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A Leadership Model for the Modern World… that managers fear

Ever wondered why your boss seems to be the main obstacle to the success of his team? There’s a reason why so often in public service, corporations, even small businesses and charities, management seems hopelessly inadequate to the tasks before it. This is such a phenomenon in our society that a whole subculture of humour about bad management had to be created just to cope with the daily incompetence of people in positions of authority.

This is not a random phenomenon, nor is it merely something to be expected as part of life in a big organisation. It has a definite cause (other than individual incompetence, which admittedly factors in).

Most companies, charities and governments are in fact using an obsolete model of leadership. This model probably originated in the training of conscript armies- the largest organisations of the ancient world- and was adopted by businesses during the industrial revolution. In this system, only the people at the top make the real decisions. Under them are managers who supervise employees in carrying out their masters’ will. The employees are trained to perform specific tasks in a specific way. At each level, a system of rewards and punishments is imposed to enforce the agenda of the people at the top.

As in conscript armies, the personalities, talents and ambitions of the employees matter inherently little. The system is designed to absorb someone who meets the job requirements and can therefore execute the tasks of his position. That’s all that the system really wants him to do. This is called transactional leadership- you do x to get y, and if not, you’re punished with z.

Special Forces

In most parts of modern militaries, this model continues in use. But with the advent of Special Operations Forces in World War II, a new leadership model was created. One of the first special forces, the Long-Range Desert Group in North Africa, relied heavily on the experience and talents of its people. Not their military talents necessarily- many of the officers were academics, adventurers, and people who in civilian life had traveled through desert terrain. The founder was an Art History major and aspiring mountain climber. But what brought them all together was their drive, expertise and intellectual independence. The culture they created, which would be perpetuated in Special Forces circles, was one in which every member of the group was included in decisions according to their expertise and the leader provides an inspirational example to motivate his soldiers to achieve great things.

This is transformational leadership, which provides the follower with inspiration and incentive to contribute to the best of his talents and creative powers. This is the only kind of leadership that can truly keep up in the modern world.

Transformational Leadership

A transformational leader expects to establish authority through expertise, skill, results and principle, thus becoming worthy of being followed. A manager expects his authority to stem from the organisation that put him there, and the rules, regulations, contracts etc. that are designed to reinforce his authority.

A leader will be followed with or without such a structure, so long as his behaviour and endeavours inspire others. A manager must constantly struggle to defend the fourth wall of the farce in which his subordinates must act for their daily bread. While the leader makes serving the people around him the priority, the manager serves himself and the organisation. In the military, this distinction is often difficult for officers transitioning from the regular “green” army into the “black” special forces. In the green army, an officer is obeyed for his rank. In the black army, a leader is accepted or rejected based on the skills and leadership qualities he demonstrates. Officers entering special forces as part of their training are often ruthlessly mocked by the organisation’s much more experienced NCOs, to drive home the fact that they will have to earn the respect of their subordinates and be prepared to take criticism from them.

The demands on a transformational leader are considerable, but so are the rewards. The leader seeks to inspire by example the traits he wishes to impart to his subordinates. He provides challenge and meaningful engagement, encouraging full use of the subordinates’ abilities. He supports his subordinates individually and communicates with them often, further increasing their potential and willingness to contribute. He empowers his subordinates to try out their ideas regularly and gives them considerable authority without hesitation. He does not depend on existing guidelines to arrive at a course of action, but is willing and able to think outside the box, a quality the subordinates are encouraged to emulate.

Innovation in the face of uncertainty becomes their driving activity, and because everyone contributes to that innovation, because they are building the change, they neither fear nor resist it. They are there to make the impossible possible, not to carry on with the ordinary. The potential of an organisation under these conditions is vastly increased, but it can also be frightening to a leader who does not know how to sustain it.

In the transformational leadership model, discipline is internal. Self-discipline, modelled by the leader, and collective discipline conditioned by mutual respect, take the place of detailed regulations in practice. As one former SAS officer recalled, “The men, for their part, never called me ‘Sir’ unless they wanted to be rude.” The rules that matter, that really are for the general good, are still there, but the rest, the trivialities designed to keep everyone in their box, are neither wanted nor needed.

Transformational Leadership versus Buzzwords

One of the greatest problems with transactional leadership is that it makes very poor use of the contributions and abilities of subordinates, eliminating the main driver of improvement in a healthy organisational culture. Many organisations pretend to adopt inspirational and participatory cultures, while in fact their leadership model remains transactional. You cannot inspire people whose abilities and potential contributions are being squelched by a rigid organisation.

Know what your people can and want to contribute, as opposed to what they have to contribute, and reward them for their contributions. Give them a real voice, and share with them the responsibility of adapting to the rapid pace of change in the modern world. It sounds easy. So why have so many organisations talked about this sort of thing- and utterly failed to implement it?

Because the transactional leaders, used to the insulation that their old leadership model provides them, deeply fear the conditions that real transformational leadership requires. They would have to earn the respect of their subordinates. They would have to face problems. They would have to accept advice from underlings. Their word would no longer be law. The current deplorable state of affairs for which they are responsible would stand naked like Hans Christian Andersen’s emperor for all to spit at. A terrifying prospect indeed… Maybe if we just use enough trendy corporate culture buzzwords, our profit margins will go up. No? How about some motivational mugs?