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Transformational leadership

By Sam S. Rainer III

In 1978 James MacGregor Burns published his seminal book, Leadership. This work shifted and shaped the paradigm on leadership studies. As a result of his work, researchers and biographers discussed less the character traits of leaders and focused more on the engagement of leaders with their followers for a common goal. Burns’ book focused primarily on the political sphere, but his leadership theories struck a chord with many. Other experts in the field quickly picked up Burns’ mantle, empirically measuring and validating the theory of what became transformational leadership that is popular today.

The main idea that Burns proposed was a differentiation between transactional and transformational leaders.

Transactional leaders utilize a social exchange to accomplish their goals. The example of politics is used frequently: you vote for me and I’ll do this for you. These leaders use a quid pro quo to lead. In the financial world, this exchange can take the form of incentives for productivity or disincentives for a lack of productivity. Those with the authority are able to offer something in exchange for a following. And they can take away things when followers don’t follow well.

Transformational leaders operate much differently. These leaders inspire people to reach for a common goal. They develop, train, and mentor future talent. They empower people to accomplish tasks. Creativity, transparency and authenticity are valued. Leaders and followers alike know what the goal is and how to achieve it. These leaders show everyone the big picture and why it’s important.

For the most part, leaders should act in a more transformational capacity. There are times for transactional leadership—a Sergeant under fire in a foxhole needs to use his authority without explaining the “big picture” to everyone. In general, however, the idea is to motivate people with a common purpose and not press them in a certain direction with power-wielding authority.

Unfortunately, I see too much transactional leadership in the church. It can take a couple of forms: autocratic pastors or power-hungry parishioners letting everyone know who pays the bills. Clearly, these two examples are polar extremes, but they do emerge in lesser degrees. The greater problem that occurs in many churches is the level of comfort derived from a transactional environment. A group of people give to the church; the pastor mollycoddles them. Faithful stewardship and caring for a flock are biblical, but an exchange for the two is not healthy.

Christ obviously exemplifies the best leadership practices. He is a servant-leader. His model is the one to follow. As servant-leaders, however, we can act in a transformational way. How can people within the church become more transformational? What helps create a transformational environment in the church? I’ve listed below a few examples.

Become a champion of the mission statement. Almost every church has a mission/purpose/values/vision statement. It may be several paragraphs long, but it is the rallying point for all ministries in the church. It may need some refining, but it is the common goal for the church. Run with it. Champion it. Memorize it. Tactfully show everyone how the ministries of the church fall under it. And use it as a means of making Christ-followers.

Celebrate conversions. What a great way to show everyone the “big picture” by throwing a huge party for anyone that comes to know Christ through the ministries of the church.

Recognize people publicly when they do something creative or accomplish a significant goal. Most people like to be recognized when the accomplish something. Pastors and leaders should find ways to let the church know when someone accomplishes a significant goal. This recognition will remind everyone what they are working for and encourage them to keep moving forward as a church.

Be a vocal supporter. Some of my favorite people within the church are the “quiet” supporters—those who send notes in the mail or place cards discretely on my desk while I’m not there. I cherish the joyful surprises of reading them. As much as the church leadership needs quiet supporters, however, leaders also need vocal supporters. People willing to stand up in business meeting and say they are proud of the direction of the church.

What do you say? Any other suggestions for a transformational church environment?

Sam S. Rainer III is the president of Rainer Research and senior pastor of First Baptist Church Murray, Murray, KY. [www.rainerresearch.com] [www.fbcmurray.org]

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2 Comments for “Transformational leadership”

  1. Stan – I agree! Being a transformational leader and a servant leader go hand-in-hand.

  2. Thank you for your insightful article. Too many have missed Burns and followed a much simpler and less well thought out leadership style. Transformational leadership is a “come let us model.’ It is decisive, collaborative, not consensus. A true servant leader is a sacrificial leader, one who will give up his life before he gives up his cause. The servant leadership of Jesus is powerful when put into practice.

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