Three lessons learned form transformational leaders

While leadership can come in many forms, the most common types of leadership are “transactional” and “transformational”. Transactional leadership is often described as a “give and take” form of leadership, in which there is a type of “contractual” relationship between leader and follower. Because of the “give and take” nature of transactional leadership, there is little, if any, transformational value added to the leadership relationship. Without transformation value, growth and development is limited, as is the potential influence of the leader.

The most influential type of leadership is often described as transformational leadership. In it’s simplest form, transformational leadership is seen when “leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of morale and motivation” (Burns). Transformational leaders do more than just participate in the leadership exchange, they seek to inspire others by changing expectations, altering perceptions, and creating a motivational arena in which everyone within their influence is inspired to work towards common organizational goals. Transformational leaders do more than just lead their followers,
they have an impact on their followers which transactional leaders do not. Let’s look at three examples of transformational leadership:

Lesson 1 - Transformational Leaders inspire others through exemplary leadership actions.

A few days after being hired as a rookie officer on a small town police department, the community experienced a major chemical fire overnight in which a significant portion of the town was evacuated. Since I was a brand new officer and was due to be at training the next day, I was not called in to help that night. The following afternoon I stopped at the police department to learn more about the incident and how the department had handled the crisis. I was met by several local news crews, all waiting for an interview with the Chief. I walked into the office just as the Chief was walking out for his interviews. He stopped, told his secretary to tell the news crews that they would have to wait a bit longer, and motioned for me to come into his office. With the news cameras waiting, he made sure I was up to date on the situation and answered any questions I had. He could have asked me to wait a few minutes until he was done, but instead he made a rookie officer his top priority. As a transformational leader, the Chief changed my perception on what a leader should be, added value to our relationship through his leadership actions, and created an inspired and motivated follower.

Lesson 2 - Transformational Leaders look beyond situational factors and see the bigger picture of leadership influence.

Often, whether it is personally or professionally, we become focused on present factors or problems and use them to motivate us and influence our actions and perceptions. This is especially true when we think of our own professional career development and progression. Leaders are, understandably, self-motivated towards achievement and career accomplishments, with a natural tendency to pursue opportunities of greater leadership influence. A transformational leader once said, “Don’t ever judge your career by the number of promotions you get or the type of positions you attain. Judge your career by the amount of effort you brought to the table, the example you set for others, and your growth as a leader no matter where you are or what you are doing.”

This lesson forced me to take a step back and question what truly motivated me and what I wanted to accomplish in my career. When answered honestly, I realized that this transformational leader was exactly right in his assessment. To paraphrase this quote, “There will always be that next position or assignment that you don’t achieve because you can’t control the outcome of everything. But you can control your inputs, and your level of dedication to the qualities of personal and professional leadership.” Transformational leaders don’t limit their leadership efforts to only those times when the outcomes work out well for them, they see the bigger picture of leadership and the value that it brings to both themselves and others.

Lesson 3 - Transformational Leaders follow Leadership Rule Number One.

The Number One Rule of Leadership is, “It’s not about you.” While you can find dozens of leadership “rules” and “qualities” in any of the hundreds of leadership books published every year, most of which are very accurate, there is one primary axiom of leadership that trumps all others. While learning and preparing for leadership roles is an inward exercise requiring self-reflection and personal discipline, the actual practice of quality leadership is entirely an outward exchange. The application of leadership is about the development and growth of others, and helping others reach potential that they would not have otherwise attained. Followers don’t care how strong of a leader you are inwardly, they want to see where your leadership can take them.

Transformational leaders follow leadership rule number one and return to it despite the many complexities of the leadership exchange. They understand that you cannot change expectations, alter perceptions, and motivate others unless you maintain the ability to influence others in a positive manner, and leaders cannot influence others in a positive manner if the focus of their leadership is on themselves. I have used this lesson countless times in my own practice of leadership, and I often remind others to refer back to Leadership Lesson Number One when faced with a leadership decision.

Remember that the goal of transformational leadership is to add value to the leadership exchange for both leader and follower so that they are both elevated to a higher level of morale and motivation. Leadership that is focused on the leader will not transform the follower, but leadership that is focused on the follower will not only develop stronger followers, it will develop stronger leaders.