Leader smiling in front of crowd

Inspirational vs transformational leadership

Exploring the characteristics and interplay between these two styles

Written by Andrea Walters FAIM
5 minute read
Leader smiling in front of crowd

With so many definitions of leadership available, it remains a regularly debated topic. And people are especially curious about the differences between an inspirational and transformational leader.

Inspirational leaders are typically characterised as charismatic, with the ability to convey a compelling vision and rally their teams to get behind it. Or perhaps they act as a symbol of hope, like Dame Quentin Bryce, who was the first female Governor General of Australia, serving from 2008 to 2014.

Transformational leaders, on the other hand, are often reportedly laser-focused on driving significant and lasting change in an organisation, or industry. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and revolutionary of the e-commerce industry through innovation and customer-centricity, springs to mind.

But what are the key characteristics of each type of leader? Is one style of leadership more effective than another, particularly in some contexts or industries? And can a leader demonstrate both of these styles?

Workplace Conversations spoke to AIM WA CEO and social affairs and workplace expert, Professor Gary Martin FAIM, for his insights into the complexities of inspirational and transformational leadership and how adaptability plays a large part in effective leadership.

How would you define ‘inspirational’ and ‘transformational’ leadership?

Presenting a symbiotic relationship between inspirational and transformational leadership, Professor Martin aligns inspiration with visionary thinking, new ideas and engaging the team. While transformation can be seen as the ‘action’ part of the equation, when the leader drives the execution of these ideas, creating significant change in the organisation.

"I would say inspirational leadership is the big picture stuff, coming up with ideas that will secure an organisation's future and motivating people to do it,” Professor Martin said.

"It’s a subset of transformative leadership because inspiring leaders encourage great ideas, innovation and looking forward. And the transformational leadership part of it is actually doing it,” he adds.

As Professor Martin sees it, these two leadership styles are certainly not distinct, rather they are interconnected. "You can't have one without the other,” he said.

“Pure inspiration without follow-through or transformation lacks substance. True leadership involves inspiring individuals to act and supporting them throughout the change process."

What are the key characteristics of inspirational and transformational leaders?

According to Professor Martin, emotional intelligence (EQ) plays a crucial role in inspirational leadership.

"You can't be an inspirational leader if you're not making the connection with people, or if you're not actually speaking to people," he said.

“If you're not acknowledging their fears when you're talking about changing something in a radical way, if they’re worried that their job is going to disappear or change radically, then people won't get inspired.”

On the other hand, Professor Martin highlights how transformational leadership requires adaptability (AQ).

"If you're not an adaptable leader yourself, then you're not going to bring about transformational change," he said.

Gary Martin
AIM WA Chief Executive Officer, Professor Gary Martin FAIM 

While both styles share qualities like emotional intelligence, adaptability, and intelligence (IQ), Professor Martin emphasises the need for a well-rounded approach to leadership. "You also need cultural intelligence (CQ) in terms of working with people from diverse backgrounds."

Do you need a different style of leadership for short-term motivation vs long-term change?

Addressing the common perception that inspirational leadership is focused on short-term motivation, contrasting with transformational leadership's orientation towards long-term change, Professor Martin challenges this notion.

"You'll often hear people talk about how inspirational something was after it’s been achieved. So, it's not necessarily short-term. I think along the journey, when you're driving something, there's got to be inspiration throughout, not just at the initial stages," he said.

Rejecting the word ‘resilience’ for its negative connotations, for Professor Martin, leadership is much more about ‘steering’ your way around obstacles and being able to sustain motivation through persistence and keeping things moving along. He acknowledges that this is one of the hardest things for leaders to do and this has to be coupled with actual results.

“If a leader is grand in their vision and full of the right rhetoric, but never really achieves anything, then people will fail to be inspired in the future.” 

How does context impact leadership?

Challenging the oversimplification of leadership into two distinct styles, Professor Martin offers how the type of leadership required at a particular time varies significantly according to context. The type of leadership that’s needed to overcome an initial crisis, for example, might be more direct.

"The reality is that leadership is situational," Professor Martin said. "Sometimes it's about keeping the status quo going and not transforming anything. And that's the best approach at that time."

According to Professor Martin, leaders need the ability to read situations and respond to contextual demands with a high degree of adaptability.

Are there industry-specific leadership qualities that boards look for in a CEO?

When asked about whether specific industries need CEOs with particular inspirational or transformational qualities, Professor Martin again dismisses the one-size-fits-all approach.

"I don't think that either one of these styles of leadership is necessarily better suited to an industry than the other. It's about the approach that you take in any given situation to get the best out of your people depending on what an organisation needs,” he said.

Professor Martin further emphasises adaptability to context, "What's being measured in each type of organisation is different. In a shareholder environment, shareholder return is the measure. It might be social impact in a not-for-profit.” This versatility to meet the specific needs of an organisation is a critical part of any leader’s repertoire.

Reinforcing that inspirational and transformational are complementary leadership styles, Professor Martin said, “Ultimately, pick a leader in any organisation and work out whether they're the more inspirational or transformational and you'll probably find most of them are a blend."

Is there a Western Australian leader that you admire?

When asked about who he admires from the Western Australian leadership community, Professor Martin felt he could name many remarkable leaders across the State’s sectors. However, he named Professor Fiona Wood AM, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, and leading burns specialist, as a particular leading light.

"[She] inspires me, with her passion and energy. And she's transformed medicine. Professor Wood has the determination to do remarkable things for society. Not just talk about it, but to do it. And that shows both inspirational and transformational leadership."

Is there a personal reflection on leadership you can share?

In closing, Professor Martin reflected on his own leadership journey so far, sharing valuable insights into leadership that fosters innovation. The notion that effective leadership involves generating new ideas, as well as encouraging others to come up with their own, is a clear theme.

“I do think that inspirational and transformational leadership is underpinned by leaders in organisations planting seeds and encouraging ideas and empowering people to run with them," he said.

At the same time, supporting the team to then take ownership of these initiatives emerges as a guiding principle.

“It's interesting that most transformational leadership comes from your team of people and not from the person who planted the seed in the first place. And most of the inspirational leadership comes from those individuals as well,” Professor Martin discussed.

For Professor Martin, the ability to inspire, transform and empower others forms the cornerstone of impactful leadership, underscoring the dynamic interplay between visionary thinking and actionable and lasting change.