Not all academic papers lose value with age, but Bass (1990) on transformational leadership certainly has. Mostly because it would be hard to find anyone with eyes and ears these days who doesn’t know that a large component of contemporary business works on institutionalised dishonesty about ends, about care for employees, about paying taxes, and about exploitive practices. Maybe Bass genuinely didn’t know about these trends, which emerged in the 1980s with Thatcherism and Reaganomics, but it is now too late to pretend such things aren’t built into many organisations.
The same applies to public sector organisations, where the senior executives are demonstrably more interested in a career-neutral inertia than is necessary to allow less senior leaders to actually transform moribund structures.
That said, Bass’s most timeless mistake, in my view, is that it is possible to teach traits like charisma, or inspirational qualities. I have never seen someone who lacked these characteristics acquire them through training, though I have seen people who did have those characteristics benefit from mentoring and some reflective exercises.
A lot of the transformation leadership activities and routines Bass describes were pretty much standard in some organisations I have worked for, but they never turned a lemon into a leopard, or a self-destructive, or egoistic wanker, into a more successful manager.
Despite my earnest desire for it to be different, I have also never worked anywhere I can honestly say promoted ‘intelligence, rationality, and careful problem solving’ (p. 22), least of all in the public sector. Arse-kissing, nepotism, the old boy’s network, and even sexual relationships were far more often the visible causes of promotion than merit, though merit did occasionally get a look-in.
I am, however, personally convinced that direct engagement with all staff to gain front-line insights, offer immediate and personalised feedback or advice, and to lead from the front are methods that would gain my loyalty, and that I sued to gain the loyalty of staff working for me in the past (see pp. 21, 24). In contrast, the arrogant demand for a diminution of individual liberty and conscience as represented by Ross Perot (p. 23) would see me quit or venture off the reservation. It is simply unconscionable for a tyrant to make exacting demands without sharing the spoils. If I wanted to be a military man that’s what I’d be, and I don’t buy the warfare metaphor for business.
A point on which I absolutely agree with Bass is:
… mass communications directed toward individual employees are much more likely to have an impact if the messages are reinforced face-to-face by their supervisors at all organizational levels. (p. 25.)
Overall, Bass seems almost breathlessly optimistic about the military model for leadership, but expects employees and junior managers to be empty vessels who will just absorb all the rhetoric uncritically.
As I said at the outset, the ideological fervor of Reaganomics and Thatcherism has settled back since 1990 into a growing awareness of just how damaging some their tenets have been to the US, the UK, and the entire world.
Bass’s 1990 conclusion remains a management mantra:
Problems, rapid changes, and uncertainties call for a flexible organization with determined leaders who can inspire employees to participate enthusiastically in team efforts and share in organizational goals. (p. 31.)
But it doesn’t really enlighten the subject much. I expect a more cerebral and convincingly evidence-driven argument in 2014.
Bass, B.M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19–31. doi: 10.1016/0090-2616(90)90061-S