by Rich Hein

How to Apply Transformational Leadership at Your Company

Jun 19, 20139 mins

Transformational leadership is only one style of management, but it has the potential to empower your workforce to do more than you thought possible.

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Credit: Illus_man/Shutterstock

To be a leader and manager you need to have a solid understanding of things such as project management, organizational skills, managing employees and monitoring their performance, but even masters of these skills aren’t necessarily transformational leaders. These skills are simply the foundation on which a transformational leader is most effective.

Some people are just born with leaderships skills and the rest of us have to work at it. You’ve seen them before–the charismatic leaders who have a way of motivating the people around them. They instill a feeling that we are all accountable and that if one of us fails, we all fail.

These leaders are on a mission to effect positive change for both the organization and the people they work with, and their energy and passion help fuel cohesion among peers and team members, allowing them to larger than the sum of their parts. They challenge long-held assumptions and don’t accept answers like, “because this is the way we’ve always done it.”

What Is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational problems are the critical issues a company or organization faces. Most times they relate to attitudes, behaviors and culture. They are rooted in the core and can be difficult to pinpoint without deep analysis.

“Woodrow Wilson called for leaders who, by boldly interpreting the nation’s conscience, could lift a people out of their everyday selves. That people can be lifted into their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership,” – James MacGregor Burns.

James MacGregor Burns is credited with creating the concept of transformational leadership in 1978. He was a presidential biographer and a leadership expert who focused mainly on the improvement of management principles and procedures.

Burns said that a transformational leader needs to have a solid understanding of the necessary goals to be successful and be articulate in explaining those goals and the method to which they are to be achieved.

“Change doesn’t really happen at a company; it happens with people, so in order to lead change you have to know how to lead people,” says Pamela Rucker, chairwoman of the CIO Executive Council’s Executive Women in IT.

Transformational leaders are described as charismatic, enthusiastic, optimistic, passionate and sometimes visionary, giving them the ability to change long-held perceptions and beliefs. Those traits can spread like a wildfire; when they do, leaders and workers can engage more effectively allowing real transformation to take place.

Leadership Styles

Kevin Ford co-author of the upcoming book, “The Leadership Triangle” and CIO of Tag Consulting says he believes there are three kinds of successful leadership styles and that each one has its own place depending on the challenges you are facing:

  • Tactical: These leaders are solving pretty straight-forward problems. “Tactical issues are solved by expertise. Tactical challenges are the daily bread of the operations-oriented manager,” writes Ford in The Leadership Triangle.
  • Strategic: These leaders are working towards the future with a vision. “Visionaries are different in that they tend to be creative or generative in their approach. They have the ability to see the future and predict specific trends,” says Ford.
  • Transformational: This leader is a facilitator who doesn’t make decisions or establish strategic plans but, instead, facilitates a series of conversations among key stakeholders. “Transformational leaders are driven by a strong set of values and a sense of mission. Often times the strategic leader will have a vision but can’t execute it because they can’t deal with the transformative issues. A transformational leader has a more generalized vision, that’s one of the common good or what’s in the best interests of the stakeholders there.

The big difference, according to Ford, “is that the transformational leader doesn’t always know where things are going to wind up, only that it will be better than where we are today.” There is a time and place for each style, Ford says, but when companies are looking for a turnaround or to keep from getting left behind many times a transformational leader is what they are looking for.

What Embodies a Transformational Leader?

What qualities should a transformational leader possess? Here are thoughts from experts on the topic.

“If you want to transform something, you have to know what it is and not just the technology that supports it. You need to have a vision of where you want to go and be able to communicate it,” says Rucker.

In order to be transformative, according to Rucker, you need to have diversity of thought. You have to make sure that all the key stakeholders are represented in any decision that you make. You shouldn’t just have your own team coming up with ideas on what they think they know about the projects, the company or the industry. You have to honestly care about what these people [peers and stakeholders] want and need in order to make sure those needs are adequately represented and that every solution you provide has been vetted.

You need purposefully find good people with different perspectives who will shake things up and bring in new ideas. You can’t come up with all the ideas yourself. Find a way to look for experts in whatever you are trying to achieve, you have to challenge long-term assumptions people may have,” says Rucker.

“A transformational leader has to be strategic from a planning and objective setting perspective, a strong communicator that can be trusted so that by extension people are willing to ‘get on the bus’, and both be passionate & focused in order to drive change from inception to a successful conclusion, “says Greg Stewart, vice president and CIO of Enerflex.

“Some people see a transformational leader as someone who comes in and radically changes everything and I don’t see it that way,” says Jeffrey S. Shipley, vice president and CIO at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City.

“I see it as more of a mentoring or coaching role. It’s about motivation, empowerment and morale of the employees. You have to take the time to individualize, be the role model and understand people and how they think. You need to challenge long-term assumptions and beliefs and think about things a different way,” Shipley says.

“Transformational leadership, as we understand it, is mobilizing people to the common good. The ability to create a safe place to have conversations and voice ideas is very important. Ethics, morality and integrity are a huge part of transformational leadership, even if it’s not in the best interest of self. The transformational leader needs to build trust and that can’t be done in the short-term, it can only be done in the long-term. Anyone can be a transformational leader; it’s all contextual and it’s all driven by scale,” says Ford.

For a look at how to draw out your transformational leadership qualities in your resume, see “IT resume makeover: Highlighting transformational leadership.”

5 Things You Need to Facilitate Transformation

1. Intellectual Stimulation

By rocking the boat and asking questions, transformational leaders are always challenging the status quo and aren’t afraid of failure. They foster an environment where it’s safe to have conversations, be creative and voice ideas, a place where all team members feel valued. They challenge cultural norms and work to inspire passion with their teams and peers. As Rucker puts it, they are adept at, “turning me moments into we moments.”

Shipley says that managers who have a command-and-control style of leadership can get a lot accomplished, but, he says, they achieve short-term. You can have great success but you can’t maintain long-term success that way.”

A better approach, Shipley says, is to guide your team, but let them solve the problem on their own.

2. Individualized Consideration

Is the golden rule flawed? Maybe not but consider this: Don’t treat people how you want to be treated, treat them the way they want to be treated. People are different and what motivates and excites you is different from your peers and coworkers. “You have to learn to adapt your style to accommodate the skills and people on your team,” says Rucker.

3. Inspirational Motivation

Know where you want to go and create a vision or strategy to get there and then articulate, with optimism and passion, your vision to show them how all this matters in the big picture. “It’s really the meaning behind why you’re doing the job you’re doing that’s so important to communicate to people. I take great pride in understanding my employees and what motivates them,” says Shipley. He offers this analogy:

Two guys are digging a ditch, so I asked one of them, “What are you doing?” He says digging a ditch, what’s it look like I’m doing? I asked the other guy the same question and he says, “I’m building a hospital.”

It’s getting into the minds of the people so that they understand that whatever task they’re doing, they’re not doing that task, they’re a part of something larger “They aren’t digging a ditch or writing that code; they are transforming the way healthcare is delivered in this country,” says Shipley.

4. Idealized Influence

“Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique,” writes Burns.

Transformational leadership requires decision-making that works towards the greater good. You need to be a mentor of sorts and lead by example. “Values-based leadership is necessary for driving sustainable change as this ensures that the results achieved are underpinned with a strong moral and ethical foundation, thus they can also stand up to any scrutiny or resistance to change,” says Stewart.

5. Perseverance Through Conflict

Experts agree that transformational change will create conflict. You’re going to have people fight and/or ignore you. “You have to master the role by figuring out how you’re going to get all these people to work with you. Doing that will change the position you have into the power you need to change the company,” says Rucker.

Are you ready to take up the mantle of the transformational leader? You don’t have to be the boss to do so. “Anyone can be a transformational leader, it’s all contextual and it’s all driven by scale,” says Ford.