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Transformational leadership in a time of transaction and trauma

Guest Blogger Julie Wilson shares:

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that nothing prepares you for the unexpected. In times of crisis your leadership is revealed for what it is. In these times we can look and see if are we are leading as transactional or transformational leaders.

Transactional leaders operate on a gain and reward system for delivered results. This task-oriented relationship is based on the self-interest and objectives of the leader who holds his/her reports to a standard which is either met and rewarded, or not met and penalized. This transactional arrangement rarely inspires involvement beyond delivering the bare minimum to get the task done. Sadly, this is the style often celebrated by leaders today.

Transformational leaders go beyond this approach by not only setting goals and appropriate rewards for their team, but seeking to change things for the better for them and others. Instead of transactional exchange, these leaders look to invest and invite ownership so growth can be exponential for all involved.

So what character traits are needed to become a transformational leader?

Lead with vision

Vision calls us beyond ourselves to serve a greater good. Vision is so big it can’t be done alone.

I love the story of Tom Monaghan, Founder of Dominos Pizza, who wanted to use his wealth to help others. He could fund almost anything he wanted, but he chose to lead an effort so big even his fortunes wouldn’t be able to bring the vision to reality. He started Ave Maria University in Florida which required a vast majority of his own wealth and invited others to join in the effort. Leading with vision invites others in allowing for more growth and learning.

Ancient wisdom from Proverbs 29 reminds us that “without a vision the people perish.” Vision gives us something to lead to that lives beyond us and transforms us and the people with work alongside. Don’t settle for good goals. Drive toward vision, see goals reached along the way and be part of transforming the world and others for something bigger.

Embrace Vulnerability

Leadership is an invitation to performance or presence. Performance-based leadership is all about results and reward. Presence-based leadership sees the people who make the vision possible and helps them develop their potential by modeling strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t negate results but goes beyond them to make a bigger impact.

I remember a few years ago a new CEO joined our non-profit from the corporate world. He had led a team of 6000 and I was sure he would know I wasn’t fully qualified for my job. One day I couldn’t pretend one more second and I blurted out that I felt like an imposter since I hadn’t held my position in the corporate world. He graciously assured me I wasn’t alone and that many people before me had stepped into more responsibility and shared my fear of being found out. He then shared his own story of feeling like an impostor and assured me I was exactly who he wanted in the role. He could have focused on goals and deliverables and motivating me to reach higher, but instead he led by example and shared his own humanity resulting in my loyalty and hard work beyond what was required for the job.

Give and receive feedback

Transformational leaders give and receive feedback so their people can grow. The book Radical Candor by Kim Scott offers leaders a few options to get what we want from others. We can be obnoxious and aggressive, manipulative and insincere, ruinously empathetic or we have radical candor and challenge directly. While challenging directly is the hardest to do well, it is also the pathway to transformational leadership.

A few years ago, I was frustrated with my boss when my ideas and suggestions seemed to fall on deaf ears. I was growing discouraged and unmotivated. One day my boss came to me and said, “I want you to know I read your email and I understand what you are wanting. While I have considered your point of view, I am going a different direction and I would like your support and buy-in.” The fact that my boss acknowledged he heard my ideas but wanted to go a different direction was so helpful. I felt heard and his direct feedback allowed me to get behind the initiative with my support and energy even though I had a different idea. He spoke directly, with candor, and gained my respect and admiration.

Believe the best in others

Transformational leaders call out the best in others and take the hits when things go south.

Early in my career I was responsible for making sure the tickets for a national talk show were sent out to the right people. We had two shows a day and letters were sent based on the time requested by those who wrote in for tickets. I mistakenly switched the mailing, so the morning show received afternoon tickets and vice versa. Once I realized my mistake, I carefully crafted a letter apologizing and offering tickets for the correct time and a phone number to call if they needed to reschedule. My supervisor signed off on the letter and it was mailed out. Unfortunately, the phone number I included for them was one number off and was the private phone line for the head of NBC Sports! You can imagine how surprised Dick Ebersol was to get phone calls about needing to attend another show time.

My supervisor could have blamed me for the mistake and covered her own reputation, but instead she took the blame and protected me in this embarrassing moment. Something that could have been a career stain turned out to be a great experience and growth opportunity for me as a leader. She believed in my leadership and helped me to make a mistake that would be lesson for life.

As we lead with vision, embrace and model vulnerability, give and receive feedback and believe the best, we can truly outlive our leadership one transformative decision at a time.

About the Author:

For the past 25 years, Julie has been a visionary strategist and communication specialist. After graduating with a degree in journalism from Boston University, she landed the highly competitive job as an NBC Page in New York City, the same year she became a follower of Christ through the ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. She spent 13 years as a start-up team builder with Priority Associates, mostly in New York City, and most recently was VP of Communication and served on the executive leadership team for Generous Giving. Today, as President of Women Doing Well, she leads a team to activate generosity in women of influence. Julie and her husband, Gary, live in Richmond, Virginia, with their daughter, Ella.


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