Transformational Leadership: Embed, Activate, Rise

19 nov 2020

Transformational Leadership: Embed, Activate, Rise

The challenges of 2020 have been extraordinary. It is clear the world has changed. So where do leaders go from here?

Transformational leadership is not a new concept but given the global disruption we are experiencing the term takes on new imperative. Leadership that is proactive, innovative and resilient was once an asset, now it’s a necessity.

Once we fully transition out of crisis mode, how can organisations identify and embed these kinds of traits within leadership structures to ensure they are carried forward? And how can organisations build a culture of transformational leadership, as opposed to relying on one charismatic leader or executive team?

Let’s start by building a picture of the archetype of transformational leadership from the boots up.

Traits of transformational leadership

Transformational leadership is defined by characteristics and not position. One foot bravely steps forward into the future and the other is planted firmly in the present. It provides specific direction with one hand and empowers teams to explore and innovate with the other. It uses an eye for detail to apply analytical rigour and due diligence to decision making. The other eye scans the horizon, looking into the distance to help the organisation imagine, envision and ultimately create a sustainable, successful future. One ear gathers the views and perspectives of others while the other turns inward, listening to the inner conscience and connecting with foundational principles to inform sound judgement. When transformational leadership speaks, its voice is clear and inspiring because its mind and heart are aligned. Transformational leadership has the drive, vision, humility, judgment, capability, capacity and courage to anticipate and respond to challenges effectively.

To translate these traits into action, transformational leadership needs to be resolute in its mission to create value within the organisation and beyond. Activated transformational leadership cultivates a dual focus in organisations. Leaders strengthen and build a profitable and self-sustaining core business while also seeking out new investments and opportunities for growth. They reposition and realign resources behind the organisational vision, strategy and culture. And given the current crisis, this process of honest reassessment, repositioning and renewal should already be underway.

Where does transformational leadership reside?

The Leadership Confidence Index published in early 2020 based on research conducted by Odgers Berndtson and supported by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services highlighted a lack of confidence in senior leadership. Just 15% of nearly 2,000 surveyed expressed confidence in the ability of their companies’ top leadership teams to manage disruption successfully. Those executives identified character traits such as humility, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, compassion and empathy in their leadership.

Confident leaders have the mindset and vision to seize opportunities and they are doing so even in the current difficult circumstances. This is no small feat and requires continuous evolution at an accelerated speed to keep pace with disruption. These leaders are often game changers, value creators, entrepreneurs, and risk takers. Even in a crisis, they take decisions quickly but thoughtfully and identify and seize on innovative, resourceful solutions to immediate and critical issues. Those executives displayed character traits such as humility, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, compassion and empathy.

Are these mindsets or traits available to the many rather than just a few? Will fostering cultures of transformational leadership be the secret to future success?

Embody transformational leadership

Active commitment and dedication at an organisational and individual level will shape mindsets, develop certain skills and hone the behaviours that support such a culture. The Board, for one, can embody transformational leadership by lending its experience and diverse perspectives to challenge and guide critical decision making. Being able to evolve and pivot requires wider engagement and input from both the extended leadership team and the broader organisation. Mark Braithwaite, Odgers Berndtson Managing Partner, APAC and author of Leadership Disrupted, notes,

“What we are finding is that the leaders who are successfully thriving now, are much more collaborative with their colleagues.”

Individuals at all levels of the organisation have a role to play. Step forth into the transformational leadership era and:

Be proactive. Transformational leadership needs to shape, rather than defend, its position in the market. This type of leadership brings an ‘outside-in’ perspective to organisations and is constantly looking beyond its own markets and the obvious, current trends. In particular, it identifies opportunities to innovate by exploring ideas emerging at the convergence of markets and across value-chains.

Be humble. Mark Braithwaite explains, “If leaders have the humility to accept that they don’t know everything, they can create a culture of innovation that includes collaboration and diversity to think through business problems.” A leader that practices humility can more easily become a steward: someone who does their best for a range of stakeholders with what they have. They are not driven by ego to build their own profile; they are sincere in their commitment to do the right thing and they carefully weigh up long-term imperatives against perceived short-term pain.

Avoid complacency. Transformational leadership doesn’t cling to past achievements in order to focus on driving future success. Eric Beaudan, Global Head and Partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Leadership Practice, says,

“Just because you’ve been successful and might be a good senior executive today, doesn’t mean that you have the skillset, mindset or the capabilities to help the organisation confront future change and challenges."

Be bold. In times of disruption, transformational leadership is unafraid to clear the decks and create space for fresh thinking. Some crises are so transformative they require a complete reset from a blank canvas and an honest assessment of future economic, market and consumer trends in order to divine where the organisation can go next. It takes courage and determination to start again and transformational leadership is unafraid to shed 90% of the business if it determines that only 10% is viable and able to lead to future success. Of course, tough workforce decisions must be approached with empathy. Above all, transformational leadership believes in the impossible and in a crisis, it has the calm temperament to create the necessary space to guide the organisation forward.

Elizabeth Stewart, who leads Odgers Berndtson’s Executive Assessment & Development Practice in the UK, points out that transformational leadership will importantly

“unlock the potential in every individual, and therefore diversity within the organisation, and optimises outcomes for a range of stakeholders”.

When everyone is supported in embracing uncertainty, thinking outside the box and approaching challenges with creativity and enthusiasm, transformational leadership is not a cliché. When embedded in the culture it will feed off disruption to strengthen the creativity, clarity, capacity, courage and confidence to win.