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  • Writer's pictureL. Darryl Armstrong

Styles of Leadership in Today’s Society – The Transactional Leader

Updated: Mar 20, 2022

“We herd sheep; we drive cattle; we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way,” General George S. Patton.

General Patton was one of America’s most successful army generals of World War Two. Patton’s Third Army cut a bloody swath through German forces during the Liberation of France and the Ardennes Campaign, which is best known for the Battle of the Bulge.

Styles of Leadership

We have learned much from Patton’s observation and management style over the years. Today, we recognize five leadership styles: transactional, transformational, servant, autocratic, and followership.

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership is also known as “telling leadership,” which focuses on the structure, results, rewards, and penalties and zeroes in on the basic management process of controlling or supervising, organizing, and short-term planning or assessing performance.

As described by Max Weber in 1947 and later by Bernard Bass in 1981, leadership is situational by nature, and such leaders work in two basic paradigms: transactional and transformational.

Transactional leaders are those who work within the existing system to achieve results. They are not the ones who would attempt to approach things from an entirely different perspective; that is what transformational leaders do. Nor do they seek team perspectives in solving problems.

Transactional leaders believe in motivating subordinates through a system of rewards and punishments for their behavior —productive and appropriate behavior as desired results in a “reward.”

On the other hand, if the behavior is not what the leader desires, a punishment follows. Senator Joseph McCarthy and General Charles de Gaulle are examples of transactional leaders. In business, Bill Gates and Howard Schultz come to mind.

Motivation, what little there is, tends to appeal to employee’s self-interest. For instance, if employees achieve a specific goal, they are personally rewarded – there is little emphasis on teamwork or the achievement of team goals.

Employees’ behavioral rewards can be ‘substantial,’ such as cash, gift certificates, or promotions for the desired behavior. Deviations can result in “punishment” such as shunning, ridicule, or demotions.

Transactional leaders are very practical and realistic. They solve problems or deal with issues pragmatically, considering all real constraints and opportunities, including the political, social, and economic consequences of their decisions.

These leaders subscribe to the belief that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” They work within existing systems and have no reason to change anything, focusing on the “status quo.” Typically, they “react” and are not proactive strategic thinkers. They expect everything to go as planned, expect subordinates to follow their decisions, and micro-manage employees. Leaders of this style emphasize organizational structure; they expect people to follow the chain of command and will punish employees for bypassing the chain with charges of insubordination.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Transactional leadership encourages productivity, allows for a transparent chain of command, allows for employees to know where they are in the organization and t whom they report, goals are defined and achievable. To some degree, employees control their rewards.

Just as there are two sides to any pancake, there are two distinct ways to look at transactional leadership; among the disadvantages are motivation is the base level, rigid control, blaming others for the problems, and over-reliance on the leader.

Transactional leadership believes people will perform the desired behavior to get a promised reward and to avoid punishment. In reality, that is a simplistic perspective and truly not motivational. Not all rewards are great, and such an approach typically leads to employees only achieving the desired behavior, not “going above and beyond” the task at hand.

These leaders rely on their formal authority to instruct (tell) their subordinates what to do. Such leadership spurns and doesn’t seek out new ideas or perspectives from their subordinates, limiting their ability to adjust and take corrective measures.

You can easily see that the transactional leader can readily “blame” the employee when things “go south” because once they have “commanded” the behavior, any behavior not so ordered is the employee’s fault. When a problem occurs, and they often do, accountability rests solely with the employee assigned the task.

Transactional leadership sets up the classic “us and them” approach to managing.

Such management rewards the manipulative and “game playing” employee, who understands that the ultimate goal is to do what the “commander” says even though there may be better ways to accomplish a task. Whatever it takes to “keep the boss happy” becomes a mantra of such employees. The leadership style doesn’t earn respect, it simply commands it.


“We have all worked for such leaders, and those who are prone to “go along to get along” and who are willing to “play the manager’s game” can succeed in such an organization,” says Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong, President of CEO of Armstrong and Associates.”However, such managers don’t earn my respect; they try to command it, and I, for one, seek organizations that want to be team-oriented.”

Although transactional leadership can effectively boost performance, it can and is often abused to maximize its effectiveness. Such a style should only be used alongside other more successful management styles.

About the author

Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong is a behavioral psychologist, consultant, and author. He has facilitated more than a thousand often contentious meetings in the past 50-years of his career using his Collaborative Informed Consent model of public engagement. You can learn more about Dr. Armstrong at his website


Personal Notes and Journals of Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong

Next article: What is Transformational Leadership and Why It Is Important in Today’s Society


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