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DOI: 10.1177/1742715013476083
2014 10: 269 originally published online 13 March 2014 Leadership
Torsten J Holstad, Sabine Korek, Thomas Rigotti and Gisela Mohr
The moderating role of professional ambition
The relation between transformational leadership and follower emotional strain:
 
 
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Article
The relation between
transformational leadership
and follower emotional strain:
The moderating role of
professional ambition
Torsten J Holstad, Sabine Korek, Thomas Rigotti and
Gisela Mohr
University of Leipzig, Germany
Abstract
The present study tests a model of moderated mediation in the relationship between transform-
ational leadership and follower emotional strain. Based on the job demands-resources model, we
suggest that transformational leaders may be able to decrease follower emotional strain by
providing social support. It is also proposed that a protective effect of social support from a
transformational leader will depend on the employees’ level of professional ambition. Mediation
by social support may be stronger for ambitious employees, such that transformational leadership
may be associated with less emotional strain for these employees (moderated mediation).
A sample of 199 employees participated in a cross-sectional study in Germany. Results confirmed
the hypothesized moderated mediation indicating a health-promoting effect of supervisory social
support for ambitious employees (not found for low levels of ambition). The study suggests that
the idea of a general positive effect of transformational leadership on followers’ emotional strain is
not appropriate.
Keywords
Transformational leadership, job demands-resources model, follower emotional strain, follower
well-being, supervisory social support, professional ambition, moderated mediation
Prior research on the relation between transformational leadership and followers’ well-being
has mainly tended to concentrate on the question of whether transformational leaders pro-
mote followers’ well-being and on how transformational leaders achieve this, for example by
Corresponding author:
Torsten J Holstad, Department of Work and Organizational Psychology, University of Leipzig, Seeburgstaße 14-20,
D-04103 Leipzig, Germany.
Email: torsten.holstad@uni-leipzig.de
Leadership
2014, Vol. 10(3) 269–288
! The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/1742715013476083
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providing social support (Nielsen and Daniels, 2012; Sosik and Godshalk, 2000) and enhan-
cing work characteristics (Arnold et al., 2007; Nielsen et al., 2008). Less attention has been
paid to moderating variables which determine when transformational leadership and fol-
lowers’ well-being are more closely related (Franke and Felfe, 2011). The present study
combines both perspectives in a moderated mediation model, suggesting supervisory
social support as a mediator of the relationship between transformational leadership and
follower emotional strain, but also investigating whether the strength of this mediation
differs for employees with either high or low professional ambition.
Zhu et al. (2009) highlight the need to take into account followers’ characteristics in order
to understand differential effects of leadership. Franke and Felfe (2011) demonstrated that
organizational commitment is a moderator of the relationship between transformational
leadership and follower strain, thereby providing original evidence of the importance of
follower boundary conditions for this relationship. The present study focuses on the fol-
lowers’ level of professional ambition, which is conceptualized as followers’ ‘persistent and
generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment’ (Judge and Kammeyer-
Mueller, 2012: 759). In their recent article, Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller (2012) demon-
strated that ambition is connected to life satisfaction through major life attainments. Based
on these findings, they emphasize the utility of studying ambition as a construct within
organizational behaviour research. The present study investigates follower ambition in the
context of transformational leadership. We focus on social support as a connecting mech-
anism between transformational leadership and follower well-being, since social support has
been proposed to relate to follower motivation (Bakker et al., 2008). Ambitious followers
may appreciate their supervisor’s social support to a greater extent than those with less
ambition because social support signals the supervisor’s appraisal (Frese, 1999), which is
important for promotion (De Andre´ s et al., 2010), and therefore may be especially mean-
ingful for ambitious followers. Thus, we hypothesize that social support by a transform-
ational leader will result in lower strain levels for followers with high levels of professional
ambition. Conversely, for followers with low levels of ambition, a supervisor’s support may
not be as important.
As its theoretical basis, our study integrates transformational leadership (Burns, 1978)
and the job demands-resources (JD-R) model (Bakker and Demerouti, 2007; Demerouti
et al., 2001), suggesting that leaders can influence their subordinates’ emotional strain
both by imposing job demands and providing job resources (Tims et al., 2011).
Transformational leadership and follower emotional strain
Transformational leaders guide their followers by giving them an idea of a higher purpose in
their work, thereby stimulating their commitment to team goals (Bass and Riggio, 2006).
Transformational leadership consists of the four sub-dimensions intellectual stimulation,
idealized influence, inspirational motivation, and individual consideration. Most researchers
have suggested that transformational leadership can promote follower well-being (see
Skakon et al., 2010, for a review). A health-promoting effect of transformational leadership
has not only been found in cross-sectional studies (Arnold et al., 2007) but also longitudin-
ally (Nielsen et al., 2008). Even in an experimental setting transformational leadership
resulted in lower ratings of followers’ negative affect than transactional leadership (Lyons
and Schneider, 2009). By contrast, transformational leadership has also been suggested to
potentially impair employees’ well-being (Franke and Felfe, 2011). Rowold and Heinitz
270 Leadership 10(3)
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(2008) found that transformational leadership resulted in elevated stress levels in a prospect-
ive study with a time lag of 6 months. Thus, transformational leadership may have negative
consequences in the long run. Other studies have demonstrated that the transformational
leadership component intellectual stimulation may relate to elevated burnout levels (Seltzer
et al., 1989), while a different study by Stordeur et al. (2001) found that the total transform-
ational leadership score was unrelated to burnout. Interestingly, these studies, which did not
confirm a positive relation between transformational leadership and well-being, used nega-
tive indicators of follower well-being as opposed to positive indicators, as in other studies
(Arnold et al., 2007; Nielsen et al., 2008). Since these results are not without contradiction,
and the relation between transformational leadership and health outcomes varies across
studies, a closer look at potential moderating variables seems advisable. Skakon and col-
leagues (2010) have encouraged investigating individual, situational, and relational factors
which may account for the observed variance in correlations between leadership variables
and followers’ well-being in different studies.
The JD-R model
Examining the relation between leadership and follower well-being, we build on the JD-R
model (Bakker and Demerouti, 2007; Demerouti et al., 2001), an extension of the job-
demand-control model (Karasek, 1979). According to the JD-R model job-strain results
from a workplace situation characterized by high job demands and low job resources. The
JD-R model conceptualizes job demands as ‘physical, psychological, social, and organiza-
tional aspects of the job that require sustained [. . .] effort or skills and are therefore asso-
ciated with certain physiological and/or psychological costs’ (Bakker and Demerouti, 2007:
312). Job resources refer to aspects of a job that reduce job demands and the associated
physiological and psychological costs, facilitate goal achievement, and/or stimulate personal
growth, learning, and development (Schaufeli and Bakker, 2004: 296). Job resources may be
located at different organizational levels and include, for example, opportunities for devel-
opment, feedback, support of one’s supervisor, role clarity, and task characteristics (Bakker
and Demerouti, 2007).
The main propositions of the JD-R model suggest that job demands will result in elevated
levels of strain and that job resources have a motivating effect (Bakker and Demerouti,
2007). Moreover, job resources have been proposed to buffer the relationship between job
demands and job strain (Demerouti et al., 2001). Besides these well-known propositions of
the JD-R model, Schaufeli and Bakker (2004) have suggested that poor job resources may
also result in elevated strain levels. This effect of job resources on strain has received con-
siderable empirical support (Schaufeli and Bakker, 2004; Schaufeli et al., 2009; Ten
Brummelhuis et al., 2011). The present study investigates this link suggesting that social
support may be related to lower levels of job strain.
The JD-R model in a leadership context
Leadership may be an important factor for followers’ well-being (Skakon et al., 2010)
because leaders have significant influence on both job demands and job resources (Tims
et al., 2011), both of which the JD-R model suggests will impact employees’ psychological
health (Bakker and Demerouti, 2007). Transformational leadership behaviour explicitly
includes the provision of resources (Bass and Riggio, 2006; Tims et al., 2011).
Holstad et al. 271
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Leaders may for example listen to their employees’ problems showing that they care for each
of their subordinates (individual consideration). On the other hand, transformational leaders
can also impose demands, in the form of high performance expectations towards their
employees, for example (inspirational motivation).
Empirically, transformational leadership has been related to various job resources (Tims
et al., 2011), which again may relate to reduced strain levels of followers (Schaufeli and
Bakker, 2004). For example, positive relations have been found with social support (Nielsen
and Daniels, 2012; Sosik and Godshalk, 2000), empowerment (Avolio et al., 2004), mean-
ingful tasks (Arnold et al., 2007; Korek et al., 2010; Nielsen et al., 2008), a high level of job
characteristics (Piccolo and Colquitt, 2006; Purvanova et al., 2006), role clarity, and oppor-
tunities for development (Nielsen et al., 2008).
The present study examines the effect of transformational leadership on follower emo-
tional irritation (Mohr et al., 2006), a work-related indicator of emotional strain. Mohr and
colleagues (2006) define irritation as a state of mental exhaustion. Previous research has
found irritation to mediate the relation between stressors and impaired sleep (Berset et al.,
2011), psychosomatic symptoms (Ho¨ ge, 2009), and depression (Dormann and Zapf, 2002).
These effects were found in both cross-sectional (Berset et al., 2011) and longitudinal studies
(Dormann and Zapf, 2002). Irritation is a sensitive indicator of emotional strain, and there-
fore best suited to capturing slight deviances from normal well-being that may be more
common in the average working population.
As Skakon et al. (2010) conclude, most studies suggest that transformational leadership
relates to better well-being of followers (Arnold et al., 2007; Nielsen et al., 2008) because
transformational leaders provide a high level of job resources such as good working condi-
tions. Fewer studies have linked transformational leadership to higher stress levels (Rowold
and Heinitz, 2008; Seltzer et al., 1989). Therefore, transformational leadership is hypothe-
sized to relate negatively to follower emotional irritation.
H1: Transformational leadership relates negatively to follower emotional irritation.
Supervisory social support as a mediator
The present study investigates supervisory social support as a connecting mechanism
between transformational leadership and follower well-being. Social support from the super-
visor involves directly helping subordinates, providing affective support and confirming the
appropriateness of the subordinate’s actions (Frese, 1999). A negative relationship between
social support and psychological health outcomes has been suggested theoretically (Schaufeli
and Bakker, 2004) and could be empirically supported in various studies (for a meta-analysis
see, Viswesvaran et al., 1999). Two different mechanisms have been suggested which may
account for this link (Cohen and Wills, 1985). First, social support may have a direct effect
on employee well-being (Van der Doef and Maes, 1999) which may be based on regular
positive experiences in a social group. As these kinds of interactions provide reliable social
relationships, positive affect and confirm employees’ self-worth, increased well-being is a
likely consequence (Cohen and Wills, 1985). Second, social support may also function as a
stress buffer alleviating the relation between stressors and strain (Cohen and Wills, 1985;
Dormann and Zapf, 1999). This buffer hypothesis suggests that social support may decrease
negative effects on individuals’ health, which may be triggered by stressors (Kahn and
Byosiere, 1992).
272 Leadership 10(3)
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It is important to note that these two mechanisms are not mutually exclusive (Ha¨ usser
et al., 2010). Some studies supported the proposed mechanisms (Janssen and Nijhuis, 2004;
Frese, 1999) but others did not (McClenahan et al., 2007). This variability indicates that
third variables may moderate the relationship between social support by the supervisor and
follower well-being (Ha¨ usser et al., 2010). The issue of moderators will be discussed in the
next section.
We propose supervisory social support as a mediator of the relation between transform-
ational leadership and followers’ emotional strain. Although social support has mainly been
regarded as a moderator of the relation between job demands and follower strain (Bakker
and Demerouti, 2007), our positioning of this variable is in line with previous research
demonstrating direct effects of social support on follower well-being (Ha¨ usser et al.,
2010). As defined by Bass and Riggio (2006), transformational leadership behaviour expli-
citly includes the provision of social support as it is an aspect of individual consideration.
Empirically, transformational leadership was found to relate to higher perceived supervisory
social support in an experimental study (Lyons and Schneider, 2009). Supervisory social
support, in turn, has been found to lead to lower stress (Sosik and Godshalk, 2000) and a
lower likelihood of burnout (Lee and Ashforth, 1996) among followers. The health-promot-
ing effect of supervisory social support has also been found in a longitudinal study (Moyle,
1998) and for objective indicators of psychological dysfunction (Frese, 1999). Moreover,
transformational leadership was found to relate to reduced levels of stress (Sosik and
Godshalk, 2000) and burnout (Nielsen and Daniels, 2012) through social support. Based
on the concept of transformational leadership as defined by Bass and Riggio (2006) and on
previous research, transformational leadership is expected to impact follower well-being
through social support. Consequently, we hypothesize:
H2: Social support by the supervisor mediates the relation between transformational leadership
and irritation.
The moderating role of professional ambition
The present study hypothesizes that transformational leadership may be more closely
related to followers’ emotional strain through supervisory social support for employees
with high levels of professional ambition. Previous research has demonstrated that subor-
dinates differ with respect to their susceptibility to transformational leadership (Dvir and
Shamir, 2003) as well as in regards to their reactions to social support (Beehr et al., 2010).
Regarding transformational leadership, Zhu et al. (2009) found a stronger relationship
with work engagement for employees who characterized themselves as innovative and
willing to take risks. By contrast, Hetland and colleagues suggest that some followers
may ‘experience increased stress due to the intense and emotionally charged interactions
between leader and subordinates’ (Hetland et al., 2007: 68). Dvir and Shamir (2003)
proposed that different receptiveness to transformational leaders may depend on followers’
motivation. For example, not everyone may be willing to go beyond the call of duty as
demanded by transformational leaders. Therefore, follower motivation, more precisely
professional ambition, is proposed to determine the strength of the mediation of super-
visory social support in the relation between transformational leadership and followers’
emotional strain as the supervisor’s support may be of higher relevance for highly moti-
vated followers.
Holstad et al. 273
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Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller (2012) conceptualize ambition as a middle-level trait
(Cantor, 1990), which tend not to be as stable as more distal traits, but also not as situational
as goals, behavioural intentions or attitudes. Professional ambition is characterized by a
strong motivational component which is also inherent in transformational leadership.
Ambitious employees strive to attain work-related goals, and seek professional advancement
and promotion (Kieschke and Schaarschmidt, 2008; Schaarschmidt and Fischer, 2003;
Voltmer et al., 2011). Schaarschmidt and Fischer (2003) describe professional ambition as
an indicator of psychological health, thus differentiating ambition from type A personality
(Friedman and Rosenman, 1974). Professional ambition is related to organizational com-
mitment (Allen and Meyer, 1990) and work engagement (Schaufeli et al., 2002) but can be
differentiated conceptually. Unlike work engagement, professional ambition does not refer
to actual energy and functioning in the workplace (Bakker et al., 2008). It also has a different
focus since it is not directed at a specific organization in the way that organizational com-
mitment is (Allen and Meyer, 1990) but rather, captures the individuals’ dedication to their
career (Schaarschmidt and Fischer, 2003).
We propose that the extent to which the relationship between transformational leadership
and follower emotional irritation is mediated by supervisory social support, may differ for
followers with high versus low professional ambition (Figure 1). The moderator professional
ambition can either affect path a (the relation between transformational leadership and
social support) or path b (the relation between social support and strain), or both. We
assume only a moderation of path b. We will first explain why an effect of professional
ambition on the relationship between transformational leadership and social support is not
expected.
Transformational leadership is often addressed to the whole group (Korek et al., 2010;
Nielsen and Daniels, 2012) by setting group goals, developing a specific group climate or
fostering team spirit. It is one of the central tenets of transformational leadership to establish
group cohesion, collective efficacy and identity (Shamir et al., 1993). Feinberg et al. (2005)
even noted that building consensus is one of the main tasks of transformational leadership.
This implies that transformational leaders will treat followers equally and not substantially
differ in the amount of social support they give. Therefore, we do not expect path a to be
dependent on the level of professional ambition of followers.
By contrast, the role of social support as a mediator between transformational leadership
and emotional irritation is expected to differ for followers with high vs. low ambition.
Professional
ambiƟon
Social support by
supervisor
b
a
EmoƟonal
irritaƟon
TransformaƟonal
leadership
c
Figure 1. Moderated mediation: The indirect effect of transformational leadership on emotional irrita-
tion through supervisory social support is conditional upon professional ambition.
274 Leadership 10(3)
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This refers to a moderation of path b. Followers with low and high levels of ambition may
evaluate the supervisor’s social support differently. That is, individual appraisal processes
may account for different relationships between supervisor support and follower strain. The
degree to which the supervisor’s behaviour is considered valuable by a follower may depend
on individual factors like professional ambition.
Previous research suggests that followers may benefit from transformational leadership
to different degrees (Franke and Felfe, 2011; Zhu et al., 2009). We expect the health-
promoting effects of transformational leadership to be most apparent for ambitious fol-
lowers because the leader’s support may be considered more important to them. First,
social support by the supervisor indicates that the subordinate is a valued member of the
team (Sarason et al., 1996). This appreciation by the supervisor may be especially valued
by ambitious followers. Second, as careers are very important to ambitious followers, and
the leader has considerable influence on their professional advancement, the leader’s
approval may also be more relevant for ambitious followers because it is a precondition
of promotion (De Andre´ s et al., 2010). Moreover, ambitious employees may be especially
receptive to transformational leaders because of high goal congruence with their leader
(Bono and Judge, 2003). For example, followers reporting high performance orientation
were found to evaluate transformational leadership more positively (Ehrhart and Klein,
2001) which might be associated with improved well-being. Being very performance-
oriented, this should be true for ambitious followers as well. High importance attached
to the leader’s social support in combination with high goal congruence and similarity
between leader and follower is hypothesized to result in reduced strain levels for ambitious
followers.
By contrast, for followers with low professional ambition the leader’s support may be less
important and may thus have a smaller impact on the well-being of these followers. As less
ambitious followers are not striving as much for professional advancement (Schaarschmidt
and Fischer, 2003), they are less dependent on the leader’s goodwill and positive evaluation
which is indicated by supervisory social support (Sarason et al., 1996). Moreover, social
support may have detrimental effects under some conditions, for example, when the provi-
sion of help represents stressful working conditions (Beehr et al., 2010). We suggest that
social support from a transformational leader may at least have less positive effects on less
ambitious followers as it is associated with high performance expectations (Bass and Riggio,
2006), which may seem especially stressful to these followers. Furthermore, less ambitious
followers may perceive the leader’s support as a means of pushing them to achieve improved
performance, which is not their own goal. As a consequence, these followers may not regard
the leader’s support as a resource. Thus, the leader’s support may affect follower well-being
to a lesser extent.
Concluding, we hypothesize that the followers’ evaluation of the leader’s behaviour (but
not the leader’s behaviour itself) may differ according to the followers’ level of professional
ambition. Consequently, individual appraisal processes (path b, see Figure 1) but not differ-
ential leader behaviour (path a) are proposed to determine the degree to which the follower
regards the leader’s support as a resource. We propose a moderated mediation
model (Figure 1):
H3: The mediation effect of social support in the relation between transformational leadership
and irritation is contingent upon professional ambition. In the case of high ambition, we expect a
stronger mediation effect of social support than in case of low ambition.
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Method
Participants and procedure
A paper–pencil questionnaire was distributed to employees from financial and service sec-
tors, and from real estate firms in a cross-sectional study in Germany. From a theoretical
perspective, a study of professional ambition demands a careful sampling strategy to include
both ambitious and less ambitious participants. Organizations practicing an up-or-out strat-
egy, for example, would be inappropriate, as selection processes may be in effect in such
organizations that could bias the study’s results. We therefore approached organizations
which offer career opportunities but do not claim that their employees strive for professional
advancement. In this regard, German public banks were deemed to be an ideal sample.
Second, as leadership is the focus of the present study, frequent interaction between team
and leader is important. Interactions on a regular basis may be necessary to develop the
hypothesized effects of leadership characteristics on followers’ emotional strain. The health-
promoting effect of supervisory social support especially demands close and frequent con-
tact. We focused on financial institutions, the service sector, and real estate firms because
employees in these fields typically have daily interactions with their leaders. Sixteen of the
participating organizations were from the financial sector while three organizations were real
estate firms and one organization was from the service sector. The participants were asked to
fill in the questionnaire during their working hours. Participation was voluntary and ano-
nymity assured. Small groups of up to 10 employees filled in the questionnaire at the same
time in the presence of a researcher. Thus, all participants handed in a questionnaire. Two
hundred and eleven questionnaires were returned, of which 199 questionnaires contained no
missing values. Participants reported a mean age of 35.87 (SD¼9.96) years and a mean
tenure of 116.11 (SD¼73.69) months. Sixty-one percent were female and 39% were male.
Thirty-one percent had a university degree.
Measures
Transformational leadership. The present study used the German version (Felfe, 2006) of
the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (Bass and Avolio, 1995) to measure transform-
ational leadership. This scale consists of 20 items and assesses the four sub-dimensions of
transformational leadership: Inspirational motivation, idealized influence (attributed
and behaviour), intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration. Previous research
has demonstrated these sub-dimensions to be highly interrelated (Judge and Piccolo,
2004). Consequently, they cannot be regarded as independent factors (Carless, 1998). In
line with other research (Liaw et al., 2010), the present study therefore utilises the total
score for the construct. The reliability figures indicate very good internal consistency
(Cronbach’s a ¼0.93). Responses were rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1
(never) to 5 (regularly, almost always).
Irritation. Emotional strain was measured by the emotional irritation scale (Mohr et al.,
2005), which consists of five items. A sample item is ‘I get irritated easily, although I
don’t want this to happen’. Regarding construct validity, irritation has been found to
relate positively to stressors (Mohr et al., 2006). Moreover, irritation has also been demon-
strated as an antecedent of depression (Dormann and Zapf, 2002), psychosomatic symptoms
(Ho¨ ge, 2009), and impaired sleep (Berset et al., 2011). The irritation scale displayed good
276 Leadership 10(3)
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reliability in the present sample (Cronbach’s a ¼0.81). It was combined with a 7-point Likert
scale ranging from 1 (not true at all) to 7 (almost completely true).
Social support by supervisor. Participants indicated the degree of work-related social support
they receive from their supervisor. A scale by Frese (1989) was used consisting of five items.
A sample item is ‘How much is your supervisor willing to listen to your work-related prob-
lems?’ The scale displayed good reliability in the present study (Cronbach’s a ¼0.83).
Participants rated the social support provided by their supervisor on a 4-point Likert
scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 4 (completely).
Professional ambition. The measure of professional ambition employed in the present study was
taken from the AVEM (Schaarschmidt and Fischer, 2003), an instrument for the assessment
of health-relevant behaviour and experiences in the workplace. High levels of ambition are
related to psychological health and distinguished from the risk pattern known as type A
personality (Friedman and Rosenman, 1974) which is associated with a lack of detachment
from work and a susceptibility to risking depletion of resources. We used the four items with
the highest item-total-correlations as reported by Schaarschmidt and Fischer (2003). A
sample item is: ‘I want to achieve more in my career than most people I know’. Internal
consistency indicated good reliability (Cronbach’s a¼0.87). Likert response categories
ranged from 1 (not at all true) to 5 (completely true).
Control variables. In order to control for possible biases, demographic data were also collected
which may impact followers’ emotional strain; the study controlled for the effects of sex, age,
weekly working hours, and education. Sex was coded 0 for women and 1 for men. As men
indicated significantly higher professional ambition than women in our sample, we included
sex as a control variable in our analyses. Controlling for the effects of age was deemed
appropriate in the context of health. We also controlled for weekly working hours as a
proxy for work demands, which is mostly unable to be influenced by the leader. Finally,
the study controlled for the effect of education since education may relate to professional
ambition and followers’ emotional strain. Participants indicated their highest educational
level. According to the tripartite German educational system, education was classified as
follows: 1 ¼ basic secondary school, 2 ¼ secondary school, 3 ¼ higher secondary school, 4 ¼
vocational education, 5 ¼ vocational academy, 6 ¼ university.
Analyses
As transformational leadership and supervisory social support are conceptually related, a
confirmatory factor analysis was computed using the software Amos 20.0 (Arbuckle, 2011)
to ensure that they can be treated as two distinct concepts. We compared a one-factor model
(
2
(275) ¼770.73, CFI ¼0.79, RMSEA¼.10) to a two-factor model which treated trans-
formational leadership and social support by the supervisor as distinct but related constructs
(
2
(274) ¼653.64, CFI ¼.84, RMSEA¼0.08). A chi-square difference test indicated
that the two-factor model achieved a significantly better fit to the data than the more
parsimonious one-factor model (Á
2
(1) ¼117.09, p <0.001). Although the fit of the two-
factor-model is not good, the results indicate that transformational leadership and super-
visory support are distinct concepts. Moreover, as the most critical point is to demonstrate
that individual consideration can be differentiated from supervisory social support,
Holstad et al. 277
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we additionally compared a one-factor model (
2
(27) ¼86.01, CFI ¼.91, RMSEA¼.11) to
a two-factor model (
2
(26) ¼51.26, CFI ¼.96, RMSEA¼0.07) in which items referring to
individual consideration and items referring to supervisory support loaded on separate fac-
tors. The two-factor model displayed significantly better fit (Á
2
(1) ¼34.75, p <0.001).
Consequently, it can be concluded that both transformational leadership, as a compound
measure, as well as individual consideration can be distinguished from supervisory support.
Statistical approach
All hypotheses were tested using regression analysis in combination with bootstrapping, a
statistical re-sampling method. Bootstrapping involves the drawing of a large number of
subsamples from the original sample, within all of which the analyses are performed. The
number of re-samples was set to N¼5000 as suggested by Hayes (2009). Hypothesis 2 was
tested by applying a macro for indirect effects by Preacher and Hayes (2008). Contrary to the
classic causal step procedure (Baron and Kenny, 1986), the procedure by Preacher and
Hayes (2008) can directly estimate indirect effects. Consequently, an indirect effect can be
detected even when a direct effect is missing (Hayes, 2009). Confidence intervals for the true
score of the indirect effect are specified and the null hypothesis is rejected if the confidence
interval excludes zero. Since bootstrapping does not assume a normal distribution of the
data, it has been demonstrated to result in more accurate confidence intervals of indirect
effects compared to the classic stepwise procedure (MacKinnon et al., 2002). Hypothesis 3
proposed that the effect of transformational leadership on irritation would be mediated by
social support and that this mediation effect would be moderated by professional ambition
(moderated mediation, see Figure 1). Again a macro for SPSS (Preacher et al., 2007) was
applied to estimate the moderated mediation involving a bootstrap procedure. In a moder-
ated mediation either path a or path b or both may be moderated by a third variable.
Significance of the conditional indirect effect is indicated by the bootstrap confidence
interval.
Results
Means, standard deviations, correlations, and internal consistencies for all study variables
are presented in Table 1. All regression analyses controlled for age, gender, education, and
weekly working hours as these variables may relate to occupational health. Moreover, all
predictors were mean centred as suggested by Aiken and West (1991) to avoid multicolli-
nearity with their product terms.
In order to test the first hypothesis a regression analysis was computed. Irritation was
regressed on transformational leadership. Results are presented in Table 2. Contrary to
expectations, the constructs were unrelated and the confidence interval included zero.
Thus hypothesis 1 was not supported.
Second, it was proposed that supervisory social support would mediate the relation
between transformational leadership and irritation. The hypothesis was assessed using a
macro for indirect effects (Preacher and Hayes, 2008). As the confidence interval contained
zero, mediation by supervisory social support was not supported. Though path a of the
mediation model was significant (B¼0.57, p <0.001), path b was not (B¼-0.25, n.s.). As
previously mentioned, a direct effect of transformational leadership on irritation (path c) was
278 Leadership 10(3)
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not found. Nevertheless, according to Preacher and Hayes (2008) a significant path c is not
necessary to support mediation. Results are presented in Table 2.
Thirdly, we hypothesized that the mediation by supervisory social support would be
conditional upon professional ambition. Thus, for ambitious employees social support by
a transformational leader is hypothesized to impact irritation to a greater degree. To test this
hypothesis, a moderated mediation analysis was computed to estimate the conditional indir-
ect effect of transformational leadership on irritation (Preacher et al., 2007). The conditional
indirect effect determines whether different levels of professional ambition influence the
strength of the mediation. High and low levels of professional ambition were operationalized
as one standard deviation below and above the mean score as suggested by Preacher et al.
(2007). First, we assessed path a of the mediation model (see Figure 1) as being conditional
Table 2. Regression results for mediation model.
Variable
Irritation
B 95% CI [LL; UL]
Transformational leadership on supervisory social support (path a) .57*** [.477; .660]
Supervisory social support on irritation (path b) À.25
y
[À.473; .020]
Transformational leadership on irritation (path c – total effect) À.12 [À.326; .109]
Transformational leadership on irritation (path c’ – direct effect) .03 [À.211; .279]
R
2
.08
Adjusted R
2
.05
Bootstrapping results for indirect effect B 95% BC CI [LL; UL]
Transformational leadership – social support - irritation À.145 [À.300; .013]
Note. N¼199. BC¼Bias corrected. CI ¼Confidence intervals. LL ¼Lower level, UL ¼Upper Level.
Control variables in the model: Age, gender, working hours per week, education.
y
p .1; ***p .001 (two-sided).
Table 1. Means, standard deviations, correlations, and internal consistencies for all study variables.
Variable Mean SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1 Transformational leadership 3.64 0.58 (.93)
2 Professional ambition 3.28 0.87 .33 (.87)
3 Supervisor social support 3.24 0.53 .64 .07 (.83)
4 Emotional irritation 2.15 0.87 À.08 À.06 À.15 (.81)
5 Age 35.87 9.96 .09 À.22 .21 À.11
6 Gender
a
0.37 0.48 .14 .25 .09 À.05 À.05
7 Working hours per week 38.27 3.30 .23 .27 .17 À.05 À.02 .25
8 Education 3.65 1.38 À.02 .17 À.03 À.19 .00 .20 À.20
Note. N¼199. Numbers in parenthesis are reliabilities where appropriate.
a
0 ¼female; 1 ¼male. For jrj .15 p <.05, for jrj .19 p <.01, for jrj .25 p <.001 (two-sided).
Holstad et al. 279
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upon professional ambition to examine if – against our assumption – less ambitious
employees feel less supported by their leader. We estimated the indirect effect using a
bootstrap procedure. As expected, the indirect effect did not vary for different levels of
professional ambition indicating that path a of the mediation model (see Figure 1) was not
moderated by professional ambition. Thus, the procedure for a moderated mediation of
path b (effect of supervisory social support on irritation) was applied. Results indicate a
significant conditional indirect effect for high professional ambition (B¼-0.27, p <0.05).
The bootstrap 95% confidence interval excluded zero when professional ambition was high
( þ1 SD) and when it was medium but not in the case of low ambition (- 1 SD). Thus the
mediating effect of supervisory social support between transformational leadership and
irritation applies only to employees with medium to high professional ambition (see
Figure 2). Consequently, hypothesis 3 is supported. Estimates and significance levels are
displayed in Table 3.
Table 3. Regression results for conditional indirect model.
Model
Irritation
B
Transformational leadership (TL) .06
Professional ambition À.06
Supervisor social support À.27
y
Support x ambition À.21
y
Irritation
Bootstrapping results for conditional indirect effect B BC 95% CI [LL; UL]
Professional ambition
À1 SD (2.41) À.038 [À.258; .176]
M (3.28) À.155 [À.318; À.005]
þ1 SD (4.14) À.273 [À.533; À.041]
Note. N¼199. BC¼Bias corrected. CI ¼Confidence intervals. LL ¼Lower level, UL ¼Upper Level.
Control variables in the model: Age, gender, working hours per week, education.
y
p .1 (two-sided).
1.00
3.00
5.00
D S 1 + D S 1 -
low
high
Social support
I
r
r
i
t
a
t
i
o
n
Ambition
Figure 2. Interaction between supervisory social support and professional ambition.
280 Leadership 10(3)
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Discussion
The JD-R model suggests that leaders can impact their subordinates’ emotional strain by
imposing job demands and providing job resources (Schaufeli and Bakker, 2004; Schaufeli
et al., 2009; Ten Brummelhuis et al., 2011). Though both negative (Tepper, 2000; Pelletier,
2011) and positive effects (Nielsen et al., 2008) of a leader’s behaviour have been reported in
the literature, transformational leadership has so far mainly been linked to positive effects on
followers’ well-being (Skakon et al., 2010). Results from this study demonstrate a more
detailed picture and indicate that transformational leadership is not necessarily positively
related to follower well-being for all followers.
In line with previous research (Skakon et al., 2010), it was hypothesized that transform-
ational leadership would be positively linked to follower well-being and thus negatively related
to irritation, a work-related indicator of emotional strain (Mohr et al., 2006). After controlling
for age, gender, education, and weekly working hours, transformational leadership and irri-
tation were practically unrelated. Consequently, the first hypothesis was rejected. This result
differs from findings of previous studies on the relationship between transformational leader-
ship and follower well-being as reviewed by Skakon et al. (2010). It may be due to the
operationalization of irritation as a negative indicator of follower well-being as opposed to
the positive operationalizations in other studies (e.g. Arnold et al., 2007; Nielsen et al., 2008).
Stordeur and colleagues (2001) also found, when they utilised a negative indicator of well-
being, that transformational leadership was unrelated to organizational stress. Moreover, this
result is not at odds with the implications of the JD-R model. It may depend on subjective
evaluation as to whether subordinates mainly focus on the demands or the resources provided
by a transformational leader. Thus, some variability in relationships can be expected.
Second, the present study examined supervisory social support as a mediator between
transformational leadership and follower irritation. Transformational leadership explicitly
involves the provision of social support (Bass and Riggio, 2006). In line with the JD-R model
(Demerouti et al., 2001; Schaufeli and Bakker, 2004) and previous research (Nielsen and
Daniels, 2012; Sosik and Godshalk, 2000), the present study hypothesized that transform-
ational leaders may influence their followers’ emotional strain by providing social support.
Results reveal that although transformational leadership was significantly related to super-
visory social support, supervisory social support was unrelated to followers’ irritation. Thus,
the hypothesized mediation of supervisory social support was not confirmed. Previous
research on the relation between social support and follower well-being has revealed
mixed results. A meta-analysis by Viswesvaran et al. (1999) only demonstrated a weak
relation. Moreover, although a number of studies have found support for a main effect of
social support on follower well-being, this effect has not been found in other studies (Van der
Doef and Maes, 1999; Ha¨ usser et al., 2010). The ambiguity of empirical findings regarding
the relationship between transformational leadership and follower well-being, as well as the
hypothesized mediation by supervisory social support, call for research on moderators. Dvir
and Shamir (2003) have suggested followers’ different receptiveness to transformational
leaders may depend on motivational processes. Consequently, the present study investigated
a moderator with a strong motivational component, professional ambition.
The third hypothesis proposed that the mediation by supervisory social support may
depend on the extent of professional ambition. Two different processes may account for
this moderated mediation: First, highly ambitious followers might perceive transformational
leadership to be more supportive than less ambitious followers (path a in Figure 1). Second,
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the leader’s support may be differently evaluated by the followers, which means that indi-
vidual appraisal processes may account for this outcome (path b in Figure 1).
We hypothesized that the latter process would be relevant in the context of professional
ambition as transformational leaders are defined as supporting all followers (Bass and
Riggio, 2006). Path a of the mediation model (Figure 1) was not found to be conditional
upon professional ambition. Thus evidence of the first process was not found. However, a
moderated mediation analysis of path b (Preacher et al., 2007) found support for the second
process. The relation between transformational leadership and follower irritation was
mediated by supervisory social support for medium and highly ambitious employees.
However, this was not true for followers with low professional ambition (see Figure 2),
thereby confirming hypothesis 3. The same pattern of results was revealed for all four
facets of transformational leadership.
The moderation of path b of the mediation model indicates that individual evaluation or
appraisal processes seemingly account for the effect leading to less irritation among highly
ambitious employees. Professional ambition may determine the degree to which the super-
visor’s supporting behaviour is perceived as a resource by the follower. Ambitious followers
might perceive supervisory support as a helpful acknowledgement which emphasizes that the
leader appreciates the follower. This positive effect may again result in lower levels of strain.
Though the supervisor’s support was confirmed as a mediator for ambitious followers, it was
not a full mediation indicating that other mediating variables may be existent.
Conversely, less ambitious subordinates may experience the supervisor’s support as less
helpful, so that the leader’s behaviour may not be an equally important resource for them.
Followers with low professional ambition may even feel pressured by their supervisor to
produce superior performance. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that social support may
have adverse effects, for example when help represents demanding working conditions (Beehr
et al., 2010). Although no negative effects of supervisory social support were found in this
study, the results indicate that social support is not always connected to increased well-being.
When comparing our results to the study by Franke and Felfe (2011), the results referring
to the moderator apparently differ. While the present study found high professional ambi-
tion to amplify the mediation effect, Franke and Felfe (2011) found the opposite pattern
when analyzing organizational commitment as a moderator between transformational lead-
ership and strain. We argue that the different focus of the moderators (ambition focuses on
career goals while organizational commitment focuses on the current employer) can account
for this divergent finding: Highly ambitious employees can of course be almost uncommitted
to their organization if they, for instance, perceive that their current employer does not offer
opportunities to fulfil their professional goals. Differently, employees with low ambition can
display strong organizational commitment when their career goals are fulfilled by their
employer. Taken together, both constructs denote different work-related aspects and their
effect in empirical studies can thoroughly differ.
Dvir and Shamir (2003) proposed that employees may be differentially receptive to trans-
formational leadership. Zhu et al. (2009) found that innovative followers who were willing to
take risks profited more from transformational leadership than other followers. The present
study suggests that highly ambitious followers may also be especially well suited to transform-
ational leadership, as they seem to appreciate leader’s social support more than less ambitious
followers. It has previously been demonstrated that followers with high levels of extraversion,
an internal locus of control, and low neuroticism report higher levels of social support (Chay,
1993; Swickert et al., 2010). Nevertheless, the present study did not reveal any differences with
282 Leadership 10(3)
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respect to the perceived level of supervisory social support for followers with high and low
professional ambition. This is in line with theory suggesting that transformational leaders will
value and support each of their followers (Bass and Riggio, 2006). Consequently, a different
tendency to get support from the supervisor does not account for our results.
Moreover, the support for the moderation by professional ambition may partly explain
the rejection of hypothesis 1 and 2, as a positive relation between transformational leader-
ship and emotional strain as well as the proposed mediation by supervisory social support
only holds true for a subsample but is different for other employees. It can be concluded that
individual differences between subordinates, such as for example different levels of ambition,
should be considered when applying the JD-R model in a leadership context.
Limitations and strengths. A number of limitations have to be taken into consideration when
interpreting the results of this study. First, due to the cross-sectional design, causal inferences
cannot be made from the present study. However, well-founded longitudinal research assessing
relationships between job characteristics and well-being (De Jonge et al., 2001; Ter Doest and
De Jonge, 2006) as well as between leadership variables and well-being (Nielsen et al., 2008)
suggest that models of regular causation (i.e. leadership/job characteristics impact well-being)
achieve a better fit than models of reverse or reciprocal causation. These studies support our
interpretation. Likewise, causal interpretation of the mediation by supervisory social support
based on cross-sectional data is not appropriate. Nevertheless, previous longitudinal research
has found that follower stress can be reduced by the leader’s social support (Moyle, 1998).
Common method bias may also have affected the results of this study as only one method
and one data source were employed. However, according to Chan (2009) self-reports may be
the best way to assess private events. Likewise, the individual employees should be best suited
to judge their own professional ambition because they know best about their future plans and
goals. The same applies to emotional strain. Nevertheless, other measures of strain including
physiological indicators could be considered an alternative measure, in future replications of
these results. Transformational leadership and social support by the supervisor can be assessed
by both leader and subordinate though typically judged by the subordinate. We chose to rely
on the subordinates’ perspective of their leaders’ behaviour and social support because the
subordinates’ individual perception is important for their emotional strain. Moreover, evalua-
tion by the leader may be subject to demand characteristics which again may bias the study’s
results. As recommended by Conway and Lance (2010) we used established scales with accep-
table internal consistency for which construct validity has been demonstrated. Furthermore,
confirmatory factor analysis indicated that transformational leadership and supervisory social
support can be regarded as two distinct factors (see above).
Despite of these limitations, the present study lends initial support to professional ambition
as a moderator of the relationship between transformational leadership and follower emo-
tional strain. With respect to the sampling strategy, we focused on employees in banks,
insurance, service and real estate firms because followers are likely to interact on an almost
daily basis with their leaders in these occupational fields and frequent interaction makes the
effects of leadership characteristics on follower emotional strain more likely. Second, we aimed
to include organizations which are attractive for both ambitious and less ambitious employees
to ensure sufficient variance in professional ambition. We therefore excluded organizations
practicing an up-or-out strategy. As can be seen from Table 1, the variance of professional
ambition was comparable to other scales not indicating restricted variance.
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Implications
Over recent years, research has concentrated on global, positive effects of transformational
leadership and on general mediating variables. The results of the present study suggest that
there is need for a more individualistic view of the effects of transformational leadership.
Characteristics of dyads of leaders and subordinates (Graen and Uhl-Bien, 1995) should be
taken into account in considering effects of transformational leadership. Furthermore, as not
all employees are equally affected by a transformational leader (Dvir and Shamir, 2003), it
may also be worthwhile taking into account the individual characteristics of the subordinate,
such as professional ambition. These individual characteristics may determine whether the
transformational leader’s behaviour is perceived as a resource by the followers which in turn
may account for different reactions to a transformational leader. The present study high-
lights that transformational leadership may not have positive effects on the emotional strain
of all followers. Consequently, it seems important for leaders to consider carefully which
leadership behaviour may be appropriate for which of their subordinates. For example,
supervisory social support appears not to be an effective way to promote follower well-
being for followers with low professional ambition.
In the present study transformational leadership and follower professional ambition were
significantly correlated (r ¼.33, p <0.01, see Table 1). This may reflect the tendency of
ambitious employees to evaluate their leader as more transformational, or the tendency of
leaders’ to put more effort into ambitious team members.
On the other hand, transformational leaders may also promote professional ambition.
Shamir et al. (1993) have argued that transformational leaders stimulate their followers’
motivation. But while transformational leaders emphasize high moral standards, collecti-
vism and a common purpose, high professional ambition includes a strong focus on indivi-
dual professional advancement. Nevertheless, future research should try to disentangle the
relationship between transformational leadership and professional ambition to find out if
these constructs are causally related. Moreover, the stability of professional ambition
deserves some attention (Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller, 2012). Both these issues call for
longitudinal research. Future research may also focus on goal congruence between leader
and subordinate and investigate the fit between follower and leader. The results of this study
also indicate that there may be no general health-promoting mode of leadership. Rather,
interventions for teaching health-promoting leadership should consider the individual
motives of employees. As a consequence, training programs of health-promoting leadership
should be tailored to each team and team member.
Funding
This research was supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), grant
number: Mo 440/4-1 (2).
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Author biographies
Torsten J Holstad is a research associate at the University of Leipzig, Germany. He earned
his PhD in the field of work and organizational psychology at the University of Leipzig in
2014. His research focus is on leadership, psychological wellbeing, organizational justice,
and occupational health interventions. He also works as a coach, trainer, and consultant.
Sabine Korek is a research associate at the University of Leipzig. She did her PhD in work
and organizational psychology at the University of Leipzig in 2013. Her research focus is on
leadership, occupational health, and gender.
Thomas Rigotti is a professor of Work, Organizational and Business Psychology at the
Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, Germany. He received his PhD in 2008 from the
University of Leipzig, and became full professor from 2013. His research interests include
consequences of atypical employment, health-promoting leadership, organizational justice,
work interruptions, as well as stress, and health at work.
Gisela Mohr is a professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of
Leipzig. She did her PhD at the University of Osnabru¨ ck, Germany, in 1985. Her main
research focus is on stress, work and health, leadership, unemployment, job insecurity and
gender.
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