How to be a more transformational leader

I spoke to a client recently who was told they should aim to be more of a transformational leader if they want to succeed. They came to me wondering how they could put this into practice in the real work-world. Here’s my advice on the process:

Defining transformational leadership

For those who don’t know about Transformational Leadership, it’s the idea that, as a leader, if you want people to follow you and your ideas, you should aim to achieve: 

  • Idealised influence: when people see you as a role model and want to follow the example you set
  • Inspirational motivation: you help people to want to achieve more and do the best they can
  • Individualised consideration: you see people as the individuals they are, and take their needs into account
  • Intellectual stimulation: you help people to challenge their views and beliefs

If you can achieve all four Is, the idea is that you will be seen as a transformational leader. Of all the leadership theories, it’s one of the better-evidenced ones, with this style of leadership creating meaningful performance and change. 

It sounds great, but it also sounds grand and heavy to achieve. Rather than seeing each of the four Is as lofty activities, the best way to be a transformational leader is to build them into your everyday leadership life as small actions. One small step to transformational leadership at a time, if you like. Here are some ideas:

To build in inspirational motivation

Start or conclude team meetings by reminding people why you’re all there. You may have a holding slide that captures the mission or vision of your team and which everyone sees as they enter or leave the meeting. In the meeting talks, remind people what the purpose of the team is and link sections of the meeting to these inspirational elements. For example, if you are an IT innovation leader, and an element of your team’s mission is to come up with creative solutions to internal IT problems, you could ask for a summary of anything anyone has done this week to achieve this. Or, frame an item on the agenda, such as an update, in terms of celebrating how much closer it has got you to that goal. 

To weave in individualised consideration

Check in with individual team members on roughly a weekly basis, asking them about their work, and aiming to see the world from their perspective. You may have a question that you ask everyone this week – what job did your ten-year-old self think you would do as a grown-up? What do you like most about this role? How are your family? Keep a note of important dates and key areas of interest for each employee so you can be reminded of who they are as a person when you are making decisions which affect them.

To weave in idealised influence

Show people what you care about and increase your likeability by praising team members who act in line with the way that you try to act (which in turn is hopefully in service of your vision and values). You can say, ‘I really appreciate you taking the time to run this team workshop. You know how much I care about having a cohesive, engaged team, and the effort you’ve put in is brilliant. Thank you.’ This reiterates your values, encourages people to emulate your behaviour, and makes people want to follow the example that you set.

To weave in intellectual stimulation

Take a coaching approach when your team members come to you with questions. Rather than offering them the answer, ask them what they would do if you weren’t around to ask, as you have faith in them that they could already solve this problem. If they say, ‘I don’t know’, ask this brilliant but slightly odd question: ‘What would you do if you did know?’ Whilst they’ve just told you they don’t, it’s amazing how, when you ask people to imagine they do know, they come up with suggestions for a solution. It’s as though you are liberating them from their own self-criticism.

Three resources to help: 

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