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A Five-Point Playbook for Serving as a Transformative Force Within an Organization




According to the works of Industrial-Organizational Psychologists Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio (2004), transformational leadership is defined as an approach to leadership that actively works to transform individual followers into leaders of their own.


Since 1985, when this definition was first used, researchers have studied transformational leadership for its validity, effectiveness, and true expressions in teams and followerships around the world. It has been scrutinized for its changing definitions, ambiguous terminology, and susceptibility for misrepresentation (and sometimes outright abuse). Critics argue that how one person interprets transformational leadership at one point in time might be entirely different from how another person does five years into the future—and how the outcomes of these different interpretations vary.


Despite the ambiguity, the benefits of a leader that puts in the effort to transform their followers into developed leaders of their own are hard to deny. The very measures that researchers use to identify transformational leadership speak to its significance to workplace well-being and functionality. These criteria are: a leader’s ability to build trust, act with integrity, encourage others, stimulate innovation, and develop others.¹


Taken at face value, none of these qualities have the power to elicit negative consequences. But digging deeper reveals that much of what gives the transformational leader its power can be faked. Trust can be built under false pretenses; integrity can be a carefully curated act; encouragement, innovation, and development can be fostered to less-than ethical ends.


Described in this article are five action items leaders can take to avoid such pitfalls and develop their abilities as authentic transformational presences within their team or organization. Taken in good faith, these five items have the power to bring about dramatic, positive transformations in teams, organizations, or other followerships. To avoid subscribing oneself to an unrealistic and often confusing ideal, I encourage readers to think of these items not as a means of becoming a transformational leader, but rather as a means of serving as a force of transformation.

1. Trust


Trust is the quality that allows people to believe the words coming out of their leader’s mouth. It enables people to be authentic with their leaders, and lean on them for support and direction. While substantive trust is built through consistent effort and time, there are changes a leader can make to start building trust today.


They can commit to speaking with their followers with honesty and transparency. Honesty here is defined as an unwillingness to misconstrue or misrepresent factual information in one’s communication, while transparency is defined as an unwillingness to hide or conceal pertinent information.


In 2021, with the uncertainty of the post-pandemic economy looming, employees, staff, and others are looking to their leaders more than ever for information and guidance.


An honest attempt at providing information might involve a manager or CEO telling their staff that lay-offs are a possibility—as hard as that conversation may be. This conversation might include a truthful explanation and/or justification for this decision in certain and specific terms.


A transparent attempt in this scenario might involve the same manager admitting that they do not have all the details with regards to the magnitude of layoffs. To say the words ‘I don’t know’ is an understandably uncomfortable task for many leaders, however if a leader truly does not have the information needed to answer their followers’ questions (and most people realize their leaders aren’t omniscient anyway!) then it is important that this is openly communicated. Leaders can achieve even greater transparency by describing all the steps being taken to find the information that is lacking.

2. Integrity


To serve as a force of positive transformation, integrity is the single most important trait a leader can possess. Unfortunately, It’s a notoriously loaded concept that is difficult to define, measure, and predict. For the purposes of this article, we will say here that a person demonstrates integrity when their actions and behaviors reflect the messages they project to others.


If leaders make a habit of telling their followers that they should do as they say and not as they do, then it’s likely that their followers would not view them as someone with integrity. Likewise, If leader finds themselves telling followers that rules and constraints exist only for show, then they can likely expect the same result.


Building integrity is not a simple process. It requires dutiful introspection and the facing of hard truths. However, leaders can easily begin the process by taking a thoughtful inventory of the expectations they set forth for their followership. What kind of culture does the group profess to support? What kind of values are espoused? Is there a mission statement or vision? Reflect on any phrases or language that are repeated often from leader to follower.


Next, point to actions that directly relate to these expectations. Is the ideal culture lived on a daily basis? When contemplating raises, bonuses, and promotions, are they given out to individuals who reflect espoused values? Take an honest look. Ask a trusted colleague (although consider whether they’re the kind of colleague that is eager to please). If a disconnect is found between messaging and actions, find simple changes to bridge these gaps and commit to them.


3. Encouragement


Most people are naturally drawn to the things that are wrong in their lives. They tune into information pertaining to error, conflict, and areas for improvement over information pertaining to proficiency, agreement, and excellence. Cognitive psychologists call this the negativity bias.


I am personally guilty of the negativity bias when I exit a movie theater after watching a multi-million dollar feature film only to have my mind flooded by all the things I didn’t like about it. Later on I often find that there were many things I did in fact enjoy about the movie, but directly after watching it all I could think about were the things I did not enjoy.


Unfortunately for many, the negativity bias is something that pops up often in group interactions, including the workplace. This manifests as a manager that seeks out the bad behavior and turns a blind eye to the good. This in turn makes encouragement a much more complicated task.


Employees engage in exceptional behavior every day. They can do so without prompting nor recognition. Over time, such a lack of recognition does little more than foment frustration and de-incentivize excellence in the future.


Leaders who wish to serve as a transformational force within their teams or organizations must work to overcome the negativity bias, and actively encourage good behaviors when displayed. They can start by thinking back to problems they had in the past but no longer experience now. These don’t have to be massive improvements; they could be small changes that simply make the day go by smoother. Was anyone on the team responsible for making that change? Go ahead and acknowledge it. Tell the team member that their efforts are visible, appreciated, and valued for their contribution to the company. Encouragement will invariably follow.


4. Innovation


Innovation is what drives change and novelty. It gives organizations and other group efforts a competitive edge, particularly in highly demanding, volatile markets. However, the building of an innovative culture is neither a simple nor easy task to accomplish.


By definition, innovation requires risk-taking. And risk-taking requires acceptance of the possibility of failure. Leaders, particularly those who manage a large amount of resources or have many stakeholders to answer to, may be uneasy with this proposition. However, there are steps that can be taken to ensure that risk-taking is calculated and experimental rather than reckless and wasteful. This is a delicate task, and is the subject of an emerging field of study in business management and leadership studies today.


A recent article by Gary Pisano (2019) which received the Harvard Business Review’s first ever Clayton M. Christensen prize for excellence offers guidance for organizations seeking to overcome this dilemma. Among other things, Pisano writes that organizations must explicitly define and communicate their expectations for competent behavior in the workplace. With these expectations made clear, failures that fall within a prescribed framework can be understood as learning experiences and the necessary consequences of innovative behavior.


Leaders may also look to adopt an Opportunity Strategy, but are cautioned to consider whether their specific team efforts can afford to trade in consistency for increased innovation.

5. Development


The last quality of a leader with the ability to transform their followers into leaders of their own is the ability to take a personalized stake in their followers’ professional development. In practice, this means setting aside broad stroke policies and one-size-fits-all ideas in favor of individualized solutions and coaching strategies.


Admittedly, this can be a time and labor intensive task, however individualized consideration in the workplace has been shown to directly correlate with job satisfaction (Rafferty & Griffin, 2006). Satisfaction in turn can have benefits in the forms of increased organizational engagement, pro-social behavior, and compliance. These benefits point to an environment with less stress and fewer headaches, which is well worth the time and effort spent giving individual consideration.


Adaptability is critical for this item, and learning how to approach leadership differently depending on the needs of individual team members is the hallmark of a truly adept leader. Models such as Situational Leadership Theory offer a comprehensive means of adapting one’s leadership for individual consideration, but leaders looking to start today need only to take the initiative to reach out and ask their followers what they can do to help. This simple action is an extremely powerful tool that can simultaneously build connections, remove communication barriers, and open the door for effective individualized leadership.


To Recap:


Quickly build trust by committing to speaking with team members with transparency and honesty.


Ensure integrity by taking a sincere inventory of the relationship between messaging and everyday actions.

Encourage others by actively seeking out positivity and considering the improvements your team has already helped to build.


Stimulate innovation by leaning into a tolerance of acceptable failure. Develop and communicate a set of competencies for your team to ensure that failures become learning experiences and not dead ends.


Develop your team by committing to individualized consideration. Ask what you can do for them and commit to serving these needs to the best of your ability.



 

Leadership is a complex topic. After decades of study, neither scholars nor practitioners can agree on a single model that can produce the perfect leader. This article offers a basic introduction into the concept of leadership as an instrument of transformation. Each of the preceding five items has a wealth of nuance to examine—both for their benefits and for their potential misuse. But good faith actors with a genuine interest in lifting their followers, organizations, and teams to new productive heights can implement these recommendations to set the transformative powers within themselves in motion.



-Paul Grillo



Bass, B. & Avolio, B. (2004). Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire Manual (Third Edition). Menlo Park, CA: Mind Garden, Inc.


Pisano, G.P. (2019). The hard truth about innovative cultures. Harvard Business Review, 97(1), 62–71.


Rafferty, A.E. & Griffin, M.A. (2006). Refining individualized consideration: Distinguishing developmental leadership and supportive leadership. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 79(1), 37-61.

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