How to Become a Transformational Leader

If you expect consistent, across the board performance beyond expectations from employees, how do you prime the pump? Transformational leaders know how to get above average results on a consistent basis.

When you think of a mushroom, what comes to mind?

If you answered ‘fungus’ and ‘dirt,’ you are right!

Where do mushrooms grow?

Certainly not in direct sunlight, right? Yes, in darker, moist or humid places. They thrive on manure. Fungi have an important role in the decomposition of organic matter. Along with bacteria, they are the major decomposers in most ecosystems.

What does the expression mushroom management conjure up in your mind?

This expression was coined by Traci Kidder in “The Soul of a New Machine.” It is an allusion to a style of management in which employees are treated like mushrooms by their leadership. They are kept in the dark, covered with dung, and when they grow too big, are canned. Management makes decisions about employees, (those affected by those decisions), without consulting them.

Mushroom managers hoard information and in so doing encourage rumor-mongering. A few people are singled out for attention, and get offered opportunities for growth; that in turn leads to the development of an ‘in’ crowd, cliques, stovepipes and silos. The pecking order is clearly defined. Other employees plow along aimlessly, dispirited, not understanding where they fit in the larger picture and what their own prospects are. They become increasingly fearful of management and focused on avoiding negative attention and mistakes.

Team membership then becomes a function of like-mindedness and expected agreement. Fitting-in becomes an absolute imperative for survival in the office. Employees grow fearful of expressing loyal dissent and alternate viewpoints. As a result, distrust sets in, muted cynicism prevails, engagement goes down, and absenteeism increases.

Mushroom managers are often more concerned with their own career advancement and less concerned with advocating for their employees. Mushroom managers rely on a lot of poor assumptions about what people know and what motivates them. Employees, on the other hand, are left to interpret what their managers want or care about. What they know for a fact is that the managers do not care about them or the organization. The mushroom manager will communicate when they have to, but will talk at you. Listening to direct reports will make them feel less powerful, so they will avoid it.

Mushroom managers mobilize no one behind a vision, and produce no positive change. So, what can mushroom managers typically expect of their employees in terms of day to day performance?

What level of performance are they priming the pump for?

How many in your leadership fit into that mold?

Hopefully, more often than not, in any workplace, there are fewer mushroom managers than transactional managers. Actually, most managers and leaders are transactional. They take care of business.

What exactly is a transactional manager?

If a transaction is basically an exchange, transactional leaders leverage rewards, compensation, or punishment as the primary ways in which to motivate employees. They appeal to our most basic deficiency needs, a person’s need to get the job done and make a living. Transactional leaders motivate employees by appealing to their own self-interest. They seek compliance.

Transactional managers spend a lot of their time putting out fires, finding answers, being tactical, focusing on the day-to-day business processes, monitoring deviations from rules and standards, if not deviance, and taking corrective actions. They react when standards are not met, and spend a significant amount of time dealing with problems. They seldom ask powerful questions because these questions produce insight, unsettle the status quo, and create more taskings. Their sense of control is easily shaken. They are mostly quality controllers, enforcers, judges and/or gatekeepers. In the rush to get things done, they tolerate little to no deviations from standard operating procedures. Transactional managers have answers, or feel they ought to have answers. Yet, answers signal a full stop in thinking, whereas questions open new possibilities; however, new possibilities create anxiety; (exactly what they cannot afford more of).

What level of performance can they typically expect from their employees?

If you expect – consistent, across the board — performance beyond expectations from employees, how do you prime the pump? What do you do differently?

Do you not encourage conflict? The exclusion of conflict carries a heavy price. Conflict is the creative force in the world that gives birth to real change. Do you not encourage the free flow of communication? Do you not encourage large scale information-sharing? Do you not encourage decentralized decision-making? What about a bottom-up approach to management, decision-making and initiatives? Would you not encourage the identification and elimination of unnecessary rules and regulations? Would you not actively promote a culture of inquiry? Transformational leaders do!

Questions instigate out of the box thinking and can become the engines of profound transformations. Communication confronts us with limits to our perceptions, our interpretations, and our evaluations, and provides impetus for discovery. Communication is all about access. Access drives inclusion. Inclusion creates intersections. Intersections provoke innovation. “Communication and information are essential to innovation.” Innovation keeps us all thriving.

If you want – consistent, across the board – performance beyond expectations, do you not set high expectations of everyone? Especially since expectation is a bias, a choice born out of necessity; do you not articulate what it is you truly want and value; take a stand and allow others to step up, take that stand with you, and share that stage as they show up for themselves?

Would you not tell them why you believe what you believe and allow them to exercise their power of choice? True leadership is not value-neutral, it is value-laden. Let others choose to believe with you. The power of values is mobilizing and compelling. The most potent appeal is moral. Ideals move people and inspire them to strive for their higher selves. Transformational leaders use the absolute most effective influence approaches and techniques known to men, among them, an inspirational approach through an appeal to values and through modeling. An appeal to values is truly an appeal to the heart. Transformational leaders seek others’ commitment and leadership, not just their compliance.

A leader’s job is to embrace conflict, harness it and give it a future-focus, keeping it strategic. A leader’s job is to connect with people by empowering them; granting them more authority, more support, more resources, more freedom and confidence. A true leader’s job is to get over himself and give away his power generously. A true leader’s job is to make leaders out of all direct reports. That’s what drives engagement and speedier mission accomplishment.

That sounds an awful lot like what one would expect of a coach. Doesn’t it?

What do we need to become more transformational?

We can start by adopting a different stance.

Transformational leadership is a form of positive deviance. Positive deviance is about getting the people whose self-image is wrapped up in being the person who knows the answer to become the person who knows the right questions. A big challenge is to get leaders to relinquish their power to enable others to find their own solutions. Communities already have the solutions to their problems. They are the best experts to solve their own problems through collective intelligence.

Adopting a different stance as a way of becoming more transformational also involves looking at problem-solving in a whole different way. Instead of focusing on problems, we can focus on what gives life to, and invigorates human systems. We can focus our organizations’ attention on its positive core. That focus on what works is generative. It produces solutions beyond expectations, whereas traditional problem-solving merely restores the status quo.

Becoming more transformational begins when we adopt an inclusive and positive stance. The next step in the journey consists in understanding the four components of Transformational Leadership.

Intellectual Stimulation

Transformational leaders challenge their direct reports to be innovative and creative, which can only be done when they provide cover for failure, lots of them. Innovation happens only in the context of a corporate culture with high tolerance for failure. The brain is our main productivity tool. Thinking has become the main competency, and there can be no definitive failure in thought. As failure results from employees actively stretching their competence to reach higher levels of performance, in the process value is undeniably added. Failure becomes feedback and unexpected situations so many opportunities to learn. Transformational leaders nurture and further develop people who think independently and differently.

Individualized Consideration

Transformational leaders demonstrate genuine interest in the needs and concerns of employees in ways that are concrete. They meet employees face to face to listen exclusively and understand employees’ thought processes. Conflict confidence makes it possible for them to hear most things. That face to face meeting, that personal attention, is to a great extent responsible for bringing out employees best efforts, and their renewed connection to mission. They provide opportunities for coaching, mentoring, teaching, and counseling that further reinforce the bonds between the leaders and the led. Real power emerges from people wanting to work with you because of the way you interact with them. Transformational leaders understand that it is their responsibility to create an environment in which employees feel free to talk to them. That realization drives inclusion.

Idealized Influence

True leadership is never an act of control, coercion, or dominance; it is an act of influence. Authentic leaders do not seek to compel, they seek to inspire. They do not impose their will on others; instead, they live according to core beliefs and principles that attract others.

Those leaders serve as role models, they “walk the talk,” and exemplify highly ethical behavior before gaining respect and trust. Besides all the influence techniques in effective leaders’ toolboxes, the most significant factor in successfully leveraging Idealized Influence remains willpower, the will to influence, or the courage to act.

Inspirational Motivation

It is not enough for transformational leaders to “walk the talk,” and exemplify highly ethical behavior, they also will challenge the rest of us to do the same. They provide meaning for the task at hand, bolstering our sense of purpose. Purpose and meaning then dispense the energy that drives us forward. Needs that are gratified are not motivators. That is why transformational leaders appeal primarily to our need for self-realization, or personal growth and self-fulfillment as they satisfy their personal need for transcendence, or helping others to self-actualize.

Transformational leaders make leaders of all their direct reports. What you get consistently with transformational leadership done right is performance beyond expectation. Below is an excerpt from an Army officer in Afghanistan as reported by Colonel Mark Homrig:

A Chechen commander was killed. On his body was a diary that compared fighting the US with fighting Russians. He noted that when you take out the Russian leader, the unit stops and mills about, not sure of what to do next. But he added that when you take out a US leader, somebody always and quickly takes his place with no loss of momentum. A squad leader goes down, it may be a private that steps up to the plate before they can iron out the new chain of command. And the damn thing is that the private knows what the hell he is doing.

Organizations change only when people change.

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