Transformational leadership: 4 key behaviors of transformational leaders

A transformational leadership style can energize your team for the long haul of digital transformation. Here's how to become a transformational vs. transactional leader
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It’s pure joy to be in the presence of transformational leadership. The air and light around you takes on a different quality – the world seems clear, and exciting, and yours for the taking. You believe you can do anything – and you’re excited to see where that leader will go next.

Conversely – and sadly, we’ve all been here – it’s soul-destroying to be around transactional leaders. Whether you’re watching in disgust as a leader painfully works their way down a checklist of inane tasks with an exhausted group, or you’re holding the phone away from your ear as an irate manager rants incoherently about some imagined mis-step, it’s easy to completely lose the sense of purpose that, according to Mercer research, is the unmet need common across all generations in the workplace.

What is transformational leadership? 4 examples 

The difference in how transformational leaders make you feel versus how transactional leaders make you feel couldn’t be more stark. But it’s not always easy to step back and see what the former group is doing differently from the latter. So based on many years of observation across organizations, here’s a quick list of behaviors that truly separate the two groups:

1. A lack of perfectionism

There’s a lot of mythology about great men and women being perfectionists – not accepting anything less than exactly, absolutely right. But while transformational leaders excel at staying faithful to their vision, they are not actually perfectionists. The ability to achieve a big, complex vision relies on making constant, test and learn progress at a decent speed…which perfectionism impedes if not completely derails. And retroactive perfectionism (which is often a bit arbitrary, anyway, as “perfect” can be hard to define) saps teams’ energy at an unbelievable rate.

A transactional leader says “It would have been better if…”, and the team sighs; a transformational leader says, “It was fantastic because…” and the team cheers.

[ Struggling with perfectionism? Read: Emotional intelligence: 6 ways to fight your perfectionism ]

2. The ability to contextualize

This one may be at the heart of transaction vs transformation. After all, transactions are single point activities – no context is needed, a transaction is a world within itself. Leaders who seize on a particular decision or activity in a way that willfully ignores that decision or activity’s context are operating deep in transactional territory.

A transformational leader will applaud a failed effort that’s on strategy, because the right knowledge was built.

For instance, a transactional leader will cheer on a revenue generating activity that’s off strategy, because the revenue looks great without context. In contrast, a transformational leader will applaud a failed effort that’s on strategy, because in the greater context, the right knowledge was built. 

3. Transparency and fairness

In a world of constant one-offs, transactional leaders hoard information to build their power base. And they don’t hesitate to apply the rules unevenly, because doing so might optimize single-point outcomes. Transformational leaders know that broader information circulation builds grassroots energy for complex change.

The more people know, the more they can do – and the more they want to do. Similarly, a collective belief in fairness has been shown by research to forcefully damp down burnout – and for a transformation, maintaining the group’s desire to participate is not optional.

4. Self-possession and balance

Funny thing about transformational leadership: truly transformational leaders can be wacky, goofy, awkward, or even somewhat socially inept – but in the long run there’s a fundamental grace to their actions that cannot be ignored. The way they carry themselves is reminiscent of an advertising tagline from my childhood: “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” They may get knocked off track emotionally in the short run, but they can course correct quickly. 

Transactional leaders will hit higher highs and lower lows, constantly – deploying amplified emotion to get to the right transactional outcomes in the moment, but draining their teams’ emotional tank (as well as their own) in the long run. 

Looking to avoid being a transactional leader yourself? It’s not easy – the behaviors listed above can be fiendishly tough to maintain in corporate environments that, by necessity, focus on short-term gains. But by thinking about your own actions through those four lenses, you can bolster the life force of the folks working with you…and keep the team going for the long haul of transformation.

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

Melissa Swift is the U.S. Transformation Leader at Mercer, the consultancy helping redefine the world of work. In this role, Melissa is responsible for the firm’s efforts in the areas of workforce transformation, HR transformation, HR digitization, diversity equity and inclusion, and workforce analytics.