Transformational Leaders


“But that is how we have always done things….” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this or a version of it…I would be a millionaire. When 2020 came along and disrupted the world as we know it, I watched in fascination at how quickly organizations responded and reacted, some even thriving under conditions not of their own making. And once again I got fooled. You see, I thought,"This is the year that we finally let go of practices that no longer serve us like insisting that everyone physically come to an office every day.” LOL, amiright? As soon as there was a small indication that things were turning around, companies began calling their people back in, even knowing that the preference was to continue work from home. So much for a transformation to how we do the business of doing business. I love Mary Poppins. When I think about the resistance that the status quo brings to the notion of any kind of change, I am reminded of the lyrics to the song “A British Bank.” A British bank is run with precision A British home requires nothing less! Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools Without them...Disorder! Chaos! Moral disintegration! In short, you have a ghastly mess! The children must be molded, shaped, and taught That life's a looming battle to be faced and fought Poor Mr. Banks. He just doesn’t get it, and, without Mary Poppins, he would have stuck to those traditions at the expense of his children’s happiness. But this Mr. Banks' mindset shows up all over today’s organizations. Consider a few common areas of consideration that come up repeatedly in my work: Change: People want transparency. Response: “Let’s keep all the important information about where we are headed as an organization at the top to ourselves. We can’t trust our people with this information.” Change: People want meaning in their work, even in a down economy. Response: “They should be happy they have a job. They need to quit complaining and get back to work!” (This was told to me by an executive after an unexpected layoff) Change: People want flexibility around when and where they work. Response: “You must be present to work. We need to be able to see you at all times and, while it may not make sense, you need to log your hours and turn them in at the end of the week.” Change: People want to be creative, no matter their job title. Response: “Marketing is the department responsible for creative ideas.” Change: How we talk to our customers has changed. They like to connect to us using social media. Response: “Why would we do social media? What a colossal waste of time!” While change is a given, organizations uncomfortable with this reality endorse well-behaved leaders who lead from fear. They develop future leaders who can step into the role and maintain the status quo, at any cost. Understand, this is a losing strategy. The short-term and long-term impact of the “behave at all costs” mindset will destroy your business--just ask Kodak, Blockbuster, and Radio Shack. In their work on transformative leaders, Boston University identified four distinct qualities of transformative leaders. From a pool of 6,000 leaders, a pathetic 7% met their criteria. Out of this group, the researchers identified four clear characteristics:

  • They challenge the STATUS QUO without provoking outrage or cynicism.

  • They are Agile and Flexible. They can course-correct when the unexpected happens.

  • They balance the BIG PICTURE with the day-to-day challenges.

  • They lead with inquiry, advocacy, respect, and humility.

This is not the profile of the well-behaved leader. The 7% of leaders who met these criteria sound like the dream leader, the kind of person I want to work with (and I am lucky to have known a few). But in many organizations, the transformative leader is labeled a trouble maker and a campaign to bring them down will be drawn up and executed straight away. It takes courage to be the person in the room who will say what is on everyone’s mind, question how we have always done things, and put forward new ideas knowing the powers that be will resist. So my question to you is this: If you take the work of leadership seriously—what are you doing that is transformational? What are you ready to release/give up in order to find the way forward? Change is scary indeed. I get it. When I watched my calendar get wiped out last year as the word coronavirus became covid became pandemic I was initially worried. But my SECOND THOUGHT SAID YOU ARE A POWERFUL LEADER. And I got to work. Here’s what I know: Leadership is not who you are and what you do when everything is going right. It is who you are and what you do when everything is going WRONG. We need more transformational leaders. Can I add your name to the list? Libby