Transformational leaders and possums

Aug 20 2012 by Duane Dike Print This Article

We leader-types love to use the catch word "transformational" when describing what it takes to be good managers. Transformational is usually contrasted with transactional, as if transactional is some ugly beast. So, I thought I'd spend a few minutes describing what a transformational leader really is (from my research).

A few weeks ago I was talking with a comrade about all things leadership. The conversation was a mish mash of thoughts, but I heard enough to classify this friend as a transformational leader, so I told him so. He replied, "What the heck is a transformational leader?"

That's a problem with catch phrases is they begin as meaningful descriptors but meander through evolutionary misuse paths until the words sprout multiple meanings, ultimately rendering the words meaningless (thus the birth of buzz words). But, I digress.

Transformational leaders are that special breed of emotionally intelligent managers capable of sensing employees' propensity for success and putting them in environments where they can reach new levels of knowledge. The employee's thinking capacity is transformed to a higher state of understanding. Transformational leaders help people release their own potential by liberating them through cultures that are supportive, collaborative, friendly, and fun.

Transformational leaders don't (necessarily) develop people. Managers who think they can develop others artificially elevate themselves to god-like positions. Instead, emotionally intelligent leaders entrust others to work by encouraging, educating, inspiring, and most importantly, believing in them.

An Analogy: Possum on a Fence

Allow me to share an analogy. One night, about three years ago at roughly 2:30 in the morning (as in dark), my dog, Penny the corgi, saw a possum on our back fence. Of course she objected to the intrusion and decided to announce her discovery to the entire neighborhood.

The possum scurried away to investigate another yard. To my knowledge, that possum has never returned, but that doesn't matter to Penny. She routinely trots to that very same corner of the yard to bark at a possum that long ago disappeared.

Workers, and even leaders, can easily slip into bark-at-the-non-existent-possum mode by becoming complacent in the work and failing to see that what they think is work may not be all that productive or satisfying. Our daily rituals are demonstrated every day as we walk through the exact same routines day after day after day.

My ritual is the following: unlock my door, flip on the light, hit the stereo button (I like music), settle into my chair, and fire up my computer.

From there, it's an endless stream of emails, reports, and phone calls. I'm barking at the same possum every day of my life. The emails will wait, and what I really should be doing is heading out to where the people are (where the work is done) and be a leader.

Routine Impedes Innovation

I demonstrate this point because all of us are guilty, at one time or another, of barking at non-existent possums. Our employees are no different. They get stuck in routine because they think that's the best way to do the job because we don't give them reason to think otherwise. They become comfortable, or worse, complacent with the routine. They no longer question the status quo or find new ways to do things. Why? Their working environments are no longer change friendly.

This is where we transformational leaders shine (at least I think I'm a transformational leader). It's our job to help employees see that those pesky possums have moved on. Transformational leaders behave in ways that create environments where employees feel free to experiment with change.

Liberated-thinking employees see systematic problems and are of the right mind to fix them, through collaborative methods (getting help when they need it). Collaboration is the stuff of teams, or mini societies grown out of the need to solve problems.

Overly controlled and stressful environments cause employees to settle in and bark at possums. Productivity drops as change-challenged employees become dissatisfied with the work, lose commitment, and fail to understand their role in the organization. On the other hand, the byproducts of transformational leadership are closer relationships, better knowledge of the work, and satisfaction in the work environment. The finding: leader style and behavior correlate to happy (or the opposite, unhappy) workers, and happy employees are generally more productive.

The Onus: Leaders

The role leaders play in running the business has changed dramatically since WWII when morale and productivity were thought to be related to working conditions such as hours worked, compensation, and variety of work. In modern day theories, the onus of morale and productivity are thought to be directly related to leader behavior. Today it's transformational, mentoring, outward focused leadership behavior which is the key to creating change friendly environments.

Good leaders, like my comrade, don't necessarily know how good they really are. Good leaders (the transformational type) are humble, hard working, honest, friendly, supportive, collaborative in nature, warm, outward focused, and caring. They see their own faults and do their best to correct those imperfections. Most importantly, transformational leaders establish learning cultures (free thinking, open systems) where employees don't bark at empty fences (especially in the middle of the night!).

Oh, I almost forgot: transactional leadership, the purported evil enemy of the transformational side of the scale, is just as important for the balance of leadership because transactional leaders are the ones who handle the tasks of the management job, such as planning, organizing, and directing. Those functions don't go away and are necessary for productivity and quality. Transformational and transactional leadership components can be present in the same person, but that's not always the case.

"They say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself." Andy Warhol.

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.