From Here to There: Actions to Become a More Transformational Leader


This post is part 2 of a 2 part series.  To read Part 1, click here: What Kind of a Leader Are You?

Our questions about becoming a more transformational leader are often more about how than why. We don’t experience transformational leaders around us. We have too much to do and not enough time to do it. At the end of the day, its results, not people, that matter. As asked in part 1 of this series, how can we be a Mandela in an organization full of Napoleons? This post will offer five ideas to help anyone who wants to be a more transformational leader move closer to this goal. It’s built on the premise, offered by Patterson, et al (2008) in Influencer- The Power to Change Anything that the odds for successful change come down to two questions: 1) Is it worth it? 2) Can I do it?

If you can’t answer the first question, Is it worth it?, affirmatively, stop reading here. Your first decision must be that you see enough value in becoming a different type of leader that you will at least try. It can’t matter that you are the only one. It can’t matter that your boss isn’t like this. It can’t matter that it’s hard. You must decide that it’s worth it to be a Mandela surrounded by Napoleons, just like the real Mandela.

Assuming that you are still with me, move to the second question, Can I do it? Yes, you can. Patterson, et al reminds us that “much of will is skill” and “much of prowess is practice.” The five ideas below are by no means exhaustive. They represent starting points.  They build skills that make it easier to lead differently. The more you do them, the better you’ll get.  Even if you doubt you can be great, just try to get better.

1. Have a Personal and Powerful Vision
If you’re thinking:  I knew she was going to write this – you’re right. Big transformations start with big ideas.  Ideas that excite, compel, energize. Washington didn’t organize a group of rag tag farmers to take on the most powerful military of its time “just because.” He had a vision of independent colonies working together to create a new nation.  Nelson Mandela’s vision of a post apartheid South Africa helped him endure 19 years of prison with his dignity intact. Your personal vision of what’s possible for you, your organization and your team is the engine of transformation. You think something about your purpose anyway. Why not think big?

2. Ask What Before How
What is a remarkable little four-letter word that engages others to expand ideas. It expresses your interest in possibilities before settling into a solution. If you want more ideas and fewer excuses, ask what questions before how questions. Add more “What’s possible?” and “What’s next?” questions to engage others. You may find not only a better idea, but also a solution you don’t have to “sell” because others are already on board.

3. Be Positive
A positive outlook is more than self-help happy talk. Research suggests its value to change agents. Dan Gilbert, psychologist and researcher from Harvard University, concludes that we humans are wired to imagine our futures as positive. You don’t need his research, though. When was the last time you were motivated to change because you wanted something worse? Paint a positive view of the future, and mean it, to engage the imaginations of others.

4. Replace Judgment With Empathy
If you do nothing else, assume good intent. Assume the people around you are doing the best they know how. They are rationale actors developing a solution in their best interests. Negative judgments give otherwise good people self-permission to rationalize harmful actions toward others. We allow ourselves to discard ideas from those we deem incompetent. We dismiss others we judge to be wrong. Instead, wonder What causes them to think this solution works? when faced with a problem or disagreement.  See if your reflections generate more empathy than evaluation. More importantly, notice that you get closer to win-win solutions faster with more empathy than judgment.

5. Develop Recovery Strategies
Even with a deep commitment to lead differently, a change will be bumpy. Stress may challenge your resolve. It can be lonely to be different. Progress can be slow.  Something as simple as a bad habit can bring you back to old behavior. Patterson, et al reminds us that missteps are part of all change. That’s why they urge us to plan recovery strategies in advance.  Recovery strategies give us an alternative to throwing up our hands and giving up when we slide. For those of us who want to shift from transactional to transformational leaders, this may be identifying a mentor to help through the rough patches. It could be promising our self that we’ll start over the next day no matter what. Develop what works for you, but have your list handy. Don’t beat yourself up when you need it, but rather appreciate your foresight.

These are not the only five ideas to begin a shift to a transformational leader. I’d love to understand what works for you. We could build a collection of ideas any leader can adopt in any organization without extra resources or special skills.

With diligence, you’ll find that transformational leadership is worth it and you can do it. And like the leadership giants you admire, you can inspire others to lead like you.


Patterson, K., Grenny, J., Maxfield, D. McMillan, R., Switzler, A. (2008). Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. New York: McGraw Hill.

What Kind of a Leader Are You?


What’s your leadership legacy? If you’re like many people, you aspire to be catalyst for positive change in people and organizations.  You describe actions like bringing people together, creating a shared vision and mobilizing change efforts. Great things are to be accomplished under your leadership. In Boy Scout terms, you hope to leave things better than you found them.

Many people claim to prefer a transformational leadership approach as described above. James MacGregor Burns (2003) popularized the term in his classic book Transforming Leadership. A flawed definition is that transformational leaders create change. This simple explanation fails to differentiate transformational leaders from the many others who create change.  It misses the key point that transformational leaders inspire others to create change. Because transformational leaders inspire change through personal engagement, generating possibilities, creating a shared vision, empowerment and support – the change is sustained by the many instead of the few. It is big, substantial and lasts long after the leader is gone. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and Mikhail Gorbachev are excellent examples of transformational leaders. Use them, and the profound changes they inspired, for encouragement the next time you think the change you are asked to lead in your organization is just too hard.

OK, you may think, I’m on board. Wouldn’t mind being the next Gandhi like leader of my organization.  But I don’t see it in the way we work. Our leaders are more like Napoleon. We preserve the state, conquer market share, consolidate power and, above all, instill order and accountability. Our organizational bourgeoisie teach the young to obey the culture and one day they will rule the unit. Intimidation is our most common change strategy; Rebellions are not tolerated.  I don’t see how the “power to the people” approach is going to work here. I’ll stick with my Gant chart timelines and seven steps to produce the culture change we’ve been ordered to have by year-end. 

Two things. First, you are not alone in your assessment. Many also take a dim view of being transformational leaders, even though they say it’s their preferred choice. Second, good luck on that culture change. You probably will drag people through the seven steps right on schedule. And, you’ll keep dragging them, because it’s your change, not theirs. When you stop, they’ll stop. That is, assuming they start. Check my blog post Want Change? Build Leaders, Not Process for more.

So, smarty pants, what am I supposed to do? How can I lead like Mandela in a group of Napoleons?  How I wish I could answer this question at all, much less in a 500-word blog post. But I will try, or at least try to show you a place to start. If you are curious, check out on my next blog post.


Burns, J.M. ( 2003). Transforming Leadership.  New York: Grove Press.



Want Change? Build Leaders, Not Process


It’s two months after a major organizational change effort that affected your job. Which change leader described below might have increased your personal commitment to the change – your personal buy in and willingness to make it work-at this critical stage?

1. Leader A followed carefully planned change management steps. She presented an urgent business case for change and expressed her vision for the future. A guiding coalition was created to lead change. Teams were directed to create the new processes/practices within guidelines. Communications shared the always-good news of progress. The organizational celebrated when the change was completed on time, thus deemed a success.

2. Leader B has a passionate commitment to a shared future vision.  She views change as an effort to achieve this shared vision. She trusts empowered associates to make the vision come alive through the right decisions about their work.  Her high levels of personal credibility are a result of authentic interest in associate well-being and investment in their success. Conflict is acknowledged as an opportunity to learn instead of blame. She doesn’t follow anything but her leadership values and principles. Change isn’t celebrated because it’s “over,” but because it’s a regular result of individual and team innovation.

Commitment to Change Depends Upon the Leader, Not the Process

If you believe that your personal commitment to change- your buy in to make it work- is more likely to be enhanced under Leader B, you share the same conclusion reached in a wide ranging study involving 393 employees involved in change efforts across 30 organizations. The researchers, David Herold, Donald, Fedor, Steven Caldwell and Yi Lui, concluded that transformational leadership qualities, Leader B qualities, had a higher impact on the individual choice to buy in to change than “change management” practices adopted by transactional leaders like Leader A.  It also concludes:

  • Transactional leaders that followed change management steps got achieved better commitment results than transactional leaders who did not. So, some leaders really need change management steps to produce any success with change.
  • Transformational leaders who adopted change management behavior achieved improved commitment because of their credibility and authenticity. These leaders got results because of their personal equity more than their process.

Transaction Vs. Transformation

Leader A approaches change as a transaction. It is something to be done unto others.There is a business case for change presented to associates. This leader believes if associates are told, they will understand. There is a vision, but it is a vision of completing the change. There is empowerment, teams of people who develop a solution until it is approved by the leader. There are tasks and timeless. When these are done, the change is done. Everyone will do what he or she is supposed to do.

Leader B approaches change as they approach leadership. It is something done with others. There is a business case for change, created with associates. They understand it because they produced it. There is a vision, but it is a vision of the future. Associates envision a dynamic organization constantly in change because it is alive and growing.  Empowerment is expressed in teams of people who feel personal accountability for decisions because they will do what they create. There are tasks and timelines. When these are done, the change begins. Associates work differently; unanticipated problems arise or extra support is needed. It’s at this point when the importance of personal commitment to change makes the difference between success and failure. Committed associates are more likely make the choice to try to make it work instead of finding reasons why it won’t.

Invest In Lasting Change

I wonder if many concepts of “change” are old artifacts. Many assume that we still live in static states that get unfrozen, moved to something new and refrozen.  Under this concept, change is another transaction to be managed. It’s delivered by a series of leadership steps and models. Organizations invest in “change management” capabilities because of a belief that if more people know the steps, more can produce change.

Perhaps a better investment to produce organizational change capabilities is to invest in producing transformational leaders. It’s leaders, not steps, that can inspire affective commitment to change. Develop leaders who view change as something created because of people, not in spite of them. Leaders who do not wait for an initiative to lead through shared vision, empowerment and personal credibility. Leaders who understand that change happens when associates decide to stay invested instead of check out.

If you want greater organizational change capability, focus on transformational leaders.


Herald, D.M., Fedor, D.B., Caldwell, S., Lui, Yi. ( 2008). Effects of Transformational and Change Leadership on Employee Commitment to Change: A Multilevel Study. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 93, no.2 pp. 346-357.