Most discussions of strong leaders read like a Who’s Who of our time – Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and his wife, Eleanor, for that matter), Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. The impact of these brilliant and self-sacrificing individuals is not up for dispute. But in the Knowledge Age, when change is the norm and organizational transformations are common, it’s short-sighted to look only to those who have played a starring role in world affairs.
Leaders of all kinds continue to shape our future. In fact, our increasing state of hyperconnectedness and constant pursuit of innovation means that an individual focused on achieving an outcome has the necessary capacity to be the right leader for an organization undergoing a transformation.
Who is the transformational leader?
In the past we have stated that one is just as likely to find leadership qualities in a lab, classroom, or grocery store, as we are in the C-suite. Fundamentally, leaders who can guide organizations successfully through complex shifts share and motivate the possibility inherent in innovation and change. They create and rally others around a shared vision. They can outline and tick off necessary strategic and tactical steps. And they keep others working toward an outcome by challenging, motivating, and engaging with them from start to finish and beyond.
These leaders recognize that organizational stasis is dangerous in an age of hyper change. They may get a rush from the challenge of evolving and the thrill of innovation. And yet, while that proactive impatience may get them to the inflection point, seeing change through requires a unique set of qualities.
"Leadership is the art of giving people a platform
for spreading ideas that work."
Not everyone can hold the directional sign at the pivot point.
Innovation and change are not singular events. They have ripple effects on the people, organizations, communities, industries, even geographies in which they occur. They require leaders who genuinely and actively possess courage, responsibility, and empathy.
The transformational leader is courageous – decisive in action. They are understand the value and importance of data and analysis. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, they have ‘done the reading.’ They’ve also done the listening and thinking. Armed with knowledge – even when they know they don’t have all the answers and there is more information out there – they act confidently and decisively. Leaders who successfully guide their organizations through transformations have the courage of their convictions; they are willing to shoulder the responsibility as the organization works to do what needs to be done.
Directly related to courage is the fact that strong leader takes responsibility. Whether or not they know it empirically, leaders can recognize when things have gone wrong. For better or worse, they have conviction and integrity to do what’s best for the organization and its people. They see the transformation through – to its success or to its failure. In cases of success, they share the credit with others. In cases of failure, they are the first to shoulder the burden. Both strengthen their leadership because, on one hand, they are giving credit and on the other they are taking responsibility.
Strong leaders recognize that change is hard. They rely on other good leaders and act with intentionality to engage with others. That is not a detached sympathy for what the transformation will mean for others. It is a genuine, relational connection with every individual involved in and impacted by the transformation. During a transformation, it is important for leaders to be present to see and feel the impact that changes have on the workforce. Leaders earn the confidence and respect of their employees, their peers, and the market because they are intellectually, emotionally, and physically present during the organizational transformation.
Not surprisingly, some of the most impactful transformational leaders of our time are serial entrepreneurs. They might be names we know (think Mark Zuckerberg) or names we don’t. Name notoriety doesn’t matter as much as organizational impact and resilience.
It is more than likely that these leaders exist in your organization; finding them requires your continued engagement. Coach and mentor your teams. Present them with challenges to test their leadership capabilities. A small investment in your people today will help you identify the leaders of tomorrow. Involve emerging leaders in senior events like strategic planning and leadership off-sites. Engage their perspectives. Within your organization, you have people who possess courage, an innate sense of responsibility, genuine empathy, and a willingness to embrace challenge.
It’s time to identify and encourage the transformational leaders in and around your organization.