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Transactional vs. Transformational Leaders in Project Management

As a project manager coach and teacher, it is important to continuously learn the evolving art of leadership.

Contemporary Issues in Leadership

Currently, I am reading a fascinating book of essays on leadership called “Contemporary Issues in Leadership- 7th edition” compiled by editors William E. Rosenbach, Robert L. Taylor, and Mark A. Youndt (2012) and the opening to part one speaks of transactional verses transformational leaders. 

Both types of leadership really are a win-win or a lose-lose proposition as leadership (regardless of what spin anyone puts on it) is judged in a hierarchal fashion: based on the performance of a department leader’s (and the subordinate employees) ability to meet or exceed a mission.

The difference you will see is that transactional leadership is a push style leadership method, whereas transformational leadership is more of a “lead from the front” pull style of leadership.

In essence, a transactional leader is what I believe we mostly understand as the very baseline of leadership. Whether in the home or at work, it is a tit for tat style of leadership based on punishments and rewards. For instance, if a child cleans her room, she may get a cookie at lunch. However, if she does not clean her room, she may be sanctioned or disciplined in some manner. The very act of why she is cleaning her room may or may not be known to her and is not important so long as the mandate is fulfilled.

In recruiting or sales, this is often the basis for compensation (commission) and continued employment or no compensation or discontinued employment with the firm. As project managers, we are not forced to lead in this manner.

Transformational leadership is that of buy-in. The leader and the subordinates are all in together to transform the environment gearing it towards success based on shared values and principals. 

Going back to the example of the little girl and her room, her mother has taught her why it is important to have a tidy room such as less clutter, easier to find and enjoy her toys, and no food crumbs on the floor that attracts ants making the home a pleasant home for all. 

In addition, she cleans her room because she is part of a household and that it is the right thing to do to chip in and help out in her sphere of influence. The reward is the sense of belonging and accomplishment in and of itself and the cookies are really just a pleasant snack for her and mom to enjoy at lunch.

Whereas in transactional leadership the manager usually spells out how to accomplish the mission, a transformational leader involves everyone to the extent possible on how together they will accomplish the mission. Transformational leadership is empowering. In the Army, we called this teach, coach, and mentor style of leadership.

I have always loved the basic definition of leadership provided by the Army. ADRP 6-22 “Army Leadership” (2012) defines leadership as “Leadership is the process of influencing people by providing purposedirection, and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization”. It is as I taught my subordinate leaders a three legged stool. If you take just one leg out of the equation, your leadership will fail.

The first leg is to provide the purpose or the “what”. What is the mission at hand as delegated by the strategic levels of an organization? What is our purpose in the scope or mission of a project?

The second leg is more transactional in that the leader provides “direction” or the “how” but can be transformational if the equation of how is (time permitting) defined by the team or small unit as a whole. In my past Army recruiting battalion, our commander at the time Lieutenant Colonel (now Colonel) Lynn Marm, reminded her lower echelon Company Commanders (and their First Sergeants) that they are her board of directors. They are the ones that develop the vision and plan to attack the mission assigned from above.

The third leg is motivation. Transactional leaders will provide tangible motivators such as a reward or consequence for not doing what has been told. In the Army, Soldiers are bound by federal law to obey the orders of those appointed over them so long as the orders are ethical. Transformational leaders provide a shared vision with shared results and share in the reward or failure as a team. They teach, coach, and mentor the subordinates to think in a team manner.

Typically the result of transactional leadership verses transformational leadership is the outcome. Transactional teams usually result in getting by. They do enough to avoid negative consequences and must be lured with rewards to go the extra distance. Transformational teams feel an ownership and will want to exceed the mandate because they feel their reputation or bragging rights as a collective group is at stake.

More perspective from another author.

In another book that I am reading “Lessons in IT Transformation: Technology Expert to Business Leader” by Larry Bonfante (2011) the author is writing to what many consider an introverted audience that are technically smart yet are many times socially awkward in (ever increasing) leadership roles. The author states there are several roles that aLessons IT Transformation leader must exercise. In his words, “The modern CIO has to be an evangelist, an innovator, a revenue producer, a consumer expert, and an executive relationship manager”. Later on page 11 onward, the author goes into more detail expanding on roles of the CIO which are:

Business Executive. Any title with a “C” such as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) is at the executive level of the organization.

Evangelist. A leader must move the emotion and intellect of the crew. A saying I once heard in the Army was that “the will and heart of a soldier is the most dangerous weapon on a battlefield”. That is brought on by inspiring leaders.  

Captain of a Ship.

Teacher and Coach. This is part of what the Army heavily teaches as part of its leaders teaching, coaching, and mentoring their soldiers assigned to them.

Cheerleader. Especially for today’s Millennial Generation.


Innovator. Avoid disruption for the company and innovate new business processes.

Shop Foreman. Similar to Captain of a Ship above.

In my own self-reflection, I believe the one area I would need to focus more on is that of “cheerleader”. I really do come from an older mentality that one should do their job merely because there is always someone else willing to do it your stead- and sometimes for cheaper. Being that I buy into transformational leadership, this is a very transactional mindset I must overcome. 

Especially coming from nearly two decades in Army service. I have witnessed the change in mentality of children brought up with a disciplined background and those of more coddled background. Before being titled “Millennials”, we used to refer to them as Generation Y (after the Generation X parents of Millennials who themselves were children of the Baby Boomers or the rebellious generation of Vietnam). Often we would joke that the Soldiers we were getting were “Generation Why” because they asked why all the time when given an order.

I am looking forward to reading and reflecting more on both of these books.

Nathan J. Kerr, MS, PMP is the co-owner and founder of PMCertDC – Washington D.C.’s metro area premier project management boot camp provider. With our primary location in Tysons, Virginia, we hold classes throughout the Washington D.C. metro area and anywhere online.

We are a proud Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business with a huge impact on the project management world. Visit us at https://pmcertdc.com

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