Why transformational leadership has never been so important

by | 6 Sep 2020 | Leadership

Just how do you embed transformational leadership in an organisation? It’s not a new challenge. It was unveiled in 1978, by James McGregor Burns in his book Leadership, where he defined transformational leadership as a process where ‘leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.’ It was developed further by Bernard M Bass in his 1985 book Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations.

Transformational leadership is a theory of leadership where leaders mobilise their teams to identify what change is needed and then they create a vision to inspire and guide employees through the change. As a theory it feels very relevant today because we are surrounded by so much transformation in business, at work, in community and society as a whole.

Wherever an organisation’s start point, whether it’s to go from good to great, undergo a rapid turnaround in performance or exit a distressed situation, it requires the type of leader that can identify and communicate a vision of how an organisation needs to change for survival and growth. We have often heard a transformational leader described as ‘part visionary, part strategist, part communicator, and part people motivator.’

The benefit, of course, of a transformational leadership style is that it motivates followers, inspires trust and loyalty and galvanises the entire organisation. It is a style particularly important when assumptions that supported years of stable, predictable growth are no longer likely to be valid.

How can companies embed transformational leadership in their C-suite?

Our experience of embedding transformational leadership in the C-suite and beyond requires leaders to take the following steps:

1. Set and communicate a clear purpose, mission, vision and values in consultation with employees — these provide the ‘north star’ and guiding principles for everyone in the organisation and form the basis for a transformational leadership style to flourish, which is about taking everyone in the organisation on a journey with you.

2. Envision future possibilities — this requires harnessing everyone’s skill set and encouraging moonshot ‘anything is possible’ thinking. It’s about creating an environment where diversity of thought is embedded in the DNA, by actively encouraging different ideas and perspectives.

3. Create a culture that encourages ongoing change — this is about building a critical mass of people in your workforce who are naturally change orientated. It requires hiring and developing key strengths such as adaptability, comfort with ambiguity, creativity, experimentation and then creating a culture of psychological safety where people feel safe to fail.

4. Avoid making perfection the goal — we never likely achieve perfection when we’re doing something new. It’s about creating a culture, so people understand that it’s not a problem if they try something new and it doesn’t work at first and being open to sharing failures, so ideas get stronger and companies learn to innovate at scale.

5. Don’t just rely on logic to persuade — if you want to change or influence human behaviour, rational or benefits-led messaging just doesn’t cut it (a failure in many organisations!). To connect with and move people, you need to create an emotional state.

6. Embrace dialogue and debate — successful transformational leaders find common ground and encourage people to participate in the discussion. It is often about being open to dialogue, even conflict, to solve problems in a productive way.

7. Put personal care high on the list — in order to be effective, leaders need to take care of themselves in a holistic way. Developing a self-care plan and being consistent with taking a break or time off as needed will prevent depletion and exhaustion and role model great behaviour for team members.

8. Put transformational leadership at the heart of a company’s leadership framework — this is about creating development pathways aligned to transformational leadership competencies and investing in development activity aligned to the capabilities and behaviours needed.

Overall, transformational leadership has never been more important. In a world of unprecedented disruption and market turbulence, transformation revolves around the need to generate new value, unlock new opportunities, drive new growth and deliver new efficiencies and in doing this requires leaders to be purposeful, bold, human, courageous and indeed transformational in approach.

Based in London and with over 24 years’ global experience, Karen Thomas-Bland is often cited as one of the top business transformation and M&A integration consultants and coaches in the world. She is a trusted advisor to boards, executive teams and investors, having led complex, enterprise-wide turnarounds and integrations to $105bn turnover. She writes for many publications including The Times, FT, Association of MBAs and Management Today.