What is transformational leadership? 5 qualities

Transformational leadership is not primarily about digital tools; it’s about leading change. Focus on these five areas to become a stronger transformational leader
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Just 25 years ago, Salesforce, Workday, Google, and other staples of today’s tech-centered businesses didn’t exist. Fifteen years ago, Twitter, YouTube, and smartphones weren’t a thing. And in just the past five years, technology solutions for a single department (marketing) have shot up from around 1,000 to more than 7,000 options. The tech landscape changes fast.

When it comes to digital transformation, digital is not the answer. Transformation is.

Given that change, it can be tempting to focus completely on digital. But digital technology represents only one aspect of the digital transformation shift. The other side is more human. As George Westerman, principal research scientist with the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, writes, “As sexy as it is to speculate about new technologies such as AI, robots, and the internet of things (IoT), the focus on technology can steer the conversation in a dangerous direction. Because when it comes to digital transformation, digital is not the answer. Transformation is.”

Transformational leadership: Three required shifts

I agree – the key is to focus on transformation. For leaders, this requires a shift on three levels:

  • To remain truly competitive in the world of tomorrow, you must change your focus from activities and instead key your eye on outcomes and experiences.
  • Your work execution must be coordinated in an enterprise ecosystem with multiple groups assembling into teams and teams working together.
  • Your cadence must shift from a quarterly focus to a focus on continuous delivery.

This shift requires a new kind of leader – a transformational leader. Your success hinges on your ability to become this type of leader. It’s not primarily about digital. It’s about effectively leading the transformation.

[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

Put simply, leading companies are experimenting with and adopting a new model of work because it has become established as the new standard for business success in the digital marketplace. They have no choice.

What does it mean to be a transformational leader?

Consider these five ways you can lead the transformation.

1. Transformational leaders understand digital-era pressures

Spending on digital transformation will reach nearly $2 trillion in 2022, according to IDC. For all the benefits this brings, it also means that your workforce will be dealing with new pressures, including the increase of work, a globally complicated work ecosystem, endless tech-stack options, faster workstreams, and more. To be a transformational leader, you’ll want to be tuned into the needs that stem from these pressures.

2. Transformational leaders shift resources toward change management

Because the speed of change is increasing, it’s more critical than ever to invest in resources that can help you make sense of change. Find experts who understand workforce trends and put them in positions where they can launch your company forward. What do I mean by this? Focus on your culture.

Importantly, I am not talking about the perks and benefits you give your teams. When I say culture, I ascribe to the definition given by Roger Conners and Tom Smith where they stated: “Culture is how you think and act to get things done.” And don’t make the mistake of thinking that change management is only for digital companies. Domino’s Pizza changed their culture and took the feedback they received from their customers and completely remade their main product. As a result, their stock flourished.

3. Transformational leaders prioritize human needs

We have to nurture soft skills – skills such as inspiring your co-workers.

Regardless of the benefits that digital technology brings, we can’t ignore human needs. We have to nurture soft skills – skills such as inspiring your co-workers, developing relationships with prospective clients, and learning how each individual prefers to be managed.

These are the skills that can’t (or at least can’t easily) be replicated by a machine. As author Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book Team Human, “anything that brings us closer together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our individual or collective will.” Regardless of the benefits that digital technology brings, we can’t ignore human needs.

[ How do your people skills measure up? Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

4. Transformational leaders help people focus on primary work

Unfortunately, the average knowledge worker says that only 40 percent of their day is spent on their primary work. This means that most of each worker’s day is consumed with secondary tasks such as meetings, emails, interruptions, and other administrative tasks.

To keep your company on the cutting edge of work, make sure that each person has the time they need to do their primary work well. As James Clear writes, “We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you are working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.” Help your team focus on the things that matter most.

5. Transformational leaders encourage each person to find purpose

Often, younger employees are the most vocal about wanting to find purpose and meaning at work. But deep down, every person wants this. Everyone wants to feel like they matter. This also matters to your bottom line. Gallup Research claims that “culture begins with your purpose,” and State Street Global Advisors says that “intangible assets such as culture average 52 percent of an organization’s market value (and in some sectors as much as 90 percent.)”

Transformational leadership and the future of work

Transformational leaders will need to be able to empower and orchestrate a multi-generational workforce alongside the latest technological innovations. Your knowledge will range from boomers to bots. To truly push you and your team ahead of the competition, you will need to take the time to focus on the non-digital side of transformation.

Tomorrow’s leaders will operate at a different level. They will work across journeys, focus on experiences, coordinate at a global level, and shift their cadence from quarterly delivery to continuous delivery. Embody these best practices and become the transformational leader your enterprise needs.

[ Read also: Teaching an elephant to dance - a free eBook on the six stages of digital transformation. ]

Steven ZoBell is Chief Technology and Product Officer, Workfront. He leads the Workfront engineering and platform hosting and operations organizations as they develop the company’s purpose-built solutions for IT and marketing teams. He also works closely with the Workfront product and services teams to ensure that the technology platform is evolving to meet customer and market needs.