Why Leaders with a Transactional Style Don’t Achieve Transformational Results

Transformational leadership is a leadership approach that seeks to inspire and empower others, rather than simply trying to control them. This approach can produce dramatic results for an organization by generating high levels of commitment, creativity, and productivity from its followers. Transformational leadership has two dimensions: (1) their level of warmth or concern for the people they lead and (2) their level of intellectual stimulation or use of new ideas in relation to the people they lead.

On the other hand, a transactional leadership approach focuses more on maintaining order and getting work done through a system of rewards and punishments. It does not create a sense of loyalty among employees because they are not offered much beyond compensation.

Richard Branson, the Founder and CEO of the Virgin Group, is a transformational leader because he is interested in fostering leadership skills and creativity among his employees. He seeks to inspire others, rather than simply control them. For example, when Richard’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines was struggling financially during the global recession of 2009, instead of firing workers or hiring consultants like other CEOs might have done under similar circumstances, he flew to London and he spent the next few weeks checking in on every aspect of his company, asking employees for their ideas on how to save the business.

Transactional leadership focuses more on maintaining order and getting work done through rewards. There are many examples of transactional leadership in business. One example is a CEO who assigns employees tasks and then closely monitors their performance on those tasks, specifically to determine if they will be able to keep their jobs or not. This CEO uses rewards and punishments in order to achieve results, and often, their actions benefit themselves more than the employees.

As you can see in the example above, transactional leaders are inherently more short term focused and are oriented towards immediate results. This can lead some transactional leaders to prioritize a short term benefit at the detriment of longer-term goals. Simon Sinek shares the example of publicly traded companies who go through rounds of layoffs to make quarterly numbers. While the companies may “make their numbers,” they do so at the cost of psychological safety and long term profitability.

True organizational transformation, like pursuing excellence in customer service, operations, or innovation, involves focus, discipline, leadership, and time. There is no “Get rich quick scheme” in transformational leadership.

Organizations that pursue transformational goals need transformational leaders. These are leaders that set a bold vision and build high-performing teams, follow principles that promote psychological safety, and empower people to achieve their vision.

There is a still a role in organizations for transactional leaders, which is a topic for it’s own post, but they are fundamentally ill-equipped to achieve bold and lasting organizational transformation. Creating bold transformation actually requires the leader to release control by empowering others and trusting that people are doing the right things even when you cannot measure it.

Transformational leadership offers a vision that gets people energized and committed to achieving organizational goals.

Transformational leaders embody the principles of psychological safety by creating an inclusive environment where all employees feel valued, regardless of their position in the company hierarchy. Having transformational leaders in leadership roles will help organizations achieve their full potential. These are the individuals who will leave a powerful legacy by creating meaningful and impactful change.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Transformational leadership is a powerful way for leaders to motivate and inspire their followers. In contrast, transactional leadership can be used as a tool by those in power who want to maintain control over followers through incentives or punishments—but these tactics do not provide long-term results. To achieve real transformation, leaders need to be transformational leaders. A transactional leader will not be able to truly achieve transformational goals.

Legends never die

Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid, and you’ll never go wrong.

Babe Ruth’s Ghost from The Sandlot

Over the 4th of July, I turned on one of my favorite movies, The Sandlot, which is a story about friendship, community, and baseball. I have probably seen this movie hundreds of times, mostly wearing out the VHS tape at my parent’s house when I was a child.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens when Babe Ruth’s ghost visits one of the main characters in the movie, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez in a dream. The ghost leaves Benny with these words, “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid, and you’ll never go wrong”.

Heroes, of course, are people. We look up to them, we learn from them, and we follow their example. But like all people, they are mortal and will eventually pass away.

Legends, or stories, however, are different. It brings our memories to life and they create powerful feelings of interconnectedness.

This difference between heroes and legends has become even more clear to me recently. A few months ago, I bought an ancestry DNA kit and have used it to build out my family tree. It is a wonderful exercise and one I recommend for everyone who wants to learn more about their heritage. Through ancestry, I was able to map back three generations. But what are simply names in census data can “come to life” once again through stories.

For example, my great grandfather, Herman Sachs, was a talented painter. Before he passed away, my grandfather, Arnie Sachs, told me a story that Great-Grandpa Herman asked him one morning what color he wanted his room to be painted. My grandfather answered smartly, “knotty pine,” and when he arrived home his room looked like the inside of a tree!

When I think of that story, in a way it brings my Great-Grandpa Herman back to life, in a way. He has become more than a name now for me. The story gave me some color-commentary, an indication of his personality and talent. The “legend” gives me a lens into who he was and it is a story I will pass down to my own son, Aaron. Stories like this one makes me realize that for so many of my other relatives, I have only names, a small piece of who they were without the legend. While it is hard for me to remember most of their names, Great-Grandpa Herman’s is one I will always remember.

As leaders, the stories we tell (and are told about us) are powerful influences on how we accomplish our goals. Stories that we tell can help us contextualize the direction we set, and can be used to cement that direction to our teams’ collective memory. Stories that are told about us can either inspire confidence, faith, and trust, or they can work against us. That is why leading by example is so important, as those are the stories the team tells each other about us when we are not present.

The more leaders can integrate storytelling into their presentations and other methods of communication, the better their teams will be able to follow and spread the important messages. A good story has an exponential effect when it is told multiple times to better reinforce and embed it into the culture.

If you are a leader, the legends you tell will endure as part of the fabric of your organization. Further the legends that are told about you will be your legacy.

Knowing the power of the story and its enduring capabilities, what will you do next?

KEY TAKEAWAY: Storytelling is an important tool in a leader’s toolbox. It can help them spread the message and create a positive team culture. It can also work against them if they are not leading by example.

“Be curious, not judgmental” – Walt Whitman

Like some of you reading this post, I used to watch a lot of television, but I have cut most of it out over the last few years. The main exceptions are if my wife and I get into a show together and watch one episode per night or watching live sports. During the pandemic, this pattern really has not changed, as I have enjoyed spending time reading and playing with my son.

Not only can watching television be a big time waster, it can also be a source of stress, especially 24 hour news channels, which I actively avoid. Furthermore, I have often worried about Hollywood’s glorification of rude jerk personalities, like Dr. House and Ari Gold from Entourage. One of the final straws which led me to limit my TV-watching was the juxtaposition of the optimistic portrayal of public service through shows like The West Wing in the early 2000s, to the ultimate in cynicism shown through political dramas like House of Cards, which premiered around 10 years later. Every time I would turn on the television, I would see more glorification of the “love-able jerk” characters, which just does not align with my values.

But then much to my surprise, in walks Ted Lasso. If you have not seen the show, Ted Lasso is on Apple+ and I highly recommend it.* In short, it’s the story of an American college football coach who is hired to coach a premier league soccer team in England. Without giving too much away, the Ted Lasso character, played by Jason Sudeikis, is optimistic and resilient, the ultimate “good sport.” Every Friday, I excitedly wait for the next episode, sometimes using the excuse of my son rising early to get my early morning fix before starting the rest of my day.

A recent episode had a moment in it that taught a very important lesson and made me reflect and go deeper.

Take a look:

Instantly, the story and the Walt Whitman quote, “Be curious, not judgmental,” struck me both intellectually and emotionally. I started to consider how often I rush to judgment, and whether doing so was actually serving me well, or limiting me when trying to reach my goals.

Our minds are meaning-making machines, constantly making assumptions, judgements, and looking for patterns. This is not an inherently bad trait – it kept humans safe as we evolved for a very long time. However, interpersonally these same tendencies may not serve us as well. Our internal narratives can be filled with bias, can be self-destructive, or can result in hurting someone else. At the end of the day, our judgments can be the lens through which we understand the world and that lens is foggy at best, opaque at worst.

So what would happen if we replaced our judgments with curiosity? What would that world look like? And what would a workplace like that feel like?

These are all questions that have been on my mind since reflecting on this powerful quote from Walt Whitman by way of Ted Lasso. I have found that I need to check myself all the time to try be more curious rather than judgmental. In doing so, I have found that it is amazing how many of my assumptions are actually wrong. I’ve also learned that being curious is much more enjoyable, light, and energy-saving than being judgmental.

The more we learn about something, the more we open ourselves up to different points of view, and the more we question, the more truths and wisdoms we will learn. Leaders must continue to pursue truth and wisdom as the world continues its fast pace of change. It serves leaders to be curious, to not judge, and to not rely on what has worked in the past.

How will you be curious, not judgmental?

KEY TAKEAWAY: We all have so much to learn and being judgmental can shut us off from truth and wisdom. “Be curious, not judgmental” – Walt Whitman.

*Note: Ted Lasso is rated TV-MA for those who may want to screen before watching with families and young children.

The power of a common story

I’ve written previously about Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who is one of the most respected religious leaders in the world today. While I am honored to share a name (ok, one letter different) with such a great person, I am also humbled to share some of his wisdom with you for the purpose of becoming better leaders.

Rabbi Sacks recently participated in an interview with author Tim Ferriss on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss show. The entire interview is important and worth listening to. Ferriss and Sacks cover topics like leadership, morality, and mysticism. In answer to Ferriss’ questions, Sacks always provides illustrative stories, a lesson in itself around impactful communication. You’ll also hear other important gems like, “Good leaders create followers, great leaders create leaders.”

You can listen to the podcast right here:

For those who prefer to read a transcript of the interview, click here

While there are so many parts of the interview to unpack, let’s devote time and focus to just one this week. Let’s discuss the concept of the common story to help create commonality in a group and it’s impact on leadership.

Here is what Rabbi Sacks said about the common story in America:

“One thing that Britain took seriously, and America took much more seriously, was the concept of national identity. There was a kind of initiation that you went through in the States, in schools, where you learned what it was to be an American, what were the key dates, who were the key people, and so on and so forth.

I once pointed out there’s fascinating experience to walk around the monuments in Washington, and then walk around the monuments in Britain. If you walk around the monuments in Washington, you go to Lincoln Memorial. On the one hand, you’ve got the Gettysburg Address, on the other, the second inaugural. You look at the Jefferson Memorial with screens of text on marble tablets. You look at the Roosevelt Memorial with those six spaces, one for each decade in public life, with the key quotes, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ You look at the Martin Luther King Memorial, with well over a dozen of his most memorable lines.

And I suddenly realized, in America, monuments are something you read. Now, go to Parliament Square in London, and you will find that Nelson Mandela gets three words, or two words, sorry: Nelson and Mandela. Winston Churchill wrote as many memorable sentences as anyone in the English language, gets one word, Churchill. In Britain, monuments aren’t things you read. But, in America, they are. Why? Because America had to integrate successive waves of immigration. So they had to read the American story. They had to live the American story. They had to make it their own story.

The second you have a strong national identity, then you have a strong basis for saying we are all in this together. We all have collective responsibility for the common good. Now, around 2016, just before the presidential election, I was privileged to win quite a big award in the States, presented in the Kennedy Center in Washington. And I mentioned this story. And after I came down and got my award, people said to me, ‘Well, you know, we used to do that. But we have stopped telling the story now, because we’re embarrassed to tell the story.’

And the moment I heard that, I realized that America was in deep trouble. Because there is no way you can generate we within society without a strong sense of we all belong together. All you do is you dis-aggregate and fragment the culture. And the end result is that people like Black Lives Matter and all the others feel they are not fully part of this society. This society doesn’t fully recognize and respect them. And you can’t live with it. So, first things first, tell the story. And I was just thinking, can it really be done?

And then my beloved number one daughter, who has clearly divine insight here, decided two years ago or three years ago that she was going to buy Dad a birthday present of tickets for Elaine and myself to go and see Hamilton the musical. And I suddenly realized what it was, to retell the American story in a new and very inclusive way. So full marks to Lin Manuel Miranda for something that is very creative, in expressing the we in a new way. So that’s the first thing, tell a national narrative.”

Stories are powerful and the lesson here is that one need not look to a country to have culture-building narratives. These narratives exist in our organizations right now. I remember when taking Business ethics in graduate school, professor Judy Frels introduced us to the idea that every company has stories. There are the “formal” stories that are in media, orientation, up on walls, and other channels. And then there are also “informal” stories that are told between team members about how “things really work around here.” Culture exists whether we are intentional about it or not.

As leaders, stories are some of the best communication mechanisms we have and neuroscience tells us that they are memorable and easy to understand. The next time we try to get a point across, especially around culture, let’s commit to using the story as a way to do so, especially a relevant and real-life story about a customer.

The common narrative is but one element that Rabbi Sacks discusses to help create a more communally focused world. I recommend you listen to the conversation in its entirety and remember to notice how Rabbi Sacks frequently begins his answers with…a story.

KEY TAKEAWAY:

We need to be kind

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:18

The COVID 19 pandemic has highlighted to me, more than anything else, how “the golden rule” has been eroded in a time where we need it the most.

Our public health experts have told us that many of the actions they have urged us to take to stay safe during the pandemic, including wearing masks, social distancing, and eventually being vaccinated, are just as much about protecting others as they are about protecting ourselves. If we all were to do those things, we could successfully limit the spread.

But something in our current culture is out of balance. It might be an overemphasis or misunderstanding of individualism, rudeness, skepticism of science and logic, or perhaps believing in conspiracy theories (or many other trends). These elements and others have eroded our kindness, compassion, and the understanding that we share this earth with others. More and more we live in our own headspace and are not considering the needs of our neighbors and those around us.

We all have work to do in this area, and I will be the first to admit that I need to do this work too.

But something from the last week gave me hope. It showed me that examples of how each of us should behave are still out there, and that while we are lost, we can still find our way back.

That inspiration came from a 13-year old boy named Brayden Harrington from New Hampshire. He inspired me with his courage to speak at the Democratic National Convention last week.

Here is Brayden’s speech:

The story of Vice President Biden meeting Brayden Harrington dates back to February 7th. Recently, I saw the video of that meeting on twitter.

Take a look:

Let’s put aside for just a moment that our country is in the middle of a bitterly divisive election. And let’s put aside the fact that one of the subjects of this post is Vice President Joe Biden who is one of the two candidates running for President. If you are an entrenched skeptic, I ask you to put aside your doubts about the genuineness of the interaction too.

I ask you to do this for just a moment, because what we can learn from these two men should not be at all political.

Brayden is a boy with his whole life in front of him. But, he has a disability, and one that makes his life different than most of ours. His disability, a stutter, is something he shares in common with Vice President Biden. Biden worked hard and overcame his stutter, and this young man wants to do the same and took inspiration from Biden.

Biden didn’t have to spend time with Brayden at all. He could have shook his hand, given him an “atta boy,” at their interaction in New Hampshire, and kept going about his day.

But he didn’t do that.

Instead he spent the time with Brayden. Gave him encouragement, which clearly helped him. All of a sudden an inspirational figure, who was a stranger, became a friend and a supporter for Brayden.

The more I have seen the events of the last 166 days unfold, the more I worry about the world my now 4-month old son and other members of his generation will inherit from us. Will that be a world of compassion or a world of anger and self-centeredness?

The more I read and hear, the more I believe that we are all leaders in answering this pivotal question. In these times, we are all just a cell-phone camera capture away from going viral; what was once reserved for celebrities, politicians, and athletes now allows basically anybody to become overnight viral sensations.

We need more moments of compassion like this one to go viral and spend less time on content that may just embarrass somebody else. We need more moments of connection, of support, and of encouragement. In this way, we are all leaders and are all being called to lead during a dark time in our country and the world. Leaders live by example. How can you be more compassionate, more kind, and more understanding to strangers? How can we disagree with civility? What world are we leaving for our children? How could we do better?

KEY TAKEAWAY: We are all leaders in curing the epidemic of anger, cruelty, and selfishness. We can learn from the story of Brayden Harrington and Vice President Biden that we are all leaders in making the world a more compassionate place.

This post was inspired by Brayden Harrington and the book The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki.