abstract We use transformational leadership theory to explore the role of CEOs in determining the extent to which their firms engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR). We test this theory using data from 56 US and Canadian firms. CEO intellectual stimulation (but not CEO charismatic leadership) is found to be significantly associated with the propensity of the firm to engage in ‘strategic’ CSR, or those CSR activities that are most likely to be related to the firm's corporate and business-level strategies. Thus, studies that ignore the role of leadership in CSR may yield imprecise conclusions regarding the antecedents and consequences of these activities. We also critique transformational leadership theory, in terms of its overemphasis on charismatic forms of leadership. This leads to a reconceptualization of transformational leadership, which emphasizes the intellectual stimulation component in the context of CSR.