Five centuries ago, conditions in Europe were perilous for many. Some muddled through bleak circumstances and took what came. Others had the imagination to see that a brighter future might await them in the New World. Leaders emerged whose navigational equipment, skills, and personal qualities gave others the courage to follow them across a sea of unknowns in search of a more promising place.
Just as the courageous, skillful sea captain of long ago took up a compass, charted a course, and led others across the unknown, so must today’s captains of business and industry. Today’s call is even more urgent. The world of the sixteenth century changed under people’s feet year by year; it changes under our feet day by day. The status quo is a death knell. Business leaders of today need to call up visions of a new world in which their businesses might reside. They need to dedicate themselves to crossing the intervening seas, and inspire others to follow—and they need to become the compass that makes crossing possible. In the language of today, they need to take on the mantle of “transformational leadership.”
Assuming that you aspire to be a transformational leader, what traits will you exhibit? First, you’ll have the wisdom and insight to know that transformation has no beginning and end: you’ll have your business in a perpetual state of transformation if you want to stay ahead of the curve and become a front runner. Second, you’ll spearhead a series of processes necessary to keeping transformation alive: observe and speculate, prepare and adapt, inspire, and persevere.
Observe and Speculate
Before you can take charge of transforming your company you’ll need to know where it is and where you believe it should go. These are some of the questions you’ll pursue.
- How competent is your leadership team, and how prepared are they to help you catapult the company into the future? Do you have in them the imagination needed to help you flesh out a vision for the company’s future, and the skills needed to help make that vision a reality? If not, how will you imbue your leadership with what you need from them—or where will you go to acquire it?
- How well do you know your employees’ skills, work ethic, and willingness to embrace change? Do you have in place the people you’ll need to take care of all the details you expect to arise as you move forward?
- What internal capabilities do you see in your company (strengths and weaknesses)?
- What external forces do you see affecting your company (opportunities and threats)?
- How well do you know your customers’ needs, i.e., the job the customer is trying to get done? Are there ways to put yourself in the shoes of your customers by studying the problems they are trying to solve?
- How well does your product accommodate the customers’ needs? What can you learn by observing their use of your products or services? (The importance of this is that your greatest prosperity will never come at the customers’ expense, but rather will surface after your product or service enables your customers to prosper.)
- What trends do you see in the market, and how does your competition relate to them?
- How clear are you about the criteria for success?
- How well equipped are you to measure your company against those criteria?
Prepare and Adapt
The transformational leader predicts the direction of tomorrow’s wind and prepares to use it to advantage. The transformational leader believes the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—that preventing fires is preferable to fighting them—and so exercises imagination today that will lead to preparation and adaptation tomorrow.
- Seeing a potential problem down the road, prepare to solve it. If time shows your solution to be needed, you’ll be a front runner while others scramble to catch up. If time shows your solution unneeded, you can quietly store it away and retrieve it later if a need arises.
- Think in terms of raising the bar and challenging your competition to clear it. To establish the criteria for others is to assume the role of front runner.
- As the 16th Century navigator aligned his galleon with the stars and made constant adjustments to stay on course, align your organizational structure, employee and leadership competencies, products/services, governance and engagement models, and success metrics, with your vision and make adjustments as needed along the way.
No one has a crystal ball. No matter how diligently you try to prepare and adapt, you’ll never foresee all the details and make all the right moves. But if you let your vision be your guiding light, it will keep you headed in the right direction until details become clear.
A pure fact of transformational leadership is that you can accomplish only a small portion of the requisite forward movement on your own. Therefore, if you are to transform a company you must inspire others to follow you. What are the qualities of a leader that inspire others and impel them to follow?
- Honesty: People follow enthusiastically only those whom they trust. A reputation for truthfulness and transparency—for a forthright approach that leaves no residual feelings of hidden agendas or deception—is essential to garnering widespread support.
- Energy: People are called to action by leaders who display genuine enthusiasm—even passion—for the vision they espouse. By energizing others, you transform them, and in turn they will help you transform the company.
- Eloquence: Reckless energy dissipates and loses its effect. For maximum impact you need to express yourself clearly. Only by communicating your vision in a clear and compelling way will you lead others to sense a common goal. Only then will you alter perceptions of the present and expectations for the future so as to align with that vision.
- Modeling: Talk without action is hollow. Exhibit the behaviors you expect of others. If you want your company’s leadership and employees to be forward looking, imaginative, and open to innovation, you need to pursue innovative approaches yourself—to the business as a whole, to the processes involved, and to the products or services you produce. You need to be particularly aggressive about keeping the sheen on your company’s competitive differentiators, i.e., those characteristics that keep your company standing above the rest in particular ways.
- Sincerity: You need to show that you genuinely care about and value everyone. Announce tangible progress. Celebrate it, and praise those responsible for it. Encourage everyone’s efforts, and convince them that you are doing all you can to help everyone succeed. Show that you are genuine and human—a person worth following and emulating. Then you will have converted them from employees doing a daily job to believers who see themselves as members of a team going someplace special. They will begin to feel themselves transformed—a heady feeling that will fuel still greater progress.
Dead ends and failures—even occasional crises—are inevitable. The only way to avoid encountering problems is to do nothing (which itself is a problem). Look for silver linings, for opportunities hiding within problems. Know that adversity is itself a form of energy on which you can feed. By adopting an attitude that improvement will be a continuous, uphill climb, and that you will not turn away from the challenge of the climb or permit the energy of those who follow you to flag, you’ll arrive in a good place. Show yourself to others as an upbeat and determined leader—a visible, accountable, and honest leader whose pursuit of excellence will not be stopped. If you persevere, others will follow you like troops behind a courageous general leading them into battle. Transformation is not for the faint of heart.
Through two decades as an executive consultant to Fortune 100 companies aspiring to transform themselves, I have come to believe that transformation is there for the taking, whatever the circumstance. The key is to establish true transformational leadership. I perceive companies as participants in a race, running lap after lap in an effort to position themselves at the head of the pack. That is why I titled my book on the subject Front Runners (Bascom Hill Publishing Group, 2011), and refer to the chapters as “laps.” In Front Runners you’ll read greater detail about how to observe and speculate (laps 2-4), prepare and adapt (laps 5-8), and inspire (laps 5-9) as a transformational leader—along with other thoughts and strategies
Because our world changes in the blinking of an eye, “transformational leader” has become synonymous with “effective leader.” To let important events and developments pass while you and your company stand tethered to old ground is to invite regret. You need to take the helm and steer your company into a harbor of optimal success. As was true five centuries ago, someone will ask “Why go? Why take such risks? Maybe we’ll be OK where we are.” That’s not a safe bet. The risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action, because everything is moving constantly. You and your company will move either backward or forward. Backward movement comes from waiting for change to happen. Forward movement comes from making change happen in your favor.