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.