“How do I become a transformational leader?”
It’s a question I get asked a lot, and one I’ve changed my answer to over the years. As a coach and mentor to executives and entrepreneurs, I thought the ability to transform was an inborn quality for a long time. I thought it was something one could develop his or her skills in, but ultimately did or did not possess an affinity toward. I have never subscribed to the belief that only certain people can lead, but I did have a bias that only certain people possessed the genetic make-up to be transformative through their leadership because, truthfully, I struggled to elicit this ability in many of the people I worked with.
I could develop leaders’ ability to speak with confidence and competence and to coach staff or clients. Yet the ability to truly transform others with words — whether those people were employees or attendees at a motivational seminar — well, that eluded me.
Transformational leaders are people who, irrespective of audience, possess the ability to create big shifts in their audiences’ thinking, which leads to big shifts in their behavior, which enables them to achieve extraordinary results. Many leaders are facile at inspiring their audience or getting them on board with a big initiative, but that isn’t the same thing.
Then, I began to study the masters, from former GE CEO Jack Welch to former Luxor and Excalibur President Renee West (the first woman to run a Las Vegas Strip casino) to Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins. Each of these transformational leaders may have a predilection towards transforming others. They also, and just as importantly, have many similar habits; habits that were created from behaviors that my most successful clients also practice.
There are certain key behaviors (that through practice become habits) that empower transformational leadership. Here are three that you can begin to put into action today in order to activate or dial up your transformational leadership abilities.
Drop Down From the Head to the Heart
It’s easy for leaders to flip-flop between thinking about their audience and thinking about how they are going to make their goals for their audience happen. That flip-flopping causes a lot of mental chatter, and it often disconnects leaders from hearing or recognizing their best answers. Transformational leaders take time to slow down, be without an agenda, meditate and let their intuition speak.
They do this by dropping down, or in the words of Jen Leonard, a journalist and human-centered design strategist, actually embracing the image of parachuting down from their heads into their hearts. As Leonard told me in an interview, “There is so much more to us as leaders than our intellect. It’s important to connect to our feelings so that we’re honest and open and energized by our own personal experience. Being willing to be strengthened by our human vulnerability is the true foundation for transformational leadership.”
When we are able to connect with our feelings and observe them without being run by them, we develop the foundation to lead others to be in similar relationship with their feelings. And feelings are the catalyst for the actions we do (or do not) take as we pursue our goals.
Be Genuinely Curious and Playful
While I wouldn’t want my toddler running the country, she has become one of my greatest leadership teachers. She has reawakened my capacity to look at each moment with fresh eyes and to ask questions rather than to revert into decades-old assumptions.
Transformational leaders are constantly asking questions of their people and of themselves: What do I want? What do you want? How can we try things differently? What will it cost us to maintain status quo? Whether they are asking questions introspectively or actually interviewing the people they are seeking to lead, transformational leaders don’t get attached to the first answer that comes up or take themselves or their work too seriously. Some of my greatest leadership and business breakthroughs have come while bouncing on my trampoline or blowing bubbles with my daughter.
Identify and Tell Relevant Stories
The idea of telling stories is certainly not new, but many leaders fail to use storytelling effectively. Transformational leaders are masters at using relevant stories to connect with and move their people to action.
In her recent TEDx talk, copywriter and persuasive writing speaker and trainer Stefanie Frank describes a relevant story as one that originates inside of an inciting moment; a moment in your life “when you know that what happened before and what’s going to happen next are much less important than what is happening in that moment.” In a relevant story, an audience sees themselves in the story itself. They awaken to their own capacity to go on the journey the leader is describing. As Frank explains to me, “a relevant story, told by a transformative leader, can generate an idea in someone’s mind, causing a shift to happen instantly. Which opens the possibility for the person’s next actions to act as an accelerant to lasting, meaningful change.”
And that is the defining characteristic of a transformational leader: the ability to accelerate lasting, meaningful change. While the journey to good or even great leadership may appear more straightforward than ever before, and there are no shortage of resources showing you how to do so, leaders today have a more potent opportunity before us. We can invite our audience to adopt the mindset and the moves to play to their edge and capitalize on their potential, to create not just extraordinary but rather epic results. It starts by transforming ourselves and cultivating the habits true leadership requires.