Transformational leadership styles create better leaders in the Internet Age

The ubiquity of the Internet and improvements in communication technologies make it easier to work remotely. Virtual work arrangements have become more popular over the years, and inescapable since the COVID pandemic, when working from home became the norm for many kinds of jobs. Remote work means not in the same physical location, and can be done from home, a coffee shop, co-working space, off-site office, or even while on the road. This global transition to working remotely is fundamentally changing how organisations work and create value in both the physical and virtual world. This change in how teams work is creating a new context for leadership, and affects how leadership is defined and practised. When an organisation shifts to a predominantly distributed virtual work setting, the leader's ability to influence might be more important than their ability to directly manage, and they will need to be more proactive in creating social structures and connections within their teams.

The distributed work environment

Flexibility and mobility of work has its own benefits such as reduced living expenses, better work-life balance, and access to a wider pool of possible employees, but it also has its challenges for leadership dynamics. Being distributed, communication must become more asynchronous which raises challenges around project management, conflict resolution, team culture, trust and team cohesion. Furthermore, greater distancing and varying time zones can affect leadership effectiveness, job satisfaction, staff retention, and employee performance and commitment to the organisation (Golden and Veiga, 2008).

The isolated nature of remote working presents challenges for everyone at work. Remote workers report feeling separated from the work environment and to some extent the informal social interactions that happen at work with colleagues (Crandall and Gao, 2005, cited in Dahlstrom, 2013). Working remotely and being out of sight might limit their opportunities for promotion, and how they communicate their self-identity to the rest of the organisation (Thatcher and Zhu, 2006, cited in Dahlstrom, 2013).

The virtual work environment also presents benefits and impediments to communication (Dahlstrom, 2013). Asynchronous communication styles allow for more flexibility around being available online, and for communication between people that are geographically dispersed. However, team members can find it difficult to communicate effectively through mediated communication channels. The communication might lack essential information or non-verbal cues. The increase in the amount of communication means messages of value might be missed, and interpreting ambiguous messages becomes harder (Dahlstrom, 2013).

Key features to ensure dispersed team success include efficient use of technology, swifter establishment of trust, development of sound organisational norms, in-depth onboarding and orientation, solid communication, cultural awareness and respect, and adept conflict management (Allen and Ofahengaue Vakalahi, 2013). Technology is imperative for team operations and involves using multiple media for synchronous and asynchronous communication. Strong interpersonal relationships between team members and definitions around acceptable risk taking create a safe environment that accommodates independent actions. Conscious and detailed orientation of team members ensures everyone is aware of the organisation's mission, vision, goals, ground rules, expectations, tasks, and deadlines (Allen and Ofahengaue Vakalahi, 2013). Open and effective communication is essential for productivity and team building, as well as effective conflict resolution, and eliminating confusion. Appreciation of cultural differences means paying attention to personality types, functional differences of various departments and teams, company culture, and national cultural context (Allen and Ofahengaue Vakalahi, 2013). Lastly, conflict occurs as a result of weak relationships, lack of shared context, or incomplete information, and various strategies are needed to address and manage these conflicts (Allen and Ofahengaue Vakalahi, 2013). In geographically distributed teams with mixed motives, the individual is challenged when trying to identify with a collective team entity, due to less opportunities for social interactions and local demands (Fiol and O'Connor 2005 as cited in Joshi at al. 2009). Therefore, Joshi (2009) suggests that it is critical for leaders to foster a collective identity among their remote team members by drawing on social relationships. They propose that inspirational leadership, which is part of the transformational leadership approach, and which concentrates on communicating a vision, conveying trust in the team, and motivating them (Bass, 2008) is suitable for establishing social relationships to advance the team entity.

Transformational and empowering leadership theories

The transformational approach to leadership goes beyond the consideration of the relationship between the leader and their report as an exchange involving rewards or punishments (such as the case with transactional leadership). It considers the individual on the team with regards to their aspirations, abilities, and intellectual stimulation. It also considers the leader's traits that contribute to transforming their followers. According to Rosenback and Sachkin (2007) successful transformational leadership relies upon leadership behaviours such as clear communication, credibility, caring, and enabling, as well as the leader's characteristics including confidence, vision, a focus on their followers, and on building culture.

Transformational leadership is primarily based on the four I's:

  • Idealised influence, meaning the leader serves as a charismatic role model.
  • Inspirational motivation is about galvanising a higher drive for achievement by communicating higher expectations.
  • Intellectual stimulation is challenging one's own beliefs and values to encourage more creative ways of thinking.
  • Individualised consideration means coaching, mentoring and supporting followers, and providing a psychologically safe work environment.

Sethibe and Steyn (2015) looked into the impact of leadership styles on the relationship between innovation and organisational performance. They consulted 31 major research databases using the systematic literature review methodology. They found that transformational leadership is mostly associated with organisational performance. They posit that transformational leadership focuses on long term goals, emphasises a vision and aligns systems to accommodate this vision, develops followers to have greater responsibility, increases collective interest, is motivational, and is intellectually stimulating. Sethibe and Steyn's results reveal that transformational leadership style is positively associated with innovation, and in turn, innovation is positively associated with organisational performance.

Deinert, et al. (2015) performed a meta analysis of 58 studies and examined sub-dimensions in transformational leadership and their connection to the personality of the leader. They found five personality traits that are connected to a leader's performance. According to their analysis, transformational leadership appeals to moral values to go beyond personal goals for the greater collective's aims. The leader acts as a role model and their motivation inspires and motivates their followers. According to Northouse (2010) the basic premise of transformational leadership is focusing on positively changing individuals via a strong moral and motivational connection between the leader and their followers.

Lee (2010) defines empowering leadership as "leading by allowing self-managed work teams to take on the responsibilities of traditional management". It involves implementing a system to allow team members to self-manage. Empowering leadership is about sharing power, delegating tasks and giving the team members the ability to make crucial decisions (Seibert et al., 2011). Where power is shared, there is an opportunity for the team members to take responsibility for these decisions. This gives the team member a sense of ownership, increases job satisfaction, and can be very motivating. Empowerment cannot happen without the leader's trust in the team member. Trust improves the bottom line for the organisation, increases employee engagement, and minimises staff turnover (Seibert et al., 2011). Lee et al. conducted a meta analysis of available field experiments to investigate empowering leadership on employee performance. They collected data from 105 samples of more than 30,000 individuals from 30 countries. They found positive correlation between empowering leadership and employee work performance, organisational citizenship behaviour, and creativity at both the individual and team levels.

Application of theoretical leadership theories to remote teams

Creating a healthy and positive organisational culture is essential for distributed teams to be effective and perform well (Allen and Ofahengaue Vakalahi, 2013). The behaviours and characteristics of transformational leaders are even more relevant to virtual remote teams because of the limited to no face-to-face time between the leader, their followers, individual team members, and key people from the organisation. Due to distance, lack of face to face interactions, and an asynchronous communication style, a transformational leadership style is required to establish and maintain a cohesive remote team (Allen and Ofahengaue Vakalahi, 2013).

Brunelle (2013) tested the impact of physical and psychological distance on the relationship between the superior and their subordinates, and looked at how transformational leadership moderates team members behaviour. Brunelle gathered and analysed data from 286 respondents at an international IT consultancy. The analyses found a negative correlation between physical and psychological distance and the quality of the relationship between the superior and their subordinates. They also found that transformational leadership approach mitigated the negative effects caused by increased distance. In a contrasting study, Eisenberg et al. (2019) examined a sample of 53 real life innovation teams in various work configurations, from co-located teams to highly dispersed teams. They examined the relationship between the team's dispersion, communication, and performance with transformational leadership approach. Eisenberg et al. found that as team structures become more geographically dispersed, transformational leadership yields inconsistent results with regards to team performance and is less effective in highly dispersed teams than in co-located ones. This is perhaps because team members have difficulty communicating with their leader as timezones get in the way and the leader might seem "too far removed". In geographically distributed teams, transformational leaders should provide clearer direction and well-defined structure, as well as find ways where team members are involved in regulating performance patterns and team processes (Eisenberg et al., 2019).

Bell and Kozlowski (2002) suggest that leaders of virtual teams should be proactive in providing straightforward directions and clear goals to encourage individual members to self-regulate their work and performance. This might involve motivational incentives, well-defined objectives, and a clear vision (Bell and Kozlowski, 2002). Day (2000) suggests organisations should educate their employees on operational consistency of processes and desired cultural behaviours in addition to keeping everyone up to date with what is happening in the organisation. Practicing these types of organisational education may increase the success of the leader's efforts.


Geographically dispersed teams are becoming a necessity as the trend of remote working continues. Leaders need to adapt their approach to take this into account. Routines that work when the team is co-located and that can easily create social connections and networks do not work as well when the team works remotely and in an asynchronous manner. Leaders can follow principles from transformational leadership theory to inspire team members to work better by clearly identifying roles, setting a project vision, providing challenges and recognition of work, and by rewarding responsibility and creativity. Better yet, leaders should empower people and lead self-managed work teams with distributed leadership functions. They should develop rules, guidelines, and habitual routines, provide motivational incentives, set strong objectives and mission, and lastly develop an appropriate and healthy work climate. Applying the principles of these theories when leading distributed teams will be key to achieving performant projects, satisfied team members, and successful organisations.


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