Transformational leader vs. transactional leader: Which do you want to be?

Transformational leaders can catalyze the kind of change organizations need now. Consider these four ways to cultivate a transformational leadership style.
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Rocket coming out of computer to represent moving faster in digital transformation

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that change is the only way forward. Trends in technology, big data, consumer behavior, globalization, workforce values and preferences, and social justice have all accelerated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and businesses are scrambling to keep up with digital transformation.

Organizations and their leaders are under tremendous pressure to adapt quickly. One thing is clear: In this new reality, transactional leaders will no longer cut it. Exceptional teams will have transformational leaders, who possess a bold vision for the future and a plan for empowering others to make that vision real.

[ What are the characteristics of a transformational leader? Read also: What is transformational leadership? 5 qualities. ]

4 ways to model being a transformational leader

While changing one’s leadership style is no small undertaking, the following four criteria for transformational leadership will help jump-start this transition.

1. Craft a future vision

Transformational leaders have a compelling vision for achieving strong, sustainable success. Begin by taking a hard, honest look at where your business is now, assessing its strengths and challenges. Determine what you want to keep, what you want to change, and what you want to discard as you shape your vision. Be prepared to articulate to your teams what needs to be new, different, and better than it is today, so they know where your business is going and how to get there.

As a transformational leader, ask yourself:

  • Does our vision clearly define success and what it looks like to us as individuals, as teams, and as a company?
  • Am I prepared to describe to people inside and outside my team their new and changing responsibilities and their role in the big picture?
  • What new attitudes and beliefs do I expect to see from myself and others?

[ Do you adapt your decision-making to different situations? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

2. Empower others, exponentially

A transformational leader is the catalyst for change, setting off a chain reaction of moves that gain momentum over time. To spark this momentum, you must empower people to have ownership in the new direction by helping them think like CEOs, soliciting their input, and providing resources to help them empower others in turn.

As a transformational leader, ask yourself:

  • Have I instilled a “CEO mindset” in our people, inspiring them to achieve something bigger and better than themselves?
  • Have I enabled them to have a stake in our vision by inviting their feedback?
  • Do people have the knowledge, tools, and support to feel empowered and to empower others in turn?

3. Become an expert on reinvention, and coach others to do the same

To thrive during periods of change, every person in your organization must become an expert on reinvention. Learning to shift perspective, explore new possibilities, acquire different skills, and take thoughtful risks is the new normal. Mastering reinvention on a personal level, coaching others to do the same, and rewarding positive change will be your blueprint for shaping an agile and resilient workforce.

As a transformational leader, ask yourself:

  • Have I given people permission to let go of old paradigms?
  • Do we show people how to step out of their comfort zones, take risks, and experiment with new and different ways of working?
  • Do we acknowledge and celebrate those who display desired attitudes and behaviors?

4. Empathize and involve

Achieving your company’s vision is a shared journey that requires everyone in your orbit – your team, customers, and shareholders – to have a clear line of sight of where your business is going and how it’s going to get there. Start by developing a deep understanding of all these stakeholders and what makes them tick. Through keen observation, active listening, open communication, and strategic collaboration, you can show empathy for their needs and priorities and engage them in supporting your vision.

As a transformational leader, ask yourself:

  • Do I continue to ask people how they are feeling and what they think about our company vision?
  • Do we invite others to share their ideas on solving our business challenges and opportunities?
  • Are we committed as a company to address any issues and concerns promptly and transparently so that people feel seen and heard?

Transformation at the grassroots level

In an ideal world, each person in your organization must adopt a transformational mindset to support your company’s vision of the future. As a leader, you are ground zero for this evolution, so start the process now and begin building your grassroots movement. Having the courage and humility to change yourself sets the foundation for a transformative culture and a business that is crisis-ready and built for sustainable success.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Christine Andrukonis
Christine Andrukonis is the founder and senior partner at Notion Consulting, a global change-leadership consultancy that helps leaders tackle their most complex business challenges.

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