great on paper, but in practice, it does not hold up as strongly. In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest that it is simply charismatic leadership with a more appealing name. According to a recent study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, charismatic leadership is nothing to be enthusiastic about, and there is little solid evidence to suggest strong link between charisma and effective leadership.

When we look at how leadership is commonly evaluated, we uncover even more shortcomings. A 2008 study conducted by Robert B. Kaiser, Robert Hogan, and S. Bartholomew Craig found that companies assess managerial performance in different ways. For example, some organisations may adopt an evaluation-based approach, asking managers or employees for feedback on performance. Other companies may assess financial results exclusively. When the methods of evaluating charismatic-transformational leaders are so precarious, and vary so widely across organizations, it becomes very difficult to deduce that these individuals are the right candidates for the job.

So, this begs the question: If charismatic leadership and transformational leadership are essentially identical things, and if our methods of evaluating these leaders are fundamentally flawed, why do companies continue to search for transformational leaders? These companies should instead shift their focus towards identifying individuals who are actually suited to a leadership role, and this can be easily achieved using valid personality assessment and consulting.

Defining leadership as “a person who has a leadership or managerial title” is simply too reductive and overlooks several crucial factors. For instance, this definition fails to consider that person’s personality, which often plays a huge part in why they were awarded a leadership role in the first place. Charming, charismatic candidates know how to impress their seniors and job interviewers and can convince them that they are management-material because they seem leader like. But a charming, confident personality does not necessarily make for an effective leader. Charismatic leaders tend to be confident, creative, charming, and flashy, which helps them to stand out in comparison with their peers. However, while these personality traits might make an individual seem “transformative”, there are actually other, less visible characteristics that make for more effective leaders.

Recruiters should instead be watchful for candidates who are capable of building and maintaining a high-performing team. For example, once assessed, these candidates will score high in modesty and humility, and will also have a strong drive for results.

Candidates that score high on humility tend to be more team-oriented and less concerned with their own personal gain. These individuals will spend more time with their team, setting them up for success and helping them to achieve collective goals for the organisation at large. Humble leaders care less about reputation and their position at the top of the company hierarchy, and instead divert their efforts towards minimising status differences and listening to workers’ feedback and concerns. Humble leaders are willing and able to admit when a plan is not working and can adapt and amend strategies when needed. And when so much of business is about taking risks – that don’t always pay off – this is of dire importance.

Recruiters should also be on the lookout for candidates that score highly on modesty when promoting or hiring top-level management. Being a skilled and talented leader who is also modest is important when it comes to effective leadership. These individuals are focused on team performance and recognize hard work from their employees. Most importantly, they are willing to share and distribute credit evenly, and will reward team members for their achievements. When a leader is less concerned with their own personal fame and reputation, and instead passionate about uplifting their team and fostering a fair and supportive workspace, talent can truly thrive within an organization and better results will be realized. This is clearly the by-product of truly effective leadership.

By incorporating valid and reliable assessment measures, such as those provided by Hogan Assessments, into your recruitment strategy, you unlock great potential in identifying candidates that are better suited to provide humility and drive for results in managerial positions within your organisation. The sooner recruiters ditch the myth of transformational-charismatic leadership, the better.