The Continuum of Leadership

“But when referring to a managing leadership style, I’m describing a leader who has the ability to organize people, process, and resources to achieve a mission.”[1]

Bill Hybels in Courageous Leadership

Organizations of any kind, including churches, best accomplish their purpose when the right kind of leadership is applied both at the top of the group and throughout. Leadership is influence and influence is required anytime something is to be done by more than one person.

Bob Fast

A great deal of research has been done in the past twenty years or so regarding leadership styles. Many argue that in order to have a successful organization you must have a highly charismatic and motivating leader. One who can inspire and be a catalyst for change. Others will maintain that it is the administration of the programs and process together with managing the people that is the most important. I suggest that it is not one or the other, but both that are required to achieve the greatest outcomes.

Extensive research has been conducted on the concepts of Transactional and Transformational Leadership. Bernard Bass (1985) reexamined and refined work done by J.M. Burns who introduced these concepts in 1978. As our world has become increasingly more complex and quickened in pace, the need for what is called transformational leadership began to emerge. Prior to the 1970’s life was pretty routine, processes and social norms did not change very quickly and thus this change type of leader was rare and typically surfaced mainly when major societal or cultural shifts were occurring. Examples of transformational leaders would be Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King Jr. or from biblical times, Jesus Christ.  In recent decades, however, with technological improvements occurring almost daily, change has indeed come to be the norm and is occurring at incredible rates.

Transactional leadership speaks to the idea of maintaining the status quo. Of keeping things together so as to avoid chaos, but maintain control. Clearly it is critical to ensure programs, processes, and budgets are well managed. If churches do not have a high standard for managing their ministries they will not be able to maintain them for very long. There is a critical need to be disciplined and rigorous as it relates to ministry. Staff and volunteers need to be clear on what the expectation is for them to do. There should be regular feed-back and affirmation given to the individuals so they know they are doing right and doing well. That said; if they are not doing right or well, this also needs to be conveyed in an appropriate and constructive manner. For any organization to achieve its goals there must be highly effective administration of the programs and management of the people. This is what is technically termed Transactional leadership.

What most people think about when they hear leader is the charismatic, up front, flashy person with great ideas that everyone wants to join him or her in doing. Transformational leadership is generally this picture of a leader but more robust. The constructs of a transformational leader include four main components. Idealized influence is about respect, trust and admiration. The followers identify with this leader. A characteristic of this leader is what Jim Collins in Good to Great calls a “compelling modesty”[2] (humility) where the leader considers the needs of the organization and the cause as greater than his own personal needs. Inspirational Motivation speaks to how leaders motivate others through their personal behavior. They also motivate by giving their followers meaningful and challenging work. They are visionary and cause others to catch their vision of some future state. Transformational leaders also effectively provide an environment that promotes innovative and creative solutions and new ideas through the Intellectual Stimulation component of the construct. Finally, Individualized Considerations is how transformational leaders pay attention to each individual’s need for achievement and growth. They do this by acting as coaches and mentors appealing to the personal needs and potential of individuals.[3]

So what are the implications of these theories of leadership for our churches today? In order to influence a God honoring ministry, church leaders (Pastors, board, etc) should:

  1. Ensure the programs and ministries operate effectively and efficiently through clearly defined goals and expectations of the ministry and individual staff/volunteers.
  2. Look in the mirror and be sure about their personal motivation. Ask: “Are the accomplishment of church goals more about the cause of Christ and the success of the church or more about me as an individual?”
  3. Model behavior expected from their staff and volunteers.
  4. Engender a “can do” attitude by encouraging creative and innovative ideas.
  5. Get to know the people you are working directly with and provide them with the appropriate nurturing, affirmation, and coaching/mentoring to move them along in their development.
  6. Recognize  the need for both transactional and transformational leadership in your church.
  7. Realize that it is virtually impossible for one person to bring the best of both forms of leadership.
  8. Determine what type of leadership is best from your Senior Pastor for your church.
  9. Ensure that both forms of leadership are effectively in place in your ministry by bringing the right people into strategic roles.

In sum, transactional leadership is akin to strong administrative or managerial competencies or gifts. Transformational leadership is what most think about when asked to describe a leader. It is about taking a group from one place and moving them forward to another place. A common mistake in many organizations including churches is that we look for one or the other style in our key leaders. However, viewing these two types of leaders on a continuum, it is reasonable to say that effective leaders will find their core leadership strength somewhere along this continuum and the particularly effective ones will move along this continuum depending on the circumstances and needs of the time. Organizational (including church) leadership requires both of these leadership forms and may need more than one leader to fulfill them.


[1] Hybels, Courageous Leadership p. 145

[2] Collins, Good to Great, p. 27

[3] Bass, Avolio et al. Predicting Unit Performance by Assessing Transformational and Transactional Leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology 2003. 2003, Vol. 88, No. 2, 207–218


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