Speeding towards transformational leadership

19 nov 2020

Speeding towards transformational leadership

William Pasmore, Senior Vice President at the Centre for Creative Leadership, has dedicated his career to researching and advising on the development of leadership systems that increase organisational performance and enable individual leaders to thrive. Mark Braithwaite, Odgers Berndtson Managing Partner, APAC, spoke to Bill about the great potential of transformational leadership and how to smash through the roadblocks that keep it out of reach.

Defining Transformational Leadership

“Transformational leadership produces better business results than laissez-faire leadership,” Bill explains, “but the prevailing tendency is to continue to do what you’ve always done.” While the weaknesses of laissez-faire leadership may go unnoticed for some time, they are laid bare when a crisis like the type we’ve experienced in 2020 hits.

Given its importance, how can organisations recognise and accelerate towards truly transformational leadership? In 1985, Bernard Bass proposed the classic ‘Four I’s’ definition, which theorised that this style of leadership is characterised by Idealised Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation and Individualised Consideration. In other words, a transformational leader is a charismatic, intelligent, persuasive individual with a compelling vision who can inspire others to think deeply and critically, share their experiences, and contribute according to their strengths. When the Four I’s are in place, the research suggests that organisations see improved innovation, performance and talent retention.

Whether we focus on Bass’ definition or conceive of good leadership more broadly, a transformational leader is someone who sees an opportunity to change for the better and acts on it. As opposed to a leader who watches such opportunities speed by and feels more comfortable coasting along the same way they’ve been going.

“We all know about the importance of transformational leadership—it’s a theory that has been around for decades and if you Google the term, you get millions of hits,” Bill laughs. But it’s one thing to know that transformation is a good idea at the appropriate time and under the appropriate circumstances. It’s quite another to figure out what the right strategy is and when to accelerate in that direction.

Transformational roadblocks

Bill notes that leaders who want to engage in more transformational thinking may run into a number of roadblocks that prevent them from realising their vision. They may feel trapped by past investments, unsupported by their corporate board, or far too comfortable with the status quo. Bill’s advice is to identify the roadblock and push through it with an appropriate intervention. That will make it possible to overcome allegiances to the past, restore effective communication with the board, and build the confidence to create new patterns of behaviour.

Books like “Discontinuous Change” and “The Innovator’s Dilemma” have filled MBA reading lists for many years. Everyone wants to overcome idea stagnation, revolutionise their industry and become the next big thing. But leaders may feel constrained in their next move by what their organisation has done in the past. This can lead to the implementation of incremental, rather than transformational, strategies, which will never be able to change an organisation in fundamental ways.

Ineffective communication with, or counsel from, the board is another common roadblock to transformational change. The irony is that the board should be helping the CEO think about and overcome blind spots, but it takes a highly effective board to be able to engage the CEO in the kinds of quality conversations that are needed to do that. Bill notes,

“It takes a willingness from both sides to achieve the level of openness and communication required to work together in a transformational way.”

In addition, a CEO may be concerned—with good reason—about how the board will react if they take a substantial, transformational risk. Sometimes CEOs get push back from their board for being “too transformational”. In the worst-case scenario for a transformationally-minded CEO, the board may decide that their strategy is too risky and find a new CEO who will maintain the status quo and make them feel more comfortable. In doing so, the board is likely missing out on a transformational strategy that correctly perceives the changes that are coming in the industry and responds effectively to them.

The final common roadblock that prevents a leader from implementing transformational change is that they have become comfortable with the status quo. In their book, “Immunity to Change”, Keegan and Lahey talk about why people stay committed to patterns of behaviour that will not help them to be successful in the future. They argue, and Bill agrees, that leaders cling to those patterns when they are holding onto something they value more than the success they could achieve through transformation. The fear of losing something or having to confront something can overpower the desire to change.

There’s always a risk that a radical, transformational strategy might not pay off. Leaders have to assess the opportunities and risks and then have the courage and confidence to believe their chosen strategy will succeed in overcoming anticipated challenges. When leaders are solely focused on staying afloat in the short term, they’re not likely to be thinking outside of the box about their strategic options.

Old habits die hard

The first thing an executive team needs to do to break old patterns of behaviour, Bill advises, is to be exposed to new viewpoints. It is necessary to cultivate diverse views in order to challenge dominant narratives with new perspectives. New ideas might come from someone who hasn’t been on the leadership team before or from an outside consultant who can take a look at the organisation and suggest possibilities that haven’t previously been considered.

Once diverse views have been sought, it’s important to change the deliberation process. This is an almost invisible process that takes place within organisations before key strategic decisions are taken. Consider who is in the room when those deliberations are taking place and who is excluded from those conversations. Bill explains, “If the same people are always around the conference table having the same conversations, you’re going to get the same answers every time.”

It is also important to ensure the social dynamics in the room don’t automatically dismiss any new ideas that are brought to the table. Bill notes,

“That’s the part that always amazes me—the short-sightedness of shutting down interesting ideas or conversations before they have a chance to be considered.”

If the executive team doesn’t approach the deliberation process with an open mind, they’re not going to be transformational leaders. If they are in self-protection mode or they feel like imposters, they won’t have the confidence and courage to take the next step.

The good news is that engaging in transformational leadership is a skill that can be learned and developed. According to Bill, “It just takes effort, humility, a willingness to learn and, now more than ever, agility.” That means that in a crisis, organisations have an equal opportunity to succeed. “Leadership makes the difference between whether they will or not,” Bill notes. Some organisations are racing down the highway to the future while others are still idling at the starting line.