Is there a dark side to transformational leaders?

Written by
Karina Nielsen

01 Jun 2016

01 Jun 2016 • by Karina Nielsen

Transformational leaders inspire their employees through formulating a positive vision for the future, they also function as role models; they walk the walk and talk the talk and express desirable values. They are also leaders who stimulate employees to engage in innovative ways of working and challenge existing mindsets encouraging employees to explore how work can be done differently. Finally, they consider the individual workers’ needs and potential for growth and coach and mentor their employees so they can reach their full potential.

Transformational leaders engage in these behaviours with the ultimate goal to encourage employees to “perform above and beyond the call of duty” and to “sacrifice their own self-interests for collective interests of their work group”. It has been found that employees working for transformational leaders perform well and in the short-term they report being satisfied with and engaged in their jobs.

Does transformational leadership have a dark side?

The literature on employee stress reveals that high levels of activation can lead to stress and poor health. This literature suggests that it may not be healthy for employees to perform at a 110% all the time. The stress literature suggests that after period of high activation, humans need time to relax and recover. 

The research on stress and recovery would suggest that perhaps there is a dark side to transformational leadership. If these leaders encourage their employees to perform above and beyond the call of duty and to sacrifice their own self-interests to promote the interests of the group it is possible that such behaviours may have detrimental effects on their health and well-being. That is, employees who work in groups that have a transformational leader may ignore their health and well-being in their desire to perform well and be part of a winning team.

A recent study explored the long-term health consequences of transformational leadership on employees working in groups that had a transformational leader. The study found that in groups that had a transformational leaders, higher levels of sickness absenteeism were reported 12 months later. This suggests that encouraging people to perform above and beyond the call of duty may over time have detrimental effects on employee health and well-being. The study also revealed that employees who at the outset reported they went into work while ill reported higher levels of sickness absenteeism 24 months later if they worked in a group with a transformational leader. The results suggest that leaders who encourage their employees to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the group’s goals and the vision may inadvertently encourage them to ignore symptoms of ill-health and encourage them to show up for work while ill. 

What can be done to prevent employees going on sick leave?

There are several things transformational leaders can do to prevent employees becoming sick. First, they can develop a vision and formulate a way forward that both considers performance and the well-being of workers. Second, transformational leaders can also express values that reflect a balance between performance and well-being. They can signal that employees shouldn’t work above and beyond the call of duty at the expense of your health and well-being. Third, they can also express values that reflect that employees are not expected to come in to work while ill and they can walk the walk and not themselves come in for work when they are not well. Fourth, when transformational leaders coach and mentor their employees, they can focus not only on developing employees’ professional skills and competencies but also coach and mentor employees on how to do the job in such a way that it is not detrimental to employees. Finally, they can express values that after a busy period it is important to take some time to wind down and organisations can build this into their plans – for example in accountancy firms make sure that people take some time off after the tax returns have been completed. 

HR can provide training to leader so they learn to spot vulnerable employees and how to manage sensitive communications about employees’ ill-health. HR develop policies and express values that consider employees’ health and wellbeing at the same time as promoting high performance.