Transformational leadership: 4 ways to inspire employees

Want to be a transformational leader? You need to push employees beyond their comfort zone
602 readers like this.
CIO as Digital Leader

If you want to be a leader who truly inspires change, start by making employees want to reach beyond what they usually do and step outside their own comfort zones.

That insight comes from Wendy Capland, executive coach to companies such as MetLife, IBM, and CVS Caremark, among others, and bestselling author of Your Next Bold Move. “You have to get people to think and do things that are beyond their habitual ways of doing and thinking for the purpose of creating some extraordinary future,” she says. “There really is no way to lead transformation other than to be inspirational.”

How exactly do you inspire employees to reach for the stars? Here’s Capland’s advice:

1. Help employees cope with constant disruption

Constant disruption and change is the norm these days, not only for companies but for employees as well. Capland says smart leaders understand that for both their employees and for themselves, future success will depend on their ability to continually adapt to changing circumstances.

“My experience these days is that nothing is certain anymore,” she says. “With technology changing so quickly, it’s important to learn how to be flexible, and how not to freak out every time there’s a directional change.”

Change causes both work disruption and personal disruption as people figure out the new landscape, she explains. “They have to start feeling that constant change is the norm, like there’s nothing wrong with that, and that they can shift quickly. You’re teaching them to deal with more complex and uncertain environments.” Some employees may assume that a transformational change means they’ll automatically be out of a job, Capland says. It’s important to dispel that assumption.

[ Want to motivate and inspire your workforce? Avoid these pitfalls: Transformational leadership: 5 big mistakes execs make. ]

2. Always be transparent

“Give employees as much information as you can, and be as transparent as possible about your thinking and your purpose in making a transformation,” Capland advises. “Don’t let it seem like you didn’t give it much thought.”

She also advises providing lots of opportunities for employees to ask questions about the new strategy or approach, and lots of time for them to discuss and process the changes. “People will need to have conversations about how does this shift affect what I’m doing? What my team is doing? How does it impact our customers and our key stakeholders?” By making the time to talk through all of this, she says, “you’re helping employees walk across the bridge as the bridge is being built.”

3. Get employees out into the world

“In large organizations, people get very focused on their work and their jobs, as we want them to,” Capland says. “They forget there’s a whole world outside that they stop connecting with. People go to work, then they go home and collapse and try to have a life, then they do it all over again.”

Most employees’ work schedules don’t allow a lot of down time, but Capland says it’s important to make sure employees have both the time and the opportunity to attend conferences and other industry and professional events so they can trade stories and information with their peers. “It’s important to be connected to the world outside, within your discipline, and within your industry.”

4. Find your battle cry

“It’s a leader’s job to create the dream that everyone can be inspired by.”

To truly inspire employees, you’ll have to do something most business leaders aren’t very good at: Find the greater purpose in what you do and communicate it to the people who work for you. “Most organizations could do a better job of coming up with their battle cry,” Capland says.

Finding that greater purpose is especially important if you’re trying to lead through a transformation, she notes. “It’s about the reason you’re doing what you’re doing, not how or what we need to do. Not because we want to make more money or be the best. Why are we in the business we’re in, really? Are we here to change lives, make families safer? What’s our dream? It’s a leader’s job to create the dream that everyone can be inspired by.”

When it comes to finding a purpose, people talk a lot about the late Steve Jobs, she says. “His reason for everything came under the umbrella ‘We think differently.’ ‘Why do we do this? Because we think differently.’”

That kind of approach can make a big difference, she says. “Anyone can go to work and fulfill the requirements of their job. But if they feel like they’re part of something bigger, that creates higher productivity and more loyalty, and people will go above and beyond what’s required of them.”

Want more wisdom like this, IT leaders? Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.