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.

Am I serving the group?

At work, I have been sharing with many teams lately about the concept of reflection as a reflex. The concept is about using what Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning as the space between stimulus and response. Stephen Covey also included this concept in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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At times in my career, I have found myself hesitating in meetings. Reflecting on it, I think I hesitate because of things like Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS), fear that what I say will sound obvious to the rest of the group, or that others in the room are smarter or more experienced than I am and I probably do not have anything of value to contribute. Is this something you struggle with too?

Over time, I have learned a quick “test” that has helped me and I hope will help you too.

Any time I hesitate to speak, I ask myself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?”

This yes or no question gives me enough time to reflect without missing the germane part of the conversation and to make a decision on whether my comment will add value to the discussion. This question is also consistent with my personal definition of leadership and my desire to practice servant leadership. It gives me the confidence that even if my comment is controversial, it will be received in the right way because my motivation is service to the group.

I use this test in almost every meeting that I attend. It helps me to reflect in the moment and make sure that I am contributing at a high level. The test also keeps me centered. For example, the “test” prevents me from being too quiet or too dominant because my comments are always in pursuit of service to the group.

I hope you find value in this test as well and it helps you create better and more productive meetings.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders can practice reflexion in most contexts, including meetings. Before you speak, simply asking yourself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?” will give you the confidence to speak up and reflect the authenticity of your point of view.

 

Shining Eyes

Lessons in leadership can come from many different sources. A mentor and former colleague of mine shared this with me and I thought I would pass it along to you.

In a 2008 TED Talk, classical music conductor Benjamin Zander discusses, The transformative power of classical music. In it, he shares an important lesson about leadership.

He says, “But the conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said, “Ben, what happened?” That’s what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it.”

Like a coach or a CEO, most leaders create the conditions for success rather than doing all of the work on their own. Zander’s description of his role as conductor is a basic function of leadership. His feedback mechanism of looking for “shining eyes,” is one that I always keep in mind when practicing leadership, public speaking, and presentations.

Please watch the TED Talk and contact me if it spoke to you too.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Part of a leader’s impact is to, “awaken possibility in other people.” Leaders can see if they are successful by looking for “shining eyes”. 

The leadership goal line

I spent this past weekend traveling across the state of Michigan with my father. I have a goal of visiting every Major League Baseball stadium (I’ve been to 16 active parks of 30), every presidential museum (I’ve been to 4 of 14), and every state capital (I’ve been to 7 of 50). Michigan is one of the states that has all three, so my father and I did a trip out to see the sites starting with Comerica Park in Detroit, stopping in Lansing to see the state capital, and finally ending our trip in Grand Rapids at the Gerald Ford Presidential library.

When we visited Lansing, the city felt empty. The state legislature was not in session and the students at Michigan State University, which is in East Lansing, were on summer break. We toured the capital building, which is currently under substantial renovation. A friendly and knowledgable tour guide took us around the building and we stumbled upon this portrait of former Michigan Governor John Swainson on display in the capital rotunda.

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Photo of the state house portrait of Michigan Governor John Swainson (in office 1961-1963) courtesy Michigan State Capital website: http://capitol.michigan.gov/CapitolFacts/

I assumed that the photo was being restored as part of the renovation. However, according to our tour guide, this portrait of Governor Swainson is intentionally drawn to look unfinished. Until 1963, Michigan governors served 2-year terms. Swainson was the final governor to serve a 2-year term and was defeated by Governor George Romney. Swainson asked the artist to incorporate a symbol that he did not get to accomplish as much as he wanted due to his short time in office. In response to the request, the artist drew the portrait to look unfinished.

Fast forward about 24-hours. On our trip and my father and I were visiting the Gerald Ford presidential museum. As you may know, President Gerald Ford is the only person to serve as president who was not elected either as a candidate for president or vice president. Ford became vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned.

The museum dedicated much of its focus to the Watergate scandal and Ford’s choice to pardon Nixon only a month after taking office as president. Pardoning Nixon was unpopular at the time and is considered as the main reason that Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to President Carter. History has been kinder to President Ford’s decision, honoring him for the wise choice of pardoning Nixon and beginning the healing process to help Americans restore trust in government.

Both Swainson and Ford left office feeling unfinished. Swainson had 720 days and Ford had 895 days in office. While history looks kindly on both men, both felt they had more to contribute when their terms were over.

Leaders are trained to be goal oriented, setting SMART goals or FAST goals to align and advance groups. However, opportunities and other circumstances create demands on leaders to be nimble, adjustable, and innovative. Leaders are expected to set vision, create a strategy, align goals, and engage people to make it happen. But rarely does a leader get to see out the vision to completion. What are the implications of leaving a leadership position unfinished?

The lesson I learned from the stories of Governor John Swainson and President Gerald Ford is that many leaders never feel that they are finished. President Ford remained active in public life after his presidency and Governor Swainson went on to serve as a judge among other leadership roles in Michigan. While their executive service may have been the pinnacle of their career, it certainly was not the end of their service as leaders.

It is okay to feel unfinished as a leader. What is most important is how leaders make the lives of their followers and customers better. That is the true leadership goal line.

For both Swainson and Ford, they did that in their own way. Swainson, a double amputee, had his life described as an inspirational story of redemption. Ford was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award by Senator Ted Kennedy, one of his biggest critics for pardoning President Nixon. Both left a legacy of transformational leadership, even though they only served a short amount of time.

I thought this quote from President Ford sums the idea up nicely and captures how he viewed leadership as continuous and never complete: “At my stage in life, one is inclined to think less about date on a calendar than those things that are timeless – about leadership and service and patriotism and sacrifice, and about doing one’s best in meeting every challenge that life presents.”

KEY TAKEAWAY: We can learn from Governor John Swainson and President Gerald Ford that it is okay to feel unfinished as a leader. What is most important is how leaders make the lives of their followers and customers better.