Take a look at the description of a transformational leaders as outlined by leadership researcher Bernard Bass...
So, a transformational leader is one who:
1. not only motivates followers but to leads them to plateaus much higher than they had thought possible,
2. sets challenging expectations,
3. achieves higher standards of performance, and
4. looks to higher purpose
These four key traits set transformational leaders apart from their transactional compatriots. We uncover each of these here...
Motivates followers beyond what was thought possible
A small group of Hungarian soldiers were tasked to scout an area in the Alps where they were operating in during the First World War. Soon after they had left their camp, it began to snow, and the snow storm lasted two days. During that time, the scouting party became terribly disoriented, and needless to say, lost. They became disheartened, and resigned themselves to die in the mountains. Then one of the soldiers found a map in his pocket and the sergeant leading the scouts used that to rally the troops, wait out the storm, and start their way back to the camp. They returned on the third day. Everyone was overjoyed, and amazed that the scouts had made it back, especially after finding out that it was not the map of the Alps that they were holding on to, but of the Pyrennes, 380 kilometres away! It was not so much of information that the map gave the scouts, but the confidence to make good decisions, and to guide them back to their objective. A transformational leader is like that map; it is not so much what she tells her followers that matters, but the confidence that she gives to them that makes the difference. If a group of soldiers could overcome disorientation and despair to band together and achieve something they had not thought possible because of the map, a transformational leader can do the same too, motivating followers to overcome their physical and mental limitations, and achieve the "impossible".
Remember, when you're lost, any old map will do.
Sets challenging expectations
Jim Collins, the co-author of the wildly successful book, Good to Great, shared that he had several hours of discussion with his co-author, Jerry Porras, on the term Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). Porras was more inclined to use more management-like terms like "corporate mission", but Collins insisted that the term needed to convey "excitement, energy and envelop-pushing boldness." He prevailed, and today, BHAG is part of common business lexicon. But what is a BHAG? What makes it different from - well, a corporate mission? Firstly Big is really BIG! What sets extraordinarily successful organisations apart from less successful ones is the fact that they had great BIG goals - ones that cannot be defined within a one-year, three-year or maybe even a ten-year time frame. These are sometimes charted over decades. But that's what a BHAG needs to be, a super-long-term goal that energises envelop-pushing boldness.
Next, Hairy. It's got to be so bold that it causes you to quiver in your pants thinking about it. It is so scary on the one hand and exciting on the other, that it may seem to be impossible. But if we recall the first point above, transformational leaders trade within the "impossible" arena because, that's where exceptional performances lie.
Then there's Audacious. Something so bold that it has not been done before. And not only that, but to have the gumption to even think it and say it out, and then hope to achieve! That's what's causing it to be hairy, and that's what's creating waves.
So, if you are going to transformational, you need to define your BHAG, something so audacious, something so bold, something so "scary" that it wakes your followers up from their slumber and energises them over the course of years and decades. That's what a transformational leader does - sets challenging expectations.
Achieves higher standards of performance
A leader cannot do anything by himself. He needs to get the people behind the idea, behind the goal, and motivate them to achieve. So painting the BHAG, giving them the confidence to do the impossible, setting the stage and then getting out of their way, are key to transformational leadership. How does one set the stage? Basically, by bringing in the resources needed to make it work. But the transformational leader does not simply throw money at them; instead she exhorts the team to bootstrap their efforts, build sustainability, stretch boundaries, make new friends. By enlarging the pie, and bringing in key capabilities, higher standards of performance can be achieved, and with a sense of pride to boot! The transformational leader is therefore the catalyst in sparking a smouldering cauldron of exothermic business reaction!
Looks to higher purpose
In 1961, John F. Kennedy went to Congress to seek appropriations to send a man to the moon. The objective was to beat the Soviets that had, only a few days earlier, sent the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin). Yet, there was a higher purpose - to maintain its position as the Leader of the Free World. Recent events starting from the Sputnik in 1957 to Gagarin just days earlier had shown that the Soviets had gained on the US technologically, and if they were still to be the Leaders of the Free World, the US must demonstrate that it was more superior to the Soviets, and do a technological leapfrog, a BHAG in and of itself, not just of sending a man into space but of landing him on the moon and getting him back again. That was the higher purpose of the Moon Landing project, and one which galvanised the whole nation. The rest, as they say, is history.
By creating a higher purpose, we transcend the transactional elements of getting the job done. It creates greater meaning, and focuses effort for something more than ourselves, more than our job, more than our company. This energises action, and fuels higher standards of performance.
So, are you transformational?
Transformational leadership happens at all levels. While we saw a President of the United States being transformational, we also saw a sergeant being one too. Anyone can stand on this mantle and lead transformationally, but, surprisingly, not many people do. It may be due to knowledge deficit, or to past experiences, or it may simply be a lot easier to be transactional, trading awards and punishment for performance. However, in an increasingly complex environment, economic factors alone cannot bring about exceptional performance. In fact, these are the main starting points, the conditions that exist for leaders and followers to be in the same space. But what the followers do, and how well they do them, depends more on transformational factors. And these, are encompassed in these four traits.
Download the executive summary of Bernard Bass' research on transactional and transformational leadership here.