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A guide to transformational leadership and its effectiveness

by Byrne Anderson
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At the very heart of exceptional leadership is the ability to make significant changes happen, seamlessly and successfully. This can be impossible without unifying, empowering and inspiring a team of people who are constantly benefiting from your guidance and support.

This is in essence what transformational leadership is all about. It involves having the skills and personality required to establish a clear set of expectations and goals, and then enabling individuals and groups of people to work together to deliver those goals.

Organizations such as businesses require senior staff members to be largely focused on the transformation needed. For example, the immediate aim could be to facilitate a large-scale upturn in productivity, or a profitable venture into a new marketplace. Or it could be a widespread technology transformation, to create a more integrated digital workplace.

Some business leaders simply need to turn a struggling enterprise into a healthy one with a brighter future. It could also be a merger or acquisition, or applying recommendations that have resulted from following best practice for appointing executive consultants.

Transformational leadership differs considerably from highly tactical or transactional leadership styles. In that scenario, the senior staff member would be focused more intensely on day-to-day operations and tasks. They would get their employees to work on such things as key performance indicators (KPIs) and would apply a system of rewards and penalties.

To be an effective transformational leader, you need to inspire others to do great things. This means equipping your workforce or team with sufficient levels of trust and motivation. This goes alongside providing them with the more practical tools and abilities that are required. The latter could include ensuring that your team has access to the latest technology and data management techniques, for instance, as well as the optimal level of training and mentoring.

Why transformational leadership is largely intangible

The outcomes of applying this type of leadership style can be substantial and measurable. They include better performance and profit, and more agility and resilience to survive periods of challenge. A transformational approach can also achieve more assured change management and has been shown to be an important element of staff recruitment and retention.

Although the results can be unequivocal, the way that transformational leadership ‘looks’ can differ from organization to organization, and it can be a difficult management style to qualify and quantify.

This is because the ability of the leader to support the entire team through a period of positive change is largely founded on emotions, as well as actions. For instance, an authentic transformational leader is inspirational, motivational and encouraging. They communicate brilliantly, including by using constructive listening skills and emotional intelligence, especially empathy.

On this basis, they ensure that individuals and teams feel valued, involved and impassioned about their roles and responsibilities. This makes them want their employer to succeed.

From this basis, teams respond to transformational leaders with commitment even when the pressure is on, or times are tough. Individuals supported by this category of senior staff members are far more likely to look beyond their own self-interest, as they want to contribute to collective goals.

As it is so emotive, it is largely a theoretical framework. As an illustration, if you asked people why they were prepared to dig deep and go the extra mile for their workplace leader, they may not be able to describe what it was they responded to most.

However, there are various techniques that are common to business managers and specialists who are effective transformational leaders.

Delivering a clear vision and non-judgmental accountability

One of the most fundamental aspects of being a transformational leader is being wholly clear on what your expectations are, and your organization’s overarching vision and goals.

What is it that you are asking people to work toward, and are there milestones they can focus on? You certainly can’t expect to support organizational change if people don’t know what that change looks like, what advantages it brings, and what constitutes progress.

Therefore, the starting point is a degree of strategic management. A transformational leader must know what steps, tasks and decisions are needed to bring about change. They must then be able to brief others on this in an inspirational manner. This includes clarity on where the project or organization is now and what needs to happen to move it forward.

This does require a considerable degree of honesty in many situations, without appearing to be critical. For example, setting goals for reducing waste and increasing profitability, without implying that previous systems were flawed and staff are at fault.

Holding your hands up and showing accountability about management missteps can help in establishing a new vision and set of business goals. It can play a big part in building a relationship of trust between senior staff and their workforce.

Looking at this from another angle, it is hard to inspire and support improvement – and get buy-in to a new organizational vision – if the team is being held back by rumor, uncertainty or insecurity.

Once a transformational leader communicates the ‘end goals’ and the shared vision, they then need to use other established techniques to empower people to realize their full potential in reaching the finishing line (or series of finishing lines).

Communications excellence

Explaining a clear shared vision is just one element of the ongoing communication process that underpins transformational leadership. In fact, being an effective and responsive communicator underpins all leadership styles, and largely separates managers from leaders.

Some of the ways that communication is vital will be explained later, such as the importance of having a consistent system for visibly recognizing and rewarding the contributions of individuals and teams. However, much relies on the senior staff member’s ability to support a multi-way exchange of information, questions and ideas. Communication should flow up, down and across the organization, and must be consistent and clear.

This is especially hard to achieve in organizations that rely on remote or hybrid teams, but a transformational leader makes sure that there are channels open to stimulate social as well as task-oriented discussions. This tackles team fragmentation and any sense of isolation.

Another of the vital communication skills employed by transformational leaders is the ability to practice constructive listening. This involves far more than an ‘open door’ policy and regularly checking in with all employees (especially those in remote or hybrid work patterns). Constructive listening requires that senior staff orchestrate the free exchange of views and information that their teams benefit from.

One of the best ways to achieve this is to ask the right open-ended questions, in person or during digital exchanges. This in turn relies on being clear that you are motivated by genuine interest and curiosity, not judgment.

It is also vital that leaders tangibly respond to the information they receive, though still without any blame or shame if it involves something that went wrong.

For instance, some organizations introduce employee suggestion systems that result in a ‘you said, we did’ response. This shows the team that management has a genuine desire to act on what they have been told, and value the views of others.

Proving your ability to listen – and respond in a measured and appropriate way – makes it far more likely that staff will flag up issues and concerns at an early stage. This enables senior staff to respond quickly and decisively.

Being a constructive and good listener is also one of the best ways to support creativity and problem solving in your workplace. If staff feel able to come to you with innovations and ideas, they are potentially going to provide you with invaluable insights on how to do things better, faster, cheaper and with less waste, for instance.

Training, development and being a role model

To empower employees to reach their full potential within their team, it is vital that they each have a personal and professional training and development plan. This would be supported by regular and consistent assessments of skill needs, and openness about ways to improve both collective and individual performance.

This dovetails with the point about the shared vision. Your team needs to be clear on what their roles and responsibilities are now, but also what skills and knowledge they need to progress and become an even more valued employee.

Transformational leaders are often the ones driving and delivering this workplace learning and advancement strategy. They are also the ones drilling down on how to match the training and development plan to the individual needs and expectations of each member of their team.

Something else that defines transformational leaders is that they are also visibly engaged in lifelong learning themselves. Senior staff who focus on improving their own understanding and ability are clearly a powerful role model for the rest of the workforce.

An ideal solution would be to improve your leadership skills with an Ed.D. from Marymount University. Embarking on an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Organizational Innovation through Marymount University both illustrates your commitment to personal and professional development and enhances your transformational leadership skills. The program instills some of the most important attributes of leadership, such as how to motivate, and how to be approachable, relational, innovative and agile, but also highly decisive in a senior role.

That last attribute can be particularly important in times of change or challenge. Although workforces want their leadership to be nurturing, empathetic and invested in their welfare, they also want them to be confident and bold in their choices. From this comes an important degree of trust that their leaders are in control, and focused on what needs to be done.

Reward, recognition and inclusive cultures

To keep staff engaged – and productive – one of the most important transformation leadership techniques is to create and maintain a positive organizational culture. Some aspects of this have been touched on already, such as the ‘no blame or shame’ environment that supports open and honest communication and authentic inclusivity.

Recognition of individual expectations and needs must extend beyond empowering staff to complete their daily tasks, however. The best employers take a holistic approach to their staff relationships and deliver a wide range of benefits that keep them motivated and loyal. This could include systems that help employees to maintain a good work-life balance, or welfare initiatives to provide staff with health or cost of living support.

However, without a doubt, central to any strong culture would be a clear recognition and reward system, applied fairly and consistently across the whole organization.

One survey reported that over 83% of employees feel motivated to do a better job at work if someone takes the time to give them some recognition. It can be as simple as a highly visible ‘thank you’, but it could also be rewards linked to specific achievements and goals reached.

Achieving a happy, unified workforce who enjoy job satisfaction can bring important business benefits. Yet in the survey mentioned above, around 50% of employees reported that they did not have a recognition program at their company (possibly because they don’t have transformational leaders).

This is worth noting, as recruiting the best staff to your teams can become easier if you offer an attractive organizational culture that rewards contribution and commitment, and it certainly makes staff retention more certain.

Workplace autonomy and collaboration

This transformational leadership technique follows naturally from the one above. The leaders who are best able to facilitate change successfully are those who encourage staff to work together and support each other. They give teams the autonomy to take responsibility (and credit) for their own outcomes.

This can involve a significant level of ethical management on behalf of the senior staff members. They need to show integrity and fairness, to eliminate all forms of bias, so they can promote and support every team member equally.

The payback can be substantial. If you have an engaged workforce who feel fairly treated and valued individually, you also have staff who are more willing to collaborate with each other and support effective team dynamics.

A leader who has built a relationship of trust and confidence with their staff can also take a step backward when necessary. They are in the best possible position to let teams ‘run’ with important tasks and goals. The senior manager can then get involved only when a gentle directional nudge is required, or to recognize achievements or intercede if there are conflicts or misunderstandings.

Interestingly, promoting collaborative cultures in the workplace can lead to greater innovation. This is particularly true as it becomes possible to get a wider cross section of individuals and departments looking for ideas and solutions.

Innovation is a task that should never be confined to a pre-set research and development department. Also, some of the most successful innovations come from providing encouragement and resources to a mixed team of creative and highly practical people.

Creative and positive thinking

Finally, one of the techniques of transformational leadership that best encourages and supports change and improvement is combining creativity with positivity.

It is a commonly used expression that there are ‘no bad ideas’ and that links with this leadership attribute. To stimulate innovation and change, senior managers need to show that they are open minded and happy to think ‘outside the box’ when the situation is relevant.

They actively encourage dissent, the dismantling of assumptions and free-thinking conversations. Transformational leaders often even empower employees to question their decisions and actions. After all, they are promoting the concept of self-awareness and taking personal responsibility for doing things ‘better’, so they must be seen to practice what they preach.

This requires a degree of humility as a leader. Someone who acts like they are superior and ‘know it all’ is unlikely to be the best sounding board for new ideas and less mainstream observations.

It can also help if leaders show a measured amount of risk taking, in the form of a willingness to experiment and let staff run with ideas that may end in failure. Having a good grasp of the fine line between what is feasible and possible helps.

For instance, if on paper something seems unfeasible financially, trusting your project team to find solutions and make it possible and profitable can be one of the best ways to stimulate exciting innovations in your organization.

Transformational leadership in a nutshell

The concept of transformational leadership is far from new. It was a term coined by leadership expert, historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns. He summed up his theory by saying that it is when “leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation”.

This advanced system of mutual trust, support and motivation runs alongside the modern emphasis on being holistic in your management style and using emotional intelligence in treating employees as individuals.

Clearly, then, it does require considerable experience, qualifications and personal insight to combine these priorities for the greater good of your employer and its future.

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