To Lead Transformation, Leaders Must Transform Themselves

To Lead Transformation, Leaders Must Transform Themselves

In a world where the rate of change and technological advances appear to be growing exponentially and volume of information flows are speeding up, the organization must transform to stay relevant and continue to flourish.  Transformation is defined as a major change in form, nature and function, but it’s no longer about transforming from one static thing to another but about organizations being in a constant state of transformation, not just responding but anticipating changes and keeping ahead of trends and the markets.

This is the VUCA environment we live and work in.  Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, VUCA is originally a military term coined to describe hostile environments. In a world of stability and security command and control leadership is the order of the day, in a world of constant change, globalization and increasing risk collaboration and agility are the skills that win out.  An ever-changing world can be deeply uncertain but it can also be the birthplace of creativity, innovation and growth.

The leadership we need to not just survive but thrive in the VUCA environment is one that has the courage to seek out and work in the discomfort of many moving parts by bringing everyone’s voice to the table to co-create and execute solutions together.  The skills of emotional intelligence, making sense of information overload, novel and adaptive thinking and communicating with diverse groups become increasingly important to lead and flourish in a changing economy.

This is where we look to the transformational model of leadership.  Transformational leaders work with the team to identify needed change, create an inspiring vision to guide the change and execute in partnership with teams. Transformational leadership has 4 elements:

  • Individualized consideration
    recognizing and harness the unique talents of each member of the team
  • Intellectual stimulation
    asking questions, challenging assumptions, bringing curiosity – not providing solutions, encouraging the team to think for themselves
  • Inspirational Motivation
    cocreating and impactfully communication a vision for the outcomes the team are looking to achieve. What the military call ‘commanders intent’ how will the organization look, feel, operate when the transformation is complete
  • Idealized Influence
    role modelling the behaviours and standards that are aspired to by all the team members. The transformational leader needs to not just talk the talk but walk the walk.

How do we build these leadership skills in our ourselves, in our teams and in our organizations?  As with so many things we have to start with self-awareness.  As leaders, we may think we already possess many of these skills or are doing many of these things.  We judge ourselves by our intention – we show up wanting to do a great job by our people – but in reality, others judge us by our impact.  Others only see our behaviour and the impact of our behaviour may not always match what our intention was.

We need to build both our internal self-awareness – what are our values? What kind of leader do we want to be? How do we want others to perceive us and what behaviours will support that? This is built through time for reflection and self-assessment.  Taking time to notice what we did and the impact we created, what worked and how it might have worked even better.

And we also need to build our external self-awareness – how are we landing with others?  Are we coming across in the ways in which we intend? This is where trusted 360 feedback – from team members, peers and managers can be invaluable.  We all have blind spots and we cannot change what we don’t know about.  When our eyes are opened we have choices.  When we build our self-awareness we know where we are starting from and we move forward from there.

Transformation and change bring with it the emotions of fear and uncertainty. Our human system likes homeostasis – things in balance and staying the same.  Your brain is a prediction machine in order that it can keep you safe so when that safety is threatened (or perceived to be threatened) emotion kicks in to move you to action (avert, avoid, ignore, resist).  With so much emotion in play, the importance of emotional intelligence comes to the forefront of transformation.  Your ability as a leader to recognize emotion in yourself and others, to manage the emotion in yourself and others is absolutely key to transformational leadership.  This is where the intellectual stimulation piece comes in.   Framing the work as learning, asking questions rather than making statements, admitting your own mistakes and bringing curiosity will build psychological safety and convey a sense of trust to bring team members back to a place where novel thinking and adaptability can be accessed.  If team members are not safe they cannot think.  Using intellectual stimulation rather than providing simple solutions builds capability, buy-in and crucial safety in a team.

Communication is fundamental to inspirational motivation, transformational leadership happens primarily through conversation.  Conversation, communication creates meaning for the team and meaning is what moves us to action.  93% of all communication is non-verbal* so while we agonize over the words we use learning to communicate with voice and body language will increase the impact of our communication exponentially.  How do we create communication plans that include the team, originate messages that really resonate with key players and deliver the meaning with impact? Our ability to connect is about listening first and asking insightful, relevant powerful questions.

Our greatest communication tool of all is our own behaviour, the idealized influence element of transformational behaviour.  As humans, we learn primarily by mimicking, by doing as our caregivers do.  As leaders through transformation, we need to cultivate our own mindfulness so that we can show up with purpose and intention every day and certainly in crucial conversations with others. We need to cultivate our ability to stop, pause and take others perspective so that we can respond in a considered and reflective way in line with our integrity.

Building others adaptability is about cultivating our own.  Our own capacity to stay in the discomfort of change, to listen actively, to integrate others ideas and voice, to ask uncomfortable questions, to challenge assumptions.   From this crucible of change comes the opportunity to lead, to create a sense of urgency to act and communicate a vision for change. To identify and harness the strengths of each player on the team and to encourage and motivate through constant communication and adaptation towards the collective goal.

Transformational leaders need humility above all else.  They move from I can do it, to WE can do it, to YOU can do it. That takes a relinquishing of ego.  Transformational leaders know that they need to step up and step in when things are in crisis to take responsibility and to step back and away when thing are going well to let others take the credit and grow their confidence.

Transformational leaders own the why, the team owns the how.  They lead not by doing but by being.  Transformational leaders lead themselves and invite others to do the same, gaining commitment to creating real and lasting ever-changing organizations.  The leaders’ personal journey of transformation is at the heart of successful change for the organization.


* Source Albert Mehrabian Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles