Research Analysis and Overview of “Transformational Leadership in the Public Sector: Does Structure Matter?”

By Jorge Sigler

Introductory Note

The current political picture in the United States has potential repercussions for future generations.  Policy changes can affect our children for their entire lives even if changed again in the near future.  Changes to our educational system can affect our children’s education for life, the withdrawal of federal protection for transgender students in public schools opens the door for traumatic events that can scar them and their families for life, or worse.  Many other examples can be drawn from the attitude of the current administration towards immigrants, women’s health, the environmental protection agency, the civil rights movements, the international community, and more issues that are vital to our communities and deeply intertwined with basic human rights.

The purpose of this review is to explore and understand the rise of transformational leadership behaviors within the public sector and how the bureaucratic nature of this sector affects them.  We need to stand with our brothers and sisters affected by new legislation and speak out in their defense, and transformational leadership can be an effective way to drive progress inside the intricate creature that is our local, state and federal organizations.  Transformational leadership, its role, value and characteristics within the public sector hold great importance, in our current political context, for people working inside the public sector, for candidates aspiring to enter the political arena, for voters and for every inhabitant, human and non-human, of our territory.  Transformational leaders have a deep moral compass and their behaviors will align with the improvement and enrichment of our nation as a whole; thus, we must be able to recognize them and aid them in their endeavors for the good of our fellow Americans, regardless of their race, ideology, gender and sexual orientation, species, belief or lack thereof, country of origin or physical or mental capacities.

Original Article Analyzed

Title:  Transformational Leadership in the Public Sector: Does Structure Matter?
Author(s):
  Bradley E. Wright and Sanjay K. Pandey
Source: 
Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: J-PART, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan. 2010), pp. 75-89
Published by:
  Oxford University Press on behalf of the Public Management Research Association
Stable URL:
  http://www.jstor.org/stable/20627893

Subject Area

The analyzed article delves in the topic of transformation leadership, more specifically in the public sector.  It seeks to expand the understanding of the effects that organizational structure has over leadership in the public sector; the perceived high levels of bureaucracy, characteristic of governmental organizations, are expected to hinder the development of transformational leadership behaviors.

Preamble

Transformational leadership, as inferred by its name, is established in a process that stimulates people to assess their positions towards an institution or idea and, by motivating change, transforms them into actively involved followers.  Transformational leadership is a system that appeals to emotions and priorities, as well as moral and ethical values; as such, public sector organizations can benefit greatly from such traits.  However, public sector institutions are normally regarded as highly complex, restricting and bureaucratic entities of a Kafkaesque nature.  These expected bureaucratic mechanisms are believed to substitute active leadership with an established set of rules and guidelines.  Reality, however, challenges the results expected by scholars in the leadership field; public sector organizations exhibit transformational leadership behaviors at a higher degree of occurrence and more effectively than expected.  The analyzed article calls for further analysis and research in the field and provides partial explanations, sustained by the authors’ findings, for the results.

It is important to separate transformational leadership, an approach that involves raising the level of morality in others, from Bass’ (1998) pseudotransformational leadership.  Pseudotransformational leadership represents a leadership approach in which the transformation of the followers occurs from a negative perspective; this method denotes leaders who are egocentric, oppressive, power-hungry and with a twisted moral system.  Such an approach is aligned with figures like Mussolini, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Francisco Franco and many other leaders.  Transformational leadership is concerned with the collective good rather than the good of specific sectors or individuals, making it a socialized view.  Unable to surpass individual needs for the sake of others, pseudotransformational leaders manage to inspire their followers for individual interests rather than the interests of others.

Hypothesis

The key points raised in the article are:

  • Transformational leadership is expected to be less common and fruitful in public sector institutions.
  • The practice of transformational leadership behaviors is directly correlated to the strength of the organization’s lateral/upwards communication.
  • A strong level of organizational formalization hinders the practice of transformational leadership behaviors.
  • The reported practice of transformational leadership behaviors increases as an organization minimizes the establishment of extrinsic reward-performance contingencies.
  • Usage of performance measures decreases the reported transformational leadership behaviors.

Analysis of Key Points

Given the implied need for flexibility and discretion within transformational leadership, it is logical to assume that bureaucratic organizations would obstruct the rise and effectiveness of transformational leaders.  Public sector institutions favor leadership from a rational- and legal-based perspective over that from a charismatic perspective, a term closely tied to transformational leadership, given the need and desire for stability, predictability and equity.  Transformational leadership is a step beyond transactional leadership, in which leaders manage by example and make use of contingent rewards for performance; transformational leadership relies on 4 factors:

  1. Idealized influence/charisma:  This factor relates to the leader’s ability to appeal to active and potential followers.  It is an emotional trait of transformational leadership that highlights the ability to display empathy and stimulate the followers to want to emulate the leader.  Such leaders usually hold a strong moral compass and set of ethical values.  In transformational leadership, the relationship leader-follower is one of high importance and usually recognized by the leader, who continually expresses, in verbal and non-verbal ways, respect for the followers and trust in their capacities.
  2. Inspirational stimulation:  This factor expresses the leader’s capacity to motivate the followers by expressing high expectations and his/her trust in their capacity to accomplish them, as well the leader’s capacity to unite the followers, creating strong synergies.
  3. Intellectual stimulation:  This factor refers to the leader’s ability to inspire novel approaches and to motivate the followers to challenge their own values, beliefs and ideals and those of the organization or community.  A personal and collective inventory of beliefs, values and actions shakes the very fundamentals of our own perceptions; transformational leaders are able to stimulate such inventory while, at the same time, encouraging the followers to elaborate approaches to improve current situations.
  4. Individualized consideration:  This last factor is illustrative of providing support and coaching to the followers; the leader provides individualized attention to the concerns and potential grievances of the followers, engages with them and provides the moral support needed to jump into action.

The procedures of public sector organizations limit individual discretion and foment uniformity within their employees’ interpretation and reaction to given situations; said institutions also rely mostly on downward flowing communication.  Such a system reduces the need of transformational leaders given that the organizational procedures provide sufficient indications to guide employees while also restricting the leader’s ability to act in innovative ways and to reinterpret visions and objectives in a manner that can inspire followers.  Transformational leadership requires freedom for the leader to make discretionary decisions and to implement unconventional solutions as well as to allow followers to express ideas.  The constraints of bureaucratic environments inhibit the very development of transformational leadership behaviors at the core.  Limited communication would also seem to be detrimental to transformational leadership behaviors given the intrinsic need for communication between the leader and the followers.

Other characteristics associated with the public sector, believed to stimulate the emergence of transformational leadership behaviors, include the limited use of performance measures and the weak relationship between rewards and employee performance.  Public sector performance measures and extrinsic rewards for employee performance are closely tied together; these institutions are typically thought to have ambiguous performance goals that are hard to measure and, therefore, the relationship between rewards and performance is also unclear and abstruse.  Usage of performance measures and of reward-to-performance systems is more aligned with transactional leadership.  Transactional leadership has a trait called “contingent reward,” which is an exchange within the leaders and the followers in which effort from the followers is remunerated with a specific reward.  While transactional leadership stimulates and generates expected outcomes from the followers and their actions, transformational leadership, on the other hand, stands a step ahead of transactional leadership and aims for performance beyond expectations.

Research Approach and Results

The data utilized for the article was collected in the National Administrative Studies Project Phase-IV (NASP-IV); this is part of a multimethod study, a survey administered to a nationwide sample.  The sample analyzed by NASP-IV included senior managers (both general and functional) in local U.S. governmental jurisdictions.  A total of 3316 individuals were surveyed and 1538 responded.  Given that the focus of the article was leadership, the responses of chief administrative officers were excluded to avoid self-reports, leading to a sample of 1322 responses.

The results obtained support the view that hierarchical structures within organizations and a weak lateral and upwards communication are detrimental to the ignition of transformational leadership behaviors and to their effectiveness.  At the same time, respondents did not describe their local governmental organizations as highly bureaucratic and reported the usage of a moderate level of performance measures.  Chief administrative officers were reported, by respondents, as exhibiting a somewhat high level of transformational leadership.

Results, however, did not support the claims that a greater formalization has any sort of effect on the extent to which leaders were reported to exercise transformational leadership behaviors.  It was also unsupported that the lower level of reward-performance contingencies required leaders to depend on transformational practices to stimulate followers.  On the same line, the usage of performance measurements affected positively the degree of transformational leadership behaviors exercised by chief administrative officers.

Conclusions

The analyzed article ventures into public-sector organizations, a system that has not yet been deeply explored, bringing to light discoveries that call out for further study and challenging scholars’ perceptions.  In relation to the use of performance measures or metrics, it can be inferred that, given the nature of governmental institutions, these can be used by the leaders to illustrate in a clear manner the objectives and mission of the organization to the followers, also potentially utilizing them as means to imbue confidence in the followers towards the organization by showing them the impact of their work.

One relevant implication that can be observed, although it requires future research, is that the emergence of transformational leadership does not seem to be impeded by the nature and shape of governmental institutions.  Such presumption must be leveled with the findings that governmental institutions are not as Kafkaesque as expected and with the detriment that hierarchical authority structure and weak lateral/upwards communications cause to transformational leadership behaviors.  But it is still an interesting finding that transformational leadership can sprout regardless of the constraints inherent in the type of organization being analyzed.  Transformational leadership behaviors may, perhaps, answer to social and organizational needs rather than to environmental cues.  Transformational leadership behaviors are inherently intertwined with the value-theory field of philosophy, a field that continues to evolve over time as our own understanding of the self, our communities and our environments expands; transformation leadership may be nothing but the next step in social evolution.  Further study is required in order to better understand the inner workings and stimuli behind transformational leadership.

Implications

There are many points of great value that can be extracted from this article.  Structure does matter as it does have an effect on the exercise of transformational leadership behaviors; however, it does not suppress this exercise and, as reflected in the article, it seems to hold no greater challenge to the emergence of transformational leadership behaviors.

Communication is an important factor for transformational leadership and more open and transparent channels may be required in public sector institutions, a proposal that sounds highly intuitive given the very nature of such organizations.

Tools perceived as constrictive to transformational leadership, such as rewards for performance contingencies or measures of performance, can become tools that aid the transformational leader to properly express the goals and mission of an institution to the followers.

Overall, transformational leadership is a versatile approach that requires the leader to mold the approach in order to effectively reach and stimulate the followers; the inner workings and mechanism of a specific organization may obstruct the effectiveness of transformational leadership behaviors, but the very nature of transformational leadership is driven by the need, both from the leader and the followers, to substantially improve current mechanisms with novel ones.

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