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Guide: Transformational Leadership

“A leader… is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind. Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa From Plato to Plutarch, or Marx to Mandela, humans have long debated the subject of governance. No wonder, when one could argue that history is remembered through the pitfalls and triumphs of our leaders. So how has leadership changed over the past 15,000 years? And how has it evolved? In this week’s GUIDE article, we’re looking at all things Transformative Leadership. What is it? What does it take to do it? And who’s done it well (or not so well) in the past.

What is transformative leadership? Here’s a little history:   Transformative Leadership is all about shaking things up. In an era where words like ‘change’ or ‘transformation’ are the catchphrases of a 50-billion-dollar leadership industry, the idea of leading via change doesn’t seem so groundbreaking. But given that this model has only been around for 40 odd years, let’s take a look back at the history of Transformative leadership. The transformational leadership model is one that encourages leaders to demonstrate authentic, strong leadership, inspiring employees to follow suit. The ‘change’ or ‘transform’ part of this model then, is not just related to systems (whether social or institutional) but also on an individual level.  A good transformational leader seeks to transform individual supporters, with the end goal being that their supporters will eventually become effective leaders themselves.

In 1978 James MacGregor Burns conceptualised leadership as either transactional or transformational. According to Burns, Transactional leadership is all about leading through social exchange – think Politicians who offer jobs or lower tax in return for votes or business leaders that provide financial incentives for productivity. In contrast, Transformational leadership is all about stimulating and inspiring followers to achieve extraordinary outcomes while developing supporters’ capacity as leaders. Transformational leadership doesn’t involve promises or deals. Instead, it’s all about leaders responding to the needs of their employees and effectively aligning their objectives and goals. In 1980 Bernard M. Bass developed Burn’s concept and expanded it further to discuss the Transformational leader’s tendency to gain others’ trust and confidence. Bass theorised that Transformational leaders stood out by stating future goals, developing the plans required to achieve said goals, and continually trying to innovate. He broke this down further into the four dimensions of effective Transformational leadership. These are Individualised Consideration, Intellectual Stimulation, Inspirational Motivation, and Idealised Influence.

Let’s go into detail… The capacity to inspire: It might sound obvious, but a transformational leader must be able to inspire their colleagues to follow their vision. Ideas are great, but if you don’t have the gumption to back them up, they’re no use to anyone. Providing inspiration motivation is all about having a clear vision. If the concept is clear, everyone can get on-board, reminded of the bigger purpose. Intellectual Stimulation: A transformational leader sets challenges, takes risks, and inspires creativity. By stimulating their followers, they encourage others to think independently and resourcefully, making unexpected situations into fun challenges, rather than stressful trials. An Influencers mind: Think less insta, more inspa! Maintaining a sense of idealised influence means that leaders provide an exemplar to their followers through a clear moral code and understanding of ethics. Empathy: Individualised consideration is an essential part of any transformational approach. The ability to view others as sophisticated individuals with unique needs is a crucial component of empathetic leadership.

Leaders getting it RIGHT.

Reed Hastings – CEO Netflix: Netflix, which is now so engrained in our community that it’s formed its own vernacular (Netflix and Chill, Netflastinate, Netflexting – you get it) began as a mail-ordered DVD service in 1997. In 1998, they launched their first DVD rental and sales website, and within a year are offering a subscription service offering unlimited rentals for a low monthly cost. In 2000, Netflix introduced its trademark personalisation movie recommendation system, which uses members’ ratings to predict choices for all users. By 2005, they have 4.2 million users. In 2007, they introduced streaming. In 2013, they began their first slate of original programming, and by 2014 they’ve won 31 Emmy’s. As of February 2019, Netflix has 139.26 million users worldwide. Hastings is doing something right! But what makes Netflix so successful? In an interview with TED, Hastings revealed one of his best secrets. Decision making and his desire to do it as little as possible. Sounds weird, right? But by not making decisions, Hastings is demonstrating his capacity as a transformative leader. When he hands over the responsibility to make big calls, he enables his employees to take the reins, allowing them to step up while making sure that they are equipped with the knowledge they require to make the best decisions. Responsibility = care. By trusting his staff with the power to make big decisions, Hastings ensures that every individual is invested in their role. And it works. Netflix is said to have some of the highest rates of employee satisfaction, with employees rating Hastings at a whopping 87% approval rating.

Sheryl Sandberg – COO Facebook: Sheryl Sandberg believes that the “ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have”. As the Chief Operations Officer at Facebook and the author of the best-selling book (and leader of the subsequent movement), Lean In, it’s evident that Sandberg is an active and intelligent leader, but what is it that makes her approach to leadership so revolutionary? Sandberg is a skilled influencer. As a female leader, she has used her position of authority to be utterly transparent about the disparity of women in the workplace. As a leader, she recognised her ability to not only voice her concerns but take steps to seek meaningful, permanent change for all people. This kind of influence not only provides a clear exemplar for her followers, but it also demonstrates a great deal of empathy for others.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Former President of Liberia In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the 24th president of Liberia, serving as the country’s leader from 2006-2018, making her Africa’s first elected female head of state. At that time, Liberia faced the aftermath of a second civil war, which had only ended two years earlier. Liberia’s 14-year civil war claimed the lives of thousands and resulted in grave psychological, ideological, economic, and political effects on the countries wellbeing. During the war, the use of child soldiers was prolific on both sides, resulting in widespread trauma throughout all areas of the community. As President then, Ellen’s goal was clear – to lead political, social, and economic changes in her war-ravaged country. Having a clear goal meant that Sirleaf was always purpose driven. She knew exactly what she was striving for and refused to settle for anything less. This made it possible to turn her goals into action. Sirleaf’s agenda for change addressed basic but essential issues for Liberia by providing things like jobs for the youth and access to free education. She is a clear example of how a compelling vision and a drive can create effective change, characteristics that are both intrinsic to any transformational leader.

A leader that may have missed the mark…   Steve Jobs – Former CEO, Chairman, and co-founder of Apple, Inc Apple’s Steve Jobs is an excellent example of an effective leader, who didn’t always lead effectively. There is no doubt that with Jobs at the helm, Apple Inc has redefined an entire industry, transforming lives across the globe. As a leader, Jobs was often celebrated as having the capacity to make others do things they might never have otherwise done. But what does that mean? And is it always a good thing? In his biography, Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson describes Jobs’ employees as believing Steve tended to wilfully deny reality, seriously deviating from the given the truth and given facts of any situation. Jobs’ employees often described working beyond expectations only because they were driven by fear. It’s evident that Jobs’ leadership style produced results, but is bullying the most effective way to inspire your employees?

Still interested? Forty-odd years on, Transformational Leadership is still thought to be one of the most effective and revolutionary forms of direction within organisations at all levels. If you’re interested in finding out more about Transformational leadership methodologies and case studies, here are some great resources:

  • Transformational Leadership – by Bernard M. Bass Where it all began. This second edition, published in 2005 is still regarded as essential reading for anyone interested in Leadership Studies
  • Transformational Leadership: A Blueprint for Real Organisational Change by Randy Dobbs with Paul Robert Walker A step-by-step guide to improving the internal structure of any organisation. Practical and common sense how-to advice is supported with concrete examples of the principles at work.
  • Lean In – Sheryl Sandberg Though not strictly about Transformational Leadership, Sandberg’s Lean In is a must-read! Lean In is not just a call to action; it’s a blueprint for individual growth that strives to empower women across the globe to fulfil their full potential.
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