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Transformational Leadership: In today’s economy, change is inevitable, and how you react to the change makes all the difference.

by Kim Patton

August 27, 2010


Transformational leaders focus on implementing new ideas. They continually change themselves; they stay flexible and adaptable; and they improve the people around them.  They possess the four critical characteristics of a change-agent as described by Bernard M. Bass, a theorist of transformational leadership: vision, charisma, intellectual stimulation and inspiration.  

Examples on an epic scale would be Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. They both very obviously exhibited these characteristics and gained the trust, admiration and respect from their followers to make dramatic, positive changes during their time and for future generations.

But you don’t have to be a famous political figure to be a transformational leader.  Everyday people can be great transformational leaders in their roles as parents, coaches, religious leaders and friends.  It’s how you put your mind-set to work that makes you a successful leader.  

In today’s economy, change is inevitable, and how you react to the change makes all the difference.  Most people try to fix the problem at hand, but this can backfire.  Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two different systems, each fighting for control: the rational mind and the emotional mind.  Our rational minds want to make a change, while the emotional mind enjoys the comfort of the current routine.  This tension between the two systems can cause major conflict, but uniting these two mind-sets can bring about dramatic results.   This tension between the two systems can cause major conflict, but uniting these two mind-sets can bring about dramatic results.  

Consider the example of an owner of a retail company who was receiving complaints about the customer support automated-answering system.  The company’s policy was to minimize the amount of phone calls to keep costs down and profits up.  Customers must go through a lengthy process before talking to an employee.  Frequently, these customers would get disconnected, or get frustrated and hang up.  The complaints were rising rapidly.  The owner decided to eliminate the automated-answering system and required the employees to answer the phone calls.  He also posted aspirational pictures and banners throughout the call center to transform the mind-set of the company and the employees.  The complaints from customers decreased and profits increased.     

I just finished reading Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, two brothers who write a monthly column for Fast Company magazine and are on faculty at Stanford University and Duke University, respectively.  These two have a great insight into how to tackle change and keep it in play.  “Find the bright spot and clone it” is the first step in the Heath brothers process of fixing any problem, whether it is losing weight, improving customer service or solving malnutrition.  This involves identifying what is working well in a situation, then focusing on that and building from it.  They give a great example of Jerry Sternin of Save the Children, an international organization to help children in need.  In 1990, Sternin went to Vietnam and was given six months by the government to make a dent in the problem of child malnutrition.  And though he didn’t speak Vietnamese, he knew to look for a bright spot; to find the kids that looked healthy and observe their eating habits.  Sternin studied the cooking methods of the mothers of these healthy children.  He then taught mothers of malnourished children these cooking techniques to combat malnutrition.

Most theories of leadership development seem to focus on the transactional leader. This type considers how to be effective within the status quo.  However, during times of change, transactional leaders may be influential but change very little.

So ask yourself, are you the type of leader who focuses on the team or organizational goals rather than your own interests?  Do you look for the bright spot instead of focusing on fixing the problem?  Does your team trust and respect you?  Whether your team is at work, a group of volunteers or your own kids, these questions are a good start to transformational leadership.