Transformational Leadership


It is said of a good leader that when the work is done and the aim is fulfilled, the people will say, “We did this ourselves.” – Lao Tzu 1

Leadership has been the most discussed, but perhaps the least understood, phenomenon across human civilizations and cultures. The search for the characteristics of good leadership spans many centuries. 

Greek philosophical works such as The Republic (Plato, 380 BC) and Parallel Lives (Plutarch, 2ndcentury AD) explored the qualities that distinguish a leader from other people. The underlying assumption was that leadership is anchored in certain special characteristics that are possessed by chosen individuals.

Formal studies of leadership in the industrial era began with the examination of great historical leaders. An attempt was made to find the traits that these personalities shared in common. Determination, work ethic, emotional stability, personal integrity, diplomacy, self-confidence, originality, and creativity came across as being valuable towards the exercise of leadership. Intellectual abilities such as sound knowledge and judgment were also found to be very useful for the exercise of good leadership.

In the early twentieth century, the focus shifted to the study of the styles and behaviors employed by leaders. For example, autocrats set goals without considering the opinions of the people. They exercise control in order to ensure the unquestioned execution of the assigned tasks. Consultative leaders solicit the ideas and opinions of others in the process of goal setting. 

Participative leaders allow the group to contribute significantly to the process of decision-making. Laissez-faire leaders permit the people to take whatever action is felt necessary. 

In subsequent decades, the phenomenon of leadership was viewed variously as an act, or a behavior, as the initiation of structure, as an instrument of goal attainment, as a focus of group processes, as the art of inducing compliance, as the exercise of influence, as a form of persuasion, as a differentiated role, as vision, and as an emerging effect of interaction. 

In the twenty-first century, leadership is considered to be more of a shared phenomenon. It is now regarded as the collective capacity of a community of people to co-create and shape its own future. 

Organizational Leadership

The leaders of business organizations are individuals who exercise ownership as well as responsibility for the integrated functioning of a fully resourced enterprise. They occupy the fifth stratum in the organization’s hierarchy of accountability.

Organizational leaders govern the value-creation work of the operational and managerial facets of the institution. They connect the dots with respect to the sub-units of the organization, and make connections among diverse ideas, functions, and people. Leaders adopt a long-term perspective.

Organizational leaders manage resource boundaries. They maintain a balancing act between present needs and future goals, between thinking broad and going deep, and also between the exploration of new business opportunities and the capitalization of the existing ones. 

Organizational leaders monitor the political, economic, technological and social trends on a continuous basis, and assess their implications for the core business of the enterprise. When the objectives or the methods of the organization appear to be relatively unsustainable or unviable, they study the situation carefully in order to determine what is feasible under the circumstances.

The phenomenon of leadership is often juxtaposed with that of management. Leadership is about enlisting other people to join in a bold and forward-looking endeavour, while management is concerned with the judicious use of available resources in any given situation. 

Managers plan, organize, direct and control in order to make the best out of the current circumstance, whereas leaders employ passion, inspiration and moral courage in order to transform the situation. Management is about working with the presently known and predictable, while leadership is concerned with working into a future that is unknown and unpredictable by its very nature.

The English word “lead” is derived from the Old English term “lithan” and the Old French “leden” meaning “to cause to go with oneself”, and thus “to guide or show the way.” 2It connotes a sense of journey or movement from one place to another. Thus, leaders are individuals who proactively venture into new territory. They show the way forward for others in the face of risk, dynamism, and uncertainty. 

Leadership as the Navigation of Change 

Contemporary society is characterized by ceaseless and disruptive change, at a scale and pace that is unprecedented in human history. The turbulence on the outside naturally leads to turmoil within the human being. People, therefore, search for someone who can contain their anxiety and assuage their discomfort. Individuals who are able to carry out such containment are regarded as leaders.

Change is of three kinds: developmental, transitional and transformational3Developmental change is usually focused on improving skills or processes, while transitional change seeks to achieve the desired state that is different from the existing one. 

On the other hand, transformational change alters the fundamental position and trajectory of the organization. It demands an extensive shift and revision of the basic assumptions held by the people. 

Leaders recognize that living systems transform rapidly when they view change as the means to preserve themselves. So, they notice changes in the environment and activate the operational systems and cultural processes of the organization to innovate and adapt accordingly. 

The ability to navigate a human system through profound change and renewal is thus the sine qua nonof leadership.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is the ability to collectively formulate and realize a vision in practice.

The process commences with the identification of the core strengths and values of the organization. The institutional mission and vision are developed through a co-creative approach. A roadmap is charted out to help the organization progress towards the envisaged future. Inspiration and empowerment are the key features of the exercise of transformational leadership.

A transformational effort often begins with some rapid, short-term streamlining initiatives. These are intended to close the performance gaps, and also to establish credibility towards enabling change and growth.

In the medium term, the transformational endeavour yields a fundamentally different competitive position for the organization. The operating and business models of the enterprise are examined and appropriately revised. 

Over the long run, transformation requires the building of a high-performance culture. This mandates a comprehensive review of the organizational vision, mission, values, design, and strategy.

Transformational leaders raise the consciousness of their colleagues by appealing to higher ideals and values. 4They stir the people into transcending narrow self-interest for the sake of the larger good, and motivate them to do more than expected.Authentic relationships built upon this foundation help to develop a mutuality of trust and confidence. Deep, qualitative change is the result.

Transformational change comes about through a spiral of three processes that are performed concurrently. These stages are as follows:

a) Appreciation– An inspired search for the core “heritage” in the form of the core strengths and values 

b) Visualization– Arriving at a shared understanding of what people want to collectively be (mission) and become (vision) such that the enterprise may sustain into eternity.

c) Actualization– Working in a spirit of service towards the realization of the organizational vision 

The Transformational Leadership Framework

The transformational leadership process moves across the stages of Appreciation, Visualization, and Actualization. The operational mechanisms that underlie these three phases are as follows:

On the existential plane, the recognition of connectedness (a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself) facilitates the sustainability(the capacity to exist for an indefinite period of time) of the enterprise because the interests of all the stakeholders of the organization are taken into account. This facilitates the adoption of stewardship (holding accountability for collective outcomes by empowering people) as the governing principle of the organization.

At the cultural level, the articulation of the organizational heritage(identifying the best attributes from the institution’s past) allows for the revitalization of the mission(the basic function or purpose of the organization in society). A sound strategy(a plan of action designed to strengthen the enterprise performance) supports the fulfillment of the shared sense of purpose.

On the experiential level, the process comprises of inspiration(brilliant and creative ideas that lead to mental stimulation) that facilitates the development of a bold vision(a preferred future for the organization). In order to actualize such a vision in a dynamic and complex environment, the organization undergoes reinvention (dramatic changes in the business and cultural pillars).

The starting point of any transformational endeavor is a deeply felt sense of connectedness with various life forms and expressions. Unless the leader exudes an expansive and shared identity that includes all those beings around him or her, the attempt to transform shall be a non-starter. 

The crux of the transformational exercise lies in the ability to articulate an exciting or elevating sense of mission or shared purpose that makes collective existence meaningful for the people. Engagement is thus generated, and people work with their heart and soul towards a new destination. 

A successful transformational initiative results into a reinvention of the collective organizational identity as well as its myriad expressions such as the structure, the culture and the business models.

The Appreciation Phase

Appreciation has been defined as the act of recognizing the intrinsic value or worth in a person or situation, and feeling a positive connection to it. Accordingly, the task in the Appreciation Phase is to identify the best of “what is” by focusing on the best moments or high points from the organization’s past.

Reflection upon the tenets of systems thinking leads people to accept connectednessas the truth of life. The core strengths and values that characterize the organization are now articulated. Collectively, these comprise its heritage. The final task in the Appreciation Phase is to tap the wellsprings of inspiration that residewithin the organization as well as its people.

Connectedness

Connectedness is the sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. It represents a feeling of belonging. Connectedness also refers to the force that urges people to ally, to affiliate, to enter into mutual relationships and grow through cooperative behavior.” 6It expands a person’s sense of self to include all of mankind and beyond. 

Connectedness takes away the sense of defensiveness that is inevitable when one feels in opposition to the rest of the universe. The person thus begins to feel secure, and develops a sense of positivity. 

Heritage

Heritage represents anything that has been transmitted from the past or handed down by tradition. In the institutional context, heritage refers to those commonly shared and treasured assumptions, values, perspectives, norms, beliefs and core competencies that have served the organization well in the past. These constitute the essence of the unique social and psychological environment of the institution.

Cultural heritage may be detected at three levels: a) artifacts, b) espoused values and c) basic underlying assumptions. Artifacts are the tangible organizational attributes that can be seen, feltand heard. Espoused values express the basic assumptions and core beliefsthat are shared in common among the people, especially those that relate to the trustworthiness of an organization. The deepest part of heritage isexpressed as a set of tacit assumptions or unspoken rules that are implicitly honoured by the members. Theseelements remain unseen. They usually exist without the conscious knowledge of the people.

Inspiration

Inspiration refers to the emergence or bursting forth of a brilliant or creative idea that leads to mental enthusiasm. It is triggered by means of a compelling internal illumination that is directed towards the realization of an idea. The inspired individual is moved by the truth, ingenuity or beauty of the trigger object, and is moved to transmit, emulate or actualize those qualities.7Inspiration is a motivational state that provides the power, courage, strength, and resilience to overcome the obstacles that are encountered when a vision begins to be realized. It is possible to derive inspiration from one’s managers, leaders, mentors, role models, heroes as well as gurus.

The Visualization Phase

Visualization refers to the employment of human imagination in order to envisage specific events and outcomes or form a mental picture of something that is as yet abstract. It is akin to preparing a map or design of the house that a person can subsequently set out to build.

Visualization involves challenging the status quo by envisioning a preferred future. It is an invitation for the stakeholders to go beyond what they previously thought as possible. There are three tasks during the Visualization stage of the transformational journey.

The first is to instill the imperative of sustainability.This entails the responsible planning and management of resources, in order to serve all the stakeholders of the enterprise. Next, a formal shape is given to themissionof the institution by articulating the basic function that it wants to serve in the society. In the process of doing so, the organization seeks to attain a preferred state of being in the times ahead. This is referred to as its vision

Sustainability

Sustainability represents the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely. It refers to a form of existence, wherein the needs of the present stakeholders are adequately met without compromising the ability of the future stakeholders to meet their own needs.8

Operating in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable manner is one of the most urgent challenges facing organizations today.9Sustainability is an effort to improve the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of the supporting ecosystems. Declining ecological resources, the move toward radical transparency, and increasing customer expectations make a compelling case for sustainability. 

The following propositions can help to guide the integration and embedding of the attribute of sustainability into business strategy: 10

Mission

Every institution exists in order to make a positive difference in the lives of individuals, and in society at large. This represents the organization’s basic purpose and its very reason for being. 

The term “mission” refers to an important goal or purpose that is accompanied by a strong conviction. This articulation often revolves around the need for economic survival and growth. It involves the maintenance of good relationships with all the major stakeholders such as investors, employees, customers, suppliers, the community, and the government.

A statement of mission is intensely distinctive. It embodies the deep conviction of its creators. It is relatively short and focused, so that the people may easily comprehend the present and future activities that the organization would engage with. The mission statement conveys why the institution aspires to do what it does. The true test of a statement of mission is the actual performance that it manages to ignite and inspire.

Vision

Vision is the ability to think about the future with imagination and wisdom. It is an ideal that reveals the higher-order value preferences of the people, and represents their ultimate economic, technological, political, social, and aesthetic priorities. 

A vision represents a unique picture of the future. It refers to the process of outlining inspiring possibilities. The vision describes the image of an ideal future state. It provides direction to human energy, and results in the creation of a new internal reality. 

An effective, meaningful and compelling vision is marked by the following characteristics:

a) Future Focused: The vision paints a clear picture of the entity’s desired future.

b) Directional: The vision clarifies the entity’s focus, direction, and constraints.

c) Clear: A clearly articulated vision provides guidance for decision-making & action.

d) Relevant: A credible vision is congruent with the current context of the entity.

e) Purpose-Driven: The vision allows the people to feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

f) Values-Based: The vision connects the people to the entity’s core values, ideals, and beliefs.

g) Unifying: The vision is an invitation to a greatness that unites people in a pursuit of high standards

h) Unique: The vision reflects uniqueness as to why the entity matters, and what makes it stand out. 

i) Vivid: The vision provides an eloquent mental image that is easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

j) Inspiring: The vision appeals to the heart as well as the mind and engages the people emotionally.

The Actualization Phase

Actualization refers to the act of realizing an articulated vision in actual practice. It involves the creation ofways and means to deliver upon an image of the future. The core values and assumptions are defined. Strategic choices are made. Finally, a carefully constructed plan of action is implemented. 

In the Actualization phase, the primary task is to explore how the mission and vision may be realized in a spirit of stewardship. A blueprint is created, and an operational strategyis formulated. This refreshed framework often requires the re-inventionof the business model and cultural pillars of the enterprise. The new practices then take root in the organization more easily.

Stewardship

Stewardship is the acceptance or assignment of responsibility to shepherd and safeguard the valuables of others. It is the willingness to operate in a spirit of service towards the stakeholders. In the practice of stewardship, self-interest is replaced with trusteeship as the basis for using social power. 

A living principle that is relevant to stewardship is expressed by theSanskrit phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. This translates, “The whole planet is part of the one and the same unitary family.” It is a social philosophy that emanates from the spiritual understanding that all of humanity is made up of one and the same life-energy. 11In the process of serving others, people thus indirectly secure their own welfare.

Strategy

Strategy refers to a high-level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty. It represents the broad formula of how a business is going to compete, what its goals should be, and what policies will be needed to carry out those goals.12This includes identifying the combination of the ends (goals) for which the firm is striving and the means (policies and practices) by which it seeks to get there.

A strategy is a function of the ability to foresee the future consequences of present initiatives. 13It involves the setting of goals, determining the actions required to achieve these objectives, and the mobilization of resources to execute the identified actions. 

The essential requirements for strategy development include: a) extensive knowledge about the environment, market and competitors, b) the ability to examine this information in a systemic and dynamic context, and c) the use of logic and imagination in choosing between specific alternatives. 14

Reinvention

Reinvention refers to the process of revival in a different form, remaking completely, or inventing something anew. The essential core of the organization is elevated and carried forward. Everything else is let go of. Reinvention is marked by a shift in the dominant organizational paradigm. It leads to an experience of reawakening.

In the globalized economy, the life expectancy of organizations has been dramatically shortened. Organizations periodically remake and revise their own sense of who they are, what they do, and how their offerings are useful for the world. This involves making significant changes in perspectives, assumptions, strategies and habit patterns. 

References

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  8. Thrash T, Elliot A. Inspiration as a psychological construct. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003;84(4):871-889
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