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.



The Performance Difference


Google is a pretty cool place to work.  It’s cutting edge in innovation, offers perks to drool over with attractive compensation and is full of really smart people.  There is no shortage of people who want to work at Google, evidenced by the fact that it receives one million job applications a year and can be more selective than Harvard.

As a result of its desirability and selectivity, it’s a fair assumption that Goggle has the cream of the crop of employees.  Leaders from the outside looking in might think of Google as a leadership utopia – a wonderland filled with best in class talent competing to work there, motivated to bring their best because of the dollar signs dangling in front of them.  A reason that leaders who think this way are in the outside of Google looking in could rest partly in the fact that Google understands what they do not about motivating people. Even at Goggle, a magnet for attracting top talent to exciting opportunities, leaders understand that the performance difference rests not in the promise of external rewards, but offering the conditions for intrinsic ones.

Rewards from the Inside Out

Here’s a summary of a whole lot of research: Our motivation is at its peak when we are engaged in something we chose that we love. There is a strong relationship between our level of motivation and our performance. Even on those occasions when we are motivated but not very good, motivation acts as the catalyst to get better.

The joy returned when you master something or just get better at it is intrinsic motivation. It’s the gold star of satisfaction because you did it- you dreamed it, you planned it, you worked on it, you saw it through – that creates a renewable resource of motivation that powers good performance.

If it’s That Easy…

If intrinsic motivation is as easy as opening doors for people to apply their talents to areas they love, and motivation fuels improved performance, then why don’t more leaders and organizations do it? Here’s why: too many of us confuse complexity with excellence, control with outcome and measurement with results. Too many leaders believe that if they don’t tell people what to do, how to do it and when to do it that it won’t get done. Too many organizations think that if they just reward past performance, they’ll get better future performance. (They should read their own marketing literature that informs us that “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results”, but I digress.)

Creating the engine of intrinsic motivation IS as easy as allowing people some level of autonomy over their work and opportunities to master areas of special interest. Goggle, an organization that has models and measures for just about everything, knows this. It’s why they allow their prized engineers 20 percent of their time to work on projects of their choice. Recently, Google’s Manager of the Year, Farzad  “Fuzzy” Khosrowshani explained that he improved loyalty and moral on his Google Docs team by allowing employees even more discretionary time to work on projects of their choice. If Google, with its deep pockets and lavish perks, knows that even it can’t drive performance through extrinsic motivation alone, why do so many others keep trying?

Ideas to Create the Performance Difference

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, describes several practical ways leaders and organizations everywhere can tap into the intrinsic motivation that rests inside each employee and unleash it onto improved performance. A few are listed below to get you started.

1. Ask your associates what they really want to be good at.  Help them find ways they can do more of it. Don’t hand them the list of competencies from HR that tells them what the organization wants them to be good at, but ask what they want to be good at. Here’s an example. I once worked with an analyst who had the responsibility for data maintenance, analytics and reports. During a conversation, she shared that she had a journalism degree and experience as a reporter for a local paper. She loved to write as a hobby. I asked her to write up summaries of the analysis she produced like “special investigative stories.” She looked for opportunities to take on other department communications. She enjoyed the challenge, was better at it than I was, and was motivated to do well. It was a classic win/win outcome.

2. Carve out time for associates to think about how they could improve their jobs or contribute differently. Ask them to share their ideas the next day.  Daniel Pink gives several examples of creative managers “clearing the day” for associates to “advise up” on how they could improve performance or results. The only rule is that associates have to present their ideas the next day. Other than that, associates can work where they want, on what they want, with whom they want. In a related idea, Pink talks about a customer service manager who periodically manages customer calls for an hour so her associates can take the time to develop ideas about how they could improve performance. The manager gets much better insight into the experience of her associates and receives good ideas about improving performance. All for a couple of hours.

3.  Just get out of the way.  Assume your associates are capable and interested in doing well. They (gasp) may even know more about their jobs than you do. As a leader, focus 80 % of time on why their contributions matter and 20% on how the work should be done.  Better yet, ask associates to tell you how they’ll deliver.  Care less that someone works differently and care more that his or her performance continually gets better.

We do not have to look at cutting edge employers like Google and wonder “if only.” We can get the same performance momentum by realizing that what really motivates associates is autonomy over their work, the opportunity to find something they enjoy and the pride that comes with just getting better. And, accepting that some things that are easy don’t have to be so hard.


Examples of the “whole lot of research” on motivation:

Blitzer, J., Schrettl, W. and Schroeder, P.J.H. (2007). Intrinsic motivation in open software development. Journal of Comparative Economics (35) 7, 4

Frey, B. (1997) Not Just for the Money: An Economic Theory of Personal Motivation. Burlington, VT: Edward Elger.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Penguin Books.

Google Reference:

Walker, J. ( 2012). Google’s Algorithms for Talent. Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2012, page B1.

The People Who Could


Slowly, the cars began to move. Slowly, they climbed the steep hill. As they climbed, the little blue engine began to sing: I Think I Can! I Think I Can! I Think I Can!…

Watty Piper –  The Little Engine That Could 

 In Chicago, the city where I live, 298 children have died as victims of violence over the past three years.  If nearly three hundred children had died in one horrific incident, it would justifiably draw our outrage with demands that something be done to ensure the horror never happens again. But because we’ve lost our children’s lives in single incidents as casualties of angry fists, retaliation shootings and stray bullets, our reaction comes in the slow drip of sadness and shaken heads. As the news moves on to sports scores and weekend weather forecasts, so does our attention. Those who miss the bright eyes of their babies never forget, but the rest of us move on.

Questions about how this tragic déjà vu continues evokes a complicated knot of responses that often include conditions of poverty, poor education, broken families, bad choices, the prevalence of drugs and gangs as communities of choice. It becomes convenient to think that it’s too much to change – too intricate, too entrenched, too overwhelming.

 Starting Up the Hill

Last week, five remarkable young Chicagoans proved to me once again just how remarkable we can be. Eric Parks, Davina Bridges, Brian Lane, Britney Evans and Da’Angela Shepard reminded me that gifted, strong, future leaders live in our urban centers. A loss of their talent would be a tremendous loss to us. Eric, Davina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela are the 2012 Youth Leadership and Scholarship Awardees from UCAN, a social service agency who lives its mission that children of trauma can be our future leaders.  These young ladies and gentlemen have recently graduated from high school (several near the top of their class), are active, positive leaders in their community, and are on their way to college next fall. Watch them tell their stories to understand why so many see leadership potential in Eric, DaVina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela.

So, what do these young urban leaders, and hundreds more striving UCAN clients, have to teach us about life, leadership and change. Plenty. These are the lessons they share at a young age gained from their remarkable stories:

1. Believe that you have greatness in you. You do. Regardless of the circumstances you did not ask for or those that you earned, you can still make positive use of your gifts. There is something in you that your loved ones, your community and the world needs. Let it shine.

2.  Think big and have goals.  It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or where you are, it matters where you’re headed. Set goals and watch your habits change. When your habits change, your decisions change.  When your decisions change, your life changes.

3.  Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Make your posse your cheering section. Hang out with others trying to make the same good choices that you are. Support each other, encourage each other, and love each other. There are people who believe in your greatness and long for your happiness. Find them. Nurture them. Listen to them.

4. One person can make a difference. The award winners from this year, as in past years, name the people who, in reaching out, sparked the flame of hope in their lives. We often think of societal solutions in terms of institutions, but I’ve never heard an award winner thank an institution. It’s not for lack of exposure. Instead, they thank people.  They name parents, relatives, teachers, coaches, clergy, UCAN caseworkers|counselors and mentors who initiated an outreach toward something that sparked their interest.

This is where you come in. If you want to make a difference, let your imagination be your guide. With minimal effort, you can find worthy organizations in your community, like UCAN, dedicated to building our future treasure. Get involved in any way that you can. Trust me, if you have something to offer – they will find a way to use it. You may never make a better investment of your time, dollars, talent or interests. If your experience is like mine, it’s an investment that pays back many times over. Often, it’s unclear to me who helps who more.

Getting to the Other Side

The long, hot summer is just starting in Chicago. Reports of more senseless loss will fill the space in the news between the headlines and the sports. These are no longer anonymous names to me. My mind will wander to the hundreds of UCAN clients who are working hard this summer to improve their lives and the dedicated UCAN employees who walk with them every day.  My heart will break that the treasure lost could not have been reached soon enough. My hopes will soar that leaders like Eric, Davina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela will change not only the trajectory of their lives, but of others they inspire.

And they did! Very soon they were over the hill and going down the other side. The little blue engine could pull the train herself. And, she went merrily on her way, singing: I Thought I Could! I Thought I Could! I Thought I Could!…..

Watty Piper- The Little Engine That Could

Good Leadership Habits Start Early


Joe Kavcar was my boss in my first “big girl” job- a sales assignment for a consumer goods company. I was in my twenties and didn’t know much; Joe was in his fifties and knew a lot. It was a pretty good deal for me.

Like all new reps in our division, I started in “Joe School.” Joe connected with his group of newbies. He seemed to understand that people wanted to do well, but just didn’t know how. So he shared his vast knowledge and experience, patiently observed presentations, offered support, and reviewed results with loads of feedback. Still, Joe wasn’t a softie. More than once, I recall him peering over glasses perched at the end of his nose to proclaim, “This isn’t good, Sue.” Joe was demanding, but never mean or petty. He didn’t motivate by either the carrot or the stick, but by his interest in my success. I left Joe School confident, inspired and prepared.

Leaders Like Joe

Joe wasn’t much for labels, so he probably didn’t know he was a generative leader. A concept first described by Eric Erickson in 1950, generativity is behavior that invests in and guides members of future generations. This is in contrast to stagnation, or caring only for oneself. Common sense and considerable research shows that generative leaders make a difference to organizational performance. Time after time, personal experience and research data align to tell the same story: generative leadership practices can lead to employees that are happier in their jobs, perform better and are more excited about their work assignments. These attributes produce outcomes most organizations say they want: greater organizational commitment, increased organizational citizenship behaviors, and in at least one study, increased effectiveness in innovation.

One method researchers use to measure generative leadership is through examining perceptions of followers, specifically follower perception of leadership effectiveness, satisfaction with the leader and follower extra effort. Generative leadership, at its core, fosters sustainable results through others. Sustainable results come through willing, not coerced, followers. So, measure the attitudes and effort of followers to find generative leaders.

What Do We Expect?

If followers determine the effectiveness of leaders through generative behavior, what do followers expect in the first place? Interesting research released last year from Germany by Hannes Zacher, Thomas Henning, Kathrin Rosing and Michael Frese tested several hypotheses related to this question and added a twist. Does the age of a leader make a difference? Do we expect older leaders, like Joe, to lead differently than younger ones? Do we expect different relationships with older leaders than younger ones? Their research produced very interesting conclusions:

1. Leader generativity mattered most for older leaders. The presence or absence of generative behavior made a difference in the perception of success for older leaders.
Older leaders who demonstrated generative behaviors were more likely perceived to be successful by followers than older leaders who did not.

2. Leader generativity did not correlate to success for younger leaders. Followers evaluated the success of younger leaders independently of their generative behaviors. In other words, younger leaders could be viewed as successful even if they were invested in their own careers rather than the success of their followers.

Is This True?

Like all good researchers, Zacher, Henning, et al. describe the limitations of their study, conducted in an academic setting with professors and their assigned research assistants. They do not suggest they have discovered universal truths. But, they do cite that their conclusions support the results of at least two other studies. Zacher, Henning, et al. hypothesize that older leaders are expected to care less about advancing their careers and care more about advancing careers of their followers. Younger leaders, on the other hand, are expected to be more invested in advancing their own careers.

Do you find this to be true in your experience? Do we give younger leaders a pass on good leadership practices? If we believe generative behaviors produce desired outcomes for the followers, leaders and the organization – why don’t we expect them from every leader, regardless of their age?

How We Got Here

I suppose one argument is that older leaders who are perceived to be successful have learned the hard way that the only way to sustainable success is through generative behavior. They’ve learned that they can’t do it alone. We may also expect that at some point, leaders get it, so we have less patience with those who don’t. These are the older leaders perceived to be unsuccessful in the study.

If these conclusions are true for your organization, how do you stop the cycle? What if right from the start of leading others, new leaders were expected to shift their values from promoting themselves to developing others? What if these expectations came not only from those more senior to them, but those who followed? One might wonder if some leaders, unsuccessful in later years, could have been be different if they had not gotten a pass earlier in their careers?

Start Early

In closing, I’ll make an appeal from a (cough) “older” leader. If you are a new leader, develop good leadership practices early. Be a generative leader, whether those you lead expect it or not. Your success will ultimately rest with the willingness of others to follow you. You will learn this eventually, but my hope is that you benefit from this insight the start.

As a leader at any age, be someone’s Joe.


Zacher, H., Rosing, K. Henning, T., Frese, M. (2011). Establishing the Next Generation at Work: Leader Generativity as a Moderator of Relationships between Leader Age, Leader-member Exchange and Leadership Success. Psychology and Aging, vol. 26, p. 241-252.

A Little Love for Wrong


I was in elementary school the first time the feeling hit.   Can’t recall the context, probably multiplication tables or spelling drills. Still, I will always recall the feeling of being wrong. The tightened chest, the gasp in breath, the blood rushing to my face is still vivid. As Kathryn Schulz (2010) describes in her wonderful book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error we can blissfully travel through life being wrong. It’s the moment after we realize you are wrong that is painful. The moment when we feel embarrassed, shamed, insufficient.  It’s that moment that drives us, to avoidance of the feeling of being “wrong” to pursue the warm, comfortable wrap of being “right.” Perhaps you, like me, realized at an early age that being wrong feels bad and being right feels good.

We not only seek the solace of “rightness” for ourselves, we project it onto our leaders. Being right is an expected condition of leadership.  We look for certitude, confidence and strength of conviction in people we select to follow. For leaders, certainty is preferred to hesitation. Determination preferable to review. Declarations are more expected than questions. Because, we have come to expect, leaders must show the way.  Above all, he or she must be right.  We have little tolerance for leaders who are wrong.

What are the costs of the adrenaline rush of feeling right? According to Schulz (2010), there are several. Perhaps the most obvious is that often opinion masquerades as uncontested truth. Right is often in the eyes of the beholder. We can agree on conventionally accepted truths in life, as I learned about multiplication tables and spelling quizzes at an early age. The majority can also agree on moral and civil principles, ranging from the spiritual  (i.e. the bounty of love trumps the harm of hate) to the mundane (i.e. red means stop.)  Conventionally accepted truths might be fewer than we may think, but opinions abound.  Leaders can forcefully present opinion with the conviction of truth, as we will learn again in the next election.

Once we feel right, we nurture it like a newborn. We seek confirmation by looking for information that supports our view and discount what doesn’t. We develop communication strategies to convince others to join us in our rightness.

The need to feel right narrows our circle. We associate with others who reinforce that we are right, because we agree with them and they are right. As Schulz puts it, “If we often form our beliefs on the basis of communities, we also form communities on the basis of beliefs.” The Internet offers plenty of examples of communities formed on the basis of shared beliefs. This nurturing not only strengthens our convictions, but raises the stakes.

The more convinced that we are right, the more frightening the prospects of being wrong. If we can feel this in our gut, imagine the prospects of being wrong for a leader who is the standard-bearer of beliefs for legends of supporters?  The scary prospect of being wrong is one factor that encourages people to hold onto opinions long after their usefulness and at times, long into harm.

Moments of greatness are possible when we are ready to allow ourselves and our leaders to open the door to being wrong.

  • Get to know and learn to like people with different opinions. You never have to agree. But liking someone who sees things differently increases the chances of energetic discussions over personal attacks.
  • Forcefully challenge your views. Take the opposite position to a current belief and argue in favor of it with conviction.
  • Give grace. When you, or someone else, allows for a change in view or an opinion, celebrate it as a moment of greatness instead of a mark of fault.

What’s wrong with being right? Well, nothing.  The benefits of being right, however, accrue to those who actually are right, not just think that they are right.  The conviction has to come from a deep sense of discovery and self-knowledge. And to get to what we believe is right, we might have to admit to being wrong.