Effective Leadership During Times of Change

What are the characteristics of a good leader?  What behaviours does an effective leader practice?  Is the specific context an important factor to consider in relation to effective leadership styles? Does a period of change call for a specific type of leader?

It seems to me that, currently, there are required changes everywhere I look. In fact, change seems to be the only constant. In the DND/CAF, we are working towards a much needed culture change, including building a more diverse and inclusive environment. In the larger Government of Canada, including within DND/CAF, there are modernization efforts in terms of the required shift towards becoming more digital. Since the start of the COVID pandemic, an exodus to home offices led to many changes in the ways in which we work and in the ways in which we train and educate. One could argue, as I would, that a climate of change requires strong transformational leaders at the helm in order to champion bold and innovative solutions. Influential leaders who motivate followers to enable transformational visions are required in order to make real headway. Emotional intelligence is also a crucial aspect of effective leadership, in that, it is required to build strong and productive transformational teams.

According to Gill (2011), four dimensions tend to emerge in leadership thinking and research: the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual, and the behavioral.  They propose that “effective leadership requires vision and a sense of mission, shared values, strategy, empowerment, and influence, motivation, and inspiration” (Gill, 2011, p. 64).  There have been many theories postulated and research conducted aimed at better understanding what traits and behaviors are effective in a leader. Indeed, this is a question that has always interested me and, although I have done my fair share of reading on the subject, I have equally learned about effective and ineffective leadership by watching those around me.

The “Great Man Theory,” which is aged merely by the gendered name, was an early leadership theory that suggested that one is born with specific traits that lend themselves to successful leadership. Empirical studies, however, “have not established a definite link between particular traits, or groups of traits, and effective leadership” (Stewart, 2006, p. 5). That is, there is no one set of innate distinguishing traits that automatically lead to effective leadership. Effective leaders can come in a variety of shapes, sizes, genders, and backgrounds. An effective leader can have a soft voice or a booming, loud voice. For those who are willing to work to improve upon their leadership behaviors and skills, these can develop over one’s lifetime through practice and learning, including learning from one’s mistakes!

Transactional and transformational leadership have been widely researched and it has been found that transformational leaders enjoy more success, in terms of committed and harder working followers and achieving higher profits and organization victories, than transactional leaders (Johnson, 2005, p. 232). Transactional leadership exchanges rewards, such as financial, recognition, and high scores on performance evaluations, for labor and obedience of followers. This type of leadership answers to the basic requirements of employees. Transformational leadership, however, goes beyond the basic needs of the followers and answers to the higher-level needs such as self-esteem, pride in one’s work and personal growth (Johnson, 2005). While transactional and transformational leadership are quite different, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive and, in fact, they can be complementary (Leithwood & Poplin, 1992). A transformational leader may use transactional tactics skillfully to benefit the organizational vision. The distinctions made between transformational and transactional leadership is often similar to the distinctions made between the roles of leadership and the roles of management (Stewart, 2006).

So, what is transformation leadership? Bass, Avolio, Jung and Berson (2003) described the four main characteristics of a transformational leader: 1) A transformational leader is the demonstration of idealized influence. They act as role models, their followers respect and admire them. They place their followers’ needs ahead of their own. 2) A transformational leader inspires motivation. They arouse team spirit in their followers, they are enthusiastic and optimistic and they develop a desired future vision. 3) A transformational leader is intellectually stimulating. They stimulate creativity and innovation within their followers. They encourage their followers to reframe situations to find new solutions to old problems. 4) A transformational leader gives individualized consideration. They act as coaches and mentors and they foster professional development and growth in their followers. They tailor their approach to their followers’ unique needs and desires.

Research has also shown that one’s level of emotional intelligence is more highly associated with effective leadership than IQ.  According to Sternberg (1996), “IQ accounts for as little as 4% of exceptional leadership, job performance and achievement; emotional intelligence (EQ) may account for over 90%” (as cited in Gill, 2011, p. 79). “Effective leaders ‘win people’s hearts.’ They use their personal power of emotional intelligence rather than position power (authority)” (Gill, 2011, p. 81). The dynamics between personal power (emotional intelligence) and positional power (authority) are interesting to consider. Certainly, one could assume that a combination of both personal and positional power would be desirable in order to optimize leadership effectiveness.

We, as humans, tend to be, in all different fields and contexts, resistant to change due to often long histories of operating under the context of status-quo.   Many changes are now required for us to keep up with the rapidly evolving society and work place.  Leaders with a vision for change that demonstrate the characteristics and behaviors of a transformational leader are required in order to overcome the all-too-common resistance to change, to rally and motivate personnel towards the desired future vision, and to hold the group momentum to achieve the stepping stones that lead towards the desired future vision. As Burns (1985) stated, “transformational leadership is more likely to… emerge in times of distress and change while transactional leadership is more likely to be observed in a well-ordered [and status-quo] society [or workplace]” (as cited in Bass et al., 2003, p. 208).  Bass (1985) went on to argue that “transformational leadership energizes groups to persist when conditions are unpredictable, difficult, and stressful” (as cited in Bass et al., 2003, p. 216).  

While it may be true that transactional leadership can be effective in a status-quo work environment, a vision for change and transformation requires a leader who will inspire followers to overcome their resistance to change, to work towards an organizational vision even during difficult periods and, generally speaking, do more than the minimum required to receive their pay cheque or positive yearly evaluation.  Evidence resulting from more than 100 empirical studies found that transformational leaders are more effective than transactional leaders and that their followers tend to be “more committed, form stronger bonds with colleagues, work harder and persist in the face of obstacles” (Johnson, 2005, p. 232).  The motivation of the followers, in this leadership model context, can actually seem to create an “increased capacity for achieving the mutual purpose” (Stewart, 2006, p. 9).  In other words, as in the phrase coined by Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” As it becomes more common for staff shortages in our current context, maximizing the effectiveness of teams becomes another valuable by-product of good leadership. Transformational leadership with its resulting employee motivation is then required to shepherd organizations, in whatever particular change context, into a bright and changed vision of the future. 

In times of change, it is also important that leadership put forward a strategic vision and implementation plan to lead the institute in a direction which will enable the organization to thrive and remain relevant.  Bates (2000) makes the point that this strategic vision should come from the senior leaders and management. He warns that sometimes consulting too much can just water down the vision. “The danger… is that bold, innovative plans that will take an institution into new directions will be watered down and rendered meaningless by attempts to please everyone” (p. 34).  An interesting consideration, indeed. While consulting and learning from external stakeholders and lower levels is certainly valuable in shaping the vision, the strategic vision should, ultimately, be authored, communicated, and pushed forward by transformational leaders who have the personal behaviors and skills necessary to champion that vision and who will then go on to influence, motivate, intellectually stimulate, enable, and encourage their teams, making use of their emotional intelligence and personal power in order to advance the necessary steps towards achieving the ultimate future vision.

Are your organization’s leaders, as a collective, up to the task of effectively leading through required changes? Are you, as a leader, up to the task?


Bass, B. M., Jung, D. I., Avolio, B. J., & Berson, Y. (2003). Predicting Unit Performance by Assessing Transformational and Transactional Leadership. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 88(2), 207-218. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.2.207

Bates, A.W. (2000). Managing technological change: Strategies for college and university leadersSan Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.  Chapter 2, pages 36-58.

Burns, J.M. (1978). Leadership. NY: Harper & Row.

Gill, R. (2011). Redefining leadership: A new model. In R. Gill Theory and practice of leadership (pp.91-123). London: SAGE Publications.

Johnson, C. E. (2005). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/59330_Chapter_7.pdf

Leithwood, K. A., & Poplin, M. S. (1992). The move toward transformational leadership. Educational Leadership, (5), 8.

Stewart, J. (2006). Transformational Leadership: An Evolving Concept Examined through the Works of Burns, Bass, Avolio, and Leithwood. Canadian Journal Of Educational Administration And Policy, (54), 1-29.

Zigarelli, M. (2013, August 17). Ten Leadership Theories in Five Minutes.  Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKUPDUDOBVo

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