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.

Practice and preparation

Last week I wrote about the Washington Nationals historic run to win the World Series. Continuing on the sports theme this week, football can teach us a lot about the value of practice and preparation.

Unlike baseball’s grueling 162 game schedule, the NFL plays just 16 regular season games over 17 weeks in their season. Therefore most of the work of a football team is practice and preparation for each game. Coaches and players study film from previous games, practices, meet together, and strategize for their opponents, often around the clock.

Football coaches teach us about the value of organized practice and preparation, which we can apply to the practice of leadership. Over the summer, I read Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time by Ian O’Connor. Of the many excellent examples and anecdotes in the book, O’Connor wrote about a now famous play in the final minutes that helped the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX (49) against the Seattle Seahawks.

In the play, Malcolm Butler intercepted Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s pass at the Patriots goal line. The Patriots coaches had the team run this play several times in practice, where Butler played it incorrectly. In the big game though, Butler got it right and helped seal the win for the Patriots. Here’s the story from the coaches:

(If you are having problems viewing the video, you can click here for it)

Practice and preparation can make a world of difference. At work, I have developed a couple of systems to aid in making sure I am prepared. For example, I always print out my calendar for the upcoming week. I highlight in the color blue all the scheduled events that require preparation. I put copies of the documents I need for those meetings in a folder whose front cover is my highlighted weekly agenda.

I know I feel the most confident in presentations that I have practiced and tested with different audiences. I will take bits and pieces of new ideas and test them out in smaller settings before adding them to larger presentations to make sure that they work with an audience. I will also practice the final presentation repeatedly (usually practicing in front of my patient wife, Sheryl) to feel confident that I know the order and timing of everything when the time for the big presentation arrives.

What are your systems for practice and preparation? I would like to hear more about them and include them in a future blog post. Please share them with me here.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The practice and preparation involved in football teaches lessons for leaders in business as well. Often times leaders develop systems to prepare and practice for opportunities ahead to stay at the top of their games. 

Can empathy be taught?

On May 29th, I spoke to the leaders at Adventist HealthCare at our semiannual Mission in Motion conference where patient experience was the theme of the day. As part of the plenary session I explained to our leaders why I am so passionate about the work of improving patient experience.

One of the reasons, I explained, was that last year, we touched nearly 80% of our community within 1-degree of separation. By one degree of separation, I am assuming that each employee and each patient has at least, on average, one other member of their household. For example, if we treated a mother, her experience in our care would have influence on her whole family. Imagine if we demonstrated kindness and compassion in a way that exceeded the patient’s expectations. If our team and our patients take those behaviors home, imagine the multiplier effect it could have of people leading by an example of deep kindness.the war for kindness

If you attended the Mission in Motion conference, you would promptly leave the plenary for a mandatory breakout session on selecting the right employees for the job. The session educated attendees on certain behaviors, like empathy, which lead to kindness and compassion that can’t be taught. If leaders do not follow a good process for hiring, it may hurt the whole group. This conventional wisdom is present in the literature around excellent service organizations, like the Ritz-Carlton, that deploy a rigorous hiring process to prevent “bad apples” from entering the bunch.

Enter Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki, who presents a compelling challenge to the notion that empathy is not a learned trait. In his recently published book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Zaki describes how his work and research can help people become more empathetic.

Zaki describes his childhood living in parallel worlds after his parents divorced. He described this experience as an “empathy gym,” noticing how two people could have completely different and yet totally valid views of life. He has created a similar type of course at Stanford, sending students to various exercises and experiential learning environments to build their empathy muscles. While the work is rigorous and difficult, he has shown results.

Further, Zaki shows his work in a way that builds trust in the research. At the end of the book, he takes the reader through each study mentioned, chapter by chapter, and rates the quality of the research on a 5-point scale. While some of the research is yet to be validated, it is certainly interesting, controversial at times, and quite progressive.

The initial set up of the book is quite dense, describing several research studies, as well as a general orientation to historical notions on empathy. It was worth the dense crash course to get to the stories and real world examples of building empathy. Zaki takes us through experiments in using literature to stop recidivism, truly understanding “compassion fatigue” in hospitals, and positive and negative impacts of technology on empathy.

The War for Kindness has many implications. It is a helpful roadmap for how we can be more kind, compassionate, and empathetic as a society. It has challenged my thinking on hiring in health care. While I still strongly believe that systems and processes help protect the team and enhance service, I now believe that a motivated candidate can be taught how to empathize. I also believe that we must coach motivated caregivers to have empathy in a way that does not cause burnout or eventually result in emotional numbness towards patients.

I have already bought copies of this book to give away to friends and colleagues, because it is powerful, hopeful, and challenges assumptions about how we can repair our seemingly broken world. It is surely worth the read not only if you lead people, but if you are interested in making society a better place (this should be everyone!).

KEY TAKEWAY: Can empathy be taught? Jamil Zaki in The War for Kindness argues that it can be. The implications in healthcare mean that our team members would benefit from a culture that has built in systems to train people on demonstrating empathetic concern for patients. This is a must-read book.


The War for Kindness is available for purchase on Amazon for $27.00 (does not include Prime discount).

If you work with people, work on culture

In my current role as a patient experience leader for a health care system, a large part of my focus is on culture. If you are already familiar with this blog, you have already seen me discuss culture a lot in the context of leadership and in book reviews. I talk so much about culture because it is what makes systems and processes work reliably and without constant auditing.

For years, I have been working to put the pieces together in terms of how to build culture. Using ideas from authors like Simon Sinek, Malcolm Gladwell, Joseph Michelli, and Adam Grant (to name a few), I have created my own definition of leadership and have advocated for articulating a vision and creating systems and processes to bring that vision to life. However putting the pieces together both from research and experience, has at times has felt like a struggle.

Culture CodeThen along comes Daniel Coyle, author of the best-selling book The Culture Code. In this book, Coyle has compiled a clear and well explained definition around the common characteristics of organizations with exceptional cultures that lead to consistently excellent outcomes. Using examples from organizations like Pixar, the San Antonio Spurs, the famous Upright Citizens Brigade improv group, and Navy SEALs, Coyle shows us what these organizations do differently that allows them to deliver results for the enterprise and its people.

The three over-arching characteristics that every group has in common are:

  1. Build Safety
  2. Share Vulnerability
  3. Establish Purpose

Under each of these simple two-word ideas are many different anecdotes, research studies, and case studies that show not only what these concepts mean, but what building them entails for leaders.

He also delves into the nuances of these concepts that may vary depending on the business. For example, in the book he compares organizations that build a culture for high service reliability (Union Square Hospitality Group – think Shake Shack) vs. creativity and innovation (Pixar).

Health care service delivery is an example of a setting where the culture must be built for high service reliability. Much of this work involves creating genuine connections with patients and their families, which helps determine how to meet their needs both including bridging the gaps in their understanding of their condition, the treatment, the workings of a hospital, and the health care system at-large.

Coyle covers the impact of empathizing with the patients in order to the increase their health outcomes and covers how to create an environment for the staff that promotes empathic behavior.

In the book, Coyle discusses a Harvard neurologist named Marci who researched the impact of listening in the medical setting. She studied non-western healers who used methods that were scientifically questionable, yet found that some practitioners had remarkable results.

To explain these outcomes, she says, “What these healers all had in common was that they were brilliant listeners. They would sit down, take a long patient history, and really get to know their patients…They were all incredibly empathic people who were really good at connecting with people and forming trusting bonds. So that’s when I realized that the interesting part wasn’t the healing but the listening and the relationship being formed. That’s what we needed to study” (Coyle p.154).

In health care, we tend to think of communication as “provider to patient”, with the patient simply answering the provider’s questions. As I take a few steps back think about it, wouldn’t someone want to feel known as a person, and not just by a diagnosis? Just listening to the patient gives the provider an opportunity to create that relationship.

Culture in the health care setting, because of the nature of the work at times being life-or-death, is especially important. Guides like The Culture Code help us build those cultures in a safe and sustainable way.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The best companies are deliberate about building their cultures. In health care, specifically, culture can deliver superior patient outcomes if there’s a focus on the caregivers and seeing the patient as a person, rather than a diagnosis.


The Culture Code is available for purchase on Amazon for $28.00 (does not include Prime discount)