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Five principles of transforming leadership that will help you be a better leader

“Of all the tasks on the work agenda of leadership analysis, first and foremost is an understanding of human change, because its nature is the key to the rest.”
James MacGregor Burns: Transforming Leadership


This is the #1 guiding insight that underlies our work at Values Coach: Culture does not change unless and until people change. Hence, the most important work of leadership is not to change organizations – it is to transform people.

When my colleague and coauthor Bob Dent left Midland Health for an executive position at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, his protégé Kit Bredimus moved seamlessly into Bob’s vacated chief nursing officer role. In the previous years, with Bob’s encouragement, Kit had become a Certified Values Coach Trainer (CVCT), had lost more than 150 pounds, and had earned a doctoral degree. Following Bob’s example, he had also invested his own time and energy into helping others become better leaders.

That’s what transforming leadership is all about. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book Leadership, James MacGregor Burns made the pioneering distinction between transactional leadership and transforming leadership. Transactional leadership is about managing the organization. It’s about outcomes, productivity, accountability, and rules. Transforming leadership is about people. It’s about achievement, growth, ownership, and values. Transforming leadership, Burns wrote, is a mutual and bilateral relationship in which both leader and followers are raised to a higher plane of values and expectations

Here are five fundamental, essential, and nonnegotiable qualities of transforming leadership.

1. Transforming leaders practice personal humility
In his description of the five levels of leadership, Jim Collins said that level five leadership is a paradoxical blend of intense determination to achieve big goals coupled with a genuine sense of personal humility. History’s greatest leaders have embraced this paradox.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built one of the most successful companies in the world, but they also practiced MBWA – management by walking around. I worked in HP’s Personal Computer Group during the summer of 1984, at a time when HP’s revolutionary touchscreen personal computer was being clobbered in the marketplace by Apple and IBM. Rather than resort to layoffs as other companies were doing, HP asked each of us to tighten our belts by working five (or six) days a week but only being paid for four.

One Saturday morning HP founder Dave Packard, who had long since retired and could have been out playing golf or buying a yacht, came walking through our department. I watched him stop at a dozen or so cubicles, put a hand on a shoulder, and ask about the work that person was doing. These were not boss-to-subordinate pep talks, they were human-to human connections. Fifteen minutes of Dave Packard putting himself at our level transformed the culture of our department for the rest of that summer.

2. Transforming leaders practice loyalty
Transforming leaders value and nurture relationships. They understand that building relationships takes time, and that during that time there will inevitably be hard times. When passing through the proverbial valley of the shadow, transforming leaders stand by their allies and they do not throw their subordinates under the bus.

One of the most formidable partnerships in military history was that between Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman during the final years of the Civil War. After the war, Sherman remarked that “Grant stood by me they said I was crazy and I stood by Grant when they said he was a drunk.”

By its very nature transformation occurs under pressure. Transforming leaders do not betray allies, and they do not desert followers, when the pressure is on.

3. Transforming leaders practice personal accountability
Transforming leaders give credit when things go right, and they take the blame when things go wrong. They have the courage to accept personal ownership for failures, even if it was not directly their fault. They do not seek to avoid personal responsibility by scapegoating underlings.

The day before D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter accepting complete and total responsibility for the failure of the operation, which was to be released in the event it failed, which of course it did not. It was Eisenhower’s commitment to the principles of transforming leadership, far more than his genius for military strategy, that made him Supreme Commander of allied forces during World War II, and subsequently one of our most effective (if still underappreciated) U.S. Presidents.

4. Transforming leaders practice selflessness
Transforming leaders recognize, as Mother Teresa often said, that we are “all children of the same God” (see her book A Simple Path). In Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale, Gillian Gil described how “the long love affair” between the average British soldier and their Lady with the Lamp begin at the Scutari Barrack Hospital during the Crimean War when they saw her triaging and treating casualties based upon the soldier’s medical condition and not his social standing or rank in the military.

Beyond being the person who more than any other defined the profession of nursing and created a blueprint for the hospital as we know it today, Nightingale was a public health pioneer precisely because she believed, more than a hundred years before Mother Teresa said the words, that we are all children of the same God and that we all deserve to be treated as such.

5. Transforming leaders build bridges not walls
Transforming leaders seek to grow community by including opponents rather than to shrink community by demonizing enemies. In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the story of how, by embracing people who had been his political opponents rather than turning them into enemies, Abraham Lincoln built the team that defeated the bigger enemy during the Civil War.

If anyone has ever had a good reason to demonize his opponents it would have been Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for more than a quarter-century by the apartheid government of South Africa. The man who could have single-handedly sparked a Civil War of violent vengeance instead chose to build a bridge to those who had tortured him. And with that choice he changed the world.

This principle of building bridges rather than walls builds upon the first four. It takes humility, loyalty, responsibility, and selflessness to be a bridge builder.

Changing our world by changing ourselves
Here are three things we can each do to transform our organizations, transform our communities, and transform ourselves.

Do not work for a boss who is not committed to practicing the principles of transforming leadership. You deserve better.

Do not vote for a politician who is not committed to practicing the principles of transforming leadership. We deserve better.

Commit yourself to practicing the principles of transforming leadership – at home, at work, and in your community. Our world needs you to be your best.

Be a leader
Management is a job description. Leadership is a life decision. You do not need a management title to be a transforming leader. And in today’s world, we need leaders in every corner, not just in the corner office. Please – give us your best by practicing these principles of transforming leadership.

At Values Coach our purpose is transforming people through the power of values and transforming organizations through the power of people. We do that by helping leaders build a stronger Culture of Ownership on a Foundation of Values.

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