What is Transformational Leadership and How Effective Are CEOs at Providing It?

Leigh BaileyBy Leigh Bailey

Different Business ThinkingOne of my colleagues at The Bailey Group suggested I write a blog about transformational leadership. Her premise was that though this term is thrown around a lot, it is not well understood and that my blog could help clarify the concept.

Out of curiosity, I Googled transformational leadership. There are more than 507,000 entries. This suggests to me that:

  • Lots of people are interested in the subject
  • Lots of people have opinions on the subject
  • The quantity of available content is not positively correlated with clarity, at least on the topic of transformational leadership

So given the level of interest and available opinions on the topic, how effective are CEOs and executives at providing transformational leadership? Apparently not very. An article in the most recent edition of the McKinsey Quarterly titled “Why Frontline Workers Are Disengaged” describes research suggesting that “senior people have a rose-tinted view of realities on the ground” and that they “way over estimate their capacity to engender the enthusiasm that propels extraordinary effort and delivers great results.”

Sadly, my experience bears out the results of the McKinsey study. After nearly three decades of working with CEOs, board chairs and other executives, I have concluded that the ability to inspire is perhaps the most important and definitely the rarest of leadership competencies possessed by executive leadership.

In one sentence, the purpose each of us at The Bailey Group has strived to fulfill every day for more than 27 years when we come to work is “shaping extraordinary people into transformational leaders who build successful teams and thriving organizations.” This suggests that we have very strong opinions about what it means to be a transformational leader:

1. It implies that transformational leaders are first and foremost exceptional individuals and share some common characteristics. Some of the most important include:

  • A strong commitment to continuous improvement, objective about their own weaknesses and challenges and willing to support others in self-improvement
  • Driven and motivated to stay ahead of the competition and willing to evaluate and energize their leadership style and skills
  • Face the challenges of the future honestly and directly, recognize the need for transformation, see the big picture and are driven to move beyond the status quo

2. It suggests that being a transformational leader is not an end in itself. Instead, the goal is to build thriving teams and organizations that make a difference. Here is a partial list of some of the most important attributes we look for in transformational leaders who get results:

  • Change agent
  • Courageous and confident
  • Lifelong learner
  • Collaborator
  • Influencer
  • Teacher/mentor
  • Transparent
  • Emotionally intelligent
  • Resilient
  • Virtuous

In this list, I am convinced that the most important attribute is courage. Courage is at the core of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, willingness to risk, willingness to experiment and capacity to act in the face of uncertainty. It is also the trait that most inspires confidence, optimism and hope in others.

So there you go. Now you have 507,001 references to read regarding transformational leadership. Let me suggest a shortcut. Instead of reading, how about we have a conversation over coffee about the challenges you face in transforming your organization? We’d both for sure learn something and likely be inspired in the process. I look forward to connecting with you.