Some leaders are…different. They have this certain something that resonates with us, and that certain something may be hard to describe and will likely vary from person to person. They’re not perfect, but somehow that’s part of their charm. They possess the ability to motivate people, but it’s often not in the traditional ways.
Like I said — they’re different.
They talk a little differently about organizational life. They appear to cling to this unflappable belief in the potential of people of all sorts to do amazing things together.
We’re drawn to folks like this precisely because they’re different than what you might normally picture in your mind when someone uses the word manager or executive. To say they inspire us sounds so dreadfully cliché, but they do appeal to different parts of our hearts and minds than the “typical” leader.
If we wanted to get all fancypants about it, we would say we’re talking about transformational leadership as opposed to transactional leadership. What’s the difference?
1. Instead of pushing self-interest, they promote group gains.
Transactional leaders appeal mainly to employees’ self-interest. “If you do this, you’ll get this good thing. If you don’t do this, you’ll get this bad thing.”
Transformational leaders help employees connect to each other and the organization’s mission, and the good of the team takes priority.
2. They believe culture is an organic, constantly evolving thing.
Transactional leaders are largely content to work within established culture and norms, rarely seeing a need for change.
Transformational leaders believe that culture is constantly evolving; and its evolution is propelled by the growth, ideas, and accomplishments of people — humans.
3. It’s envelopes, not pencils, that they push.
Transactional leaders don’t really push the envelope. The pencil maybe; but not the envelope. They don’t try things. They rarely mess up big-time because they don’t attempt anything big.
Transformational leaders feel a burn to effect positive change on both human and organizational levels, and are always looking for ways to make that happen.
4. They focus the majority of their energy on what’s right instead of what’s wrong.
Transactional leaders focus far more time on locating problems, finding faults, measuring all deviations, and completely eliminating each of those things.
Transformational leaders are generally more concerned with building on an organization’s unique identity and strengths. That’s not to say they ignore operational or cultural deficiencies; they just focus more of their energy on really tapping into their organization’s mojo.
5. They prefer shaping the future, not reacting to it.
Transactional leaders take the hand they’re dealt.
Transformational leaders want to deal the cards.
6. Instead of promoting a sense of panic when things go sideways, they provide a sense of purpose.
Transactional leaders often incite panic and demand fervent activity as a sign of improvement.
Transformational leaders work to inspire passion and provide a greater context and purpose for performance.
7. They know (wh)Y people do what they do.
Transactional leaders tend to buy into Theory X, which is the assumption that people will do everything they can to avoid working hard. To oversimplify it, they believe that without their transactional style, nothing will get done.
Transformational leaders more often than not subscribe to something more like Theory Y. Theory Y essentially postulates that people inherently want to do good and meaningful work, and are likely to do so given the right conditions.
So what’s the point? I think different is good, and that’s especially true in regards to the distinctions we’re drawing here between the typical management-by-carrot-and-stick and leadership that transforms people and organizations.
What about you? What would you add? In what other ways are transformational leaders different?
(A version of this article originally ran here at CU Insight.)