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If leadership isn’t transformational, then what’s the point?  

Who exemplifies the strengths of transformational leadership for you? Think about the most successful leader you know – what are they most known for? Is it Steve Jobs leading a revolution in how we think about phones? Is it Henry Ford for rethinking not only mobility but also how factories work? Or is it Ariana Huffington, who completely redefined how we get and consume news and current affairs? Or perhaps Martin Luther King and his vision of an equitable society? 

Whoever you’re thinking of likely had a clear vision that drove dramatic change. They demonstrate the strengths of transformational leadership. 

Setting vision: transforming the invisible 

When a company hires a new CEO, a country elects a new President, or a sports team hires a new head coach – we expect things to change for the better. The old leadership vision and style disappear, and everyone waits anxiously for the new vision to emerge. 

Imagine you’re starting a new job, but you have never seen the job description. You don’t know what the purpose is or why you’re doing it. You don’t know how success will be measured and you don’t understand how your job fits in with the rest of the organization. You’re operating in the dark with both hands tied behind your back and you’re wearing noise-cancelling headphones. 

That’s a company that doesn’t have a clear vision. An organization where the leaders aren’t interested in change. The strength of transformational leadership is that it encourages everyone to buy into the change and motivates them to look forward beyond their comfort zone. 

In the book Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, the authors tell a story about an executive working for Southern Bell. He was approached by a group of academics from MIT and Harvard who wanted to sell him the patent for a unique way of sending data by computer. The executive explained in detail how Southern Bell knew everything there was to know about communications and that they had no interest whatsoever in anything as weird and as unprofitable as ‘The Internet,’ and he declined the offer.  

This is a leader who was not interested in change. He had no vision. And where is Southern Bell now? And fortunately, the internet is comparatively independent… 

Vision – the selfless ambition 

The line between vision and ambition is very faint. Ambition is self-serving, advancing your own goals. It can be positive – after all, if your goals align with the group, you’ll be working extremely hard to further the group. But most often, they diverge eventually. 

Vision is the selfless version of ambition. It includes personal drive but aims at pushing shared goals and collective objectives. Vision imagines how the group/organization could be better in 5-, 10- or 15-years’ time. Vision invites people to put aside their fear of change and transform themselves and their values to achieve that future ideal. 

And that’s why transformation and vision are tied together. ‘My amazing vision for the future is to do everything exactly the same as yesterday.’ – it’s hardly inspiring and is unlikely to encourage your incredible workforce to push themselves to work harder. 

When a leader succeeds in getting the team to invest in their vision of the future, transformation can happen. Change is frightening and involves grief for the stability of the past – but we embrace visionary transformation because we are excited by the end destination. We buy into it and are included by it. 

Transformational culture 

Setting the culture of your organization to embrace transformation can lead to amazing results. It happens when your vision for the future aligns with the values of the people who work for it – and that can be positive or negative.  

Buying into the vision is one of the most significant factors that determine our sense of belonging. When we feel that we belong, we are motivated and prepared to give discretionary effort. Every organization relies on its people to do more than what they strictly need to. An ‘Italian strike’ or ‘Work-to-rule’, where everyone does only what their job description states and nothing else, can cripple even the most successful organizations.  

But if you’re asking your people to invest themselves in their work, rather than spend a bit more time with their family or in leisure activities, then they need to feel they own the vision and that it aligns with where they want to go. 

A vision of the future 

A leader must be able to listen carefully to the cultural whispers of the organization to achieve positive transformation. There is nothing worse than a leader moving forward with a vision that is unclear, unsupported, or inconsistent. It requires a complete understanding of how each person contributes to the vision – the most successful visions are fully inclusive by their very nature. And it also needs each person to know how the organization expects them to contribute to it.  

This is why some older, more traditional organizations have struggled. If your corporate culture is risk-averse, then the digital era can only mean a threat. Any change involving technology will struggle as the pace of change is incredibly high and the workforce is predisposed to fall back to the old ways.  

Postal services around the world were built on consistency, reliability, and keeping things simple. Many of them are struggling with the catastrophic drop in ‘snail mail’ and competition from smaller. more agile delivery services. Many of them still have the hierarchical, concentrated power and risk-averse, complex thinking cultures inherited from the legacy state-run organizations. They have workforces with a personal stake in maintaining things the way they are. There is a disconnect between the need for vision-driven transformation and the values of stability, consistency, and tradition of the workers (and often leaders). 

The automotive organizations that will survive the next 10 years are those that can adapt to the current culture of radical environmental thinking and emission-free vehicles. An industry steeped in tradition, male-dominated, and heavily unionized must learn to be tech-friendly, agile, and future-thinking, relying on strong cognitive diversity. 

What are the origins of transformational leadership? 

Jim Downton, a sociologist, was the first to coin the phrase ‘transformational leadership’ in 1973. He framed it as a principle based on charisma and commitment, a rebellion against expertise and technocracy. Using behavioral science, he and James Burns cemented transformational leadership as a foundational principle of leading successful organizations. The principle is founded on the idea that a leader works with everyone to identify change, inspire, and implement change, and outperform their own expectations. 

For Downton and Burns, the key elements were: 

  • Leveraging the motivation and development of all 
  • Building on ethical and moral common ground 
  • Promoting collaboration and cooperation 
  • Persuasion rather than coercion 
  • Developing others through coaching and mentoring. 

They were ahead of their time in recognizing the leader’s role in ensuring that all feel included and that they belong. Building an ethical and equitable organization springs from a leader who can value each individual and help them to grow and develop in a nurturing environment.  

Vision and transformation 

A leader who has decided to transform their organization or team must start with the vision. 

The vision must be clear, concise, and inspirational. 


I once heard the advice: ‘Tell your grandparents the vision. If they understand it the first time, the chances are your team will too.’ 

It needs to be simple and relevant to the team and the organization. It needs to paint a picture of the future that engages the minds and hearts. It’s an aspirational vision. 

A genuinely great leader won’t come up with it alone. They’ll take time to listen to their people, talking to as many different people as possible. The real greatness lies in listening to those people who often don’t have a voice – the quiet, or the shy, or the marginalized. If your marketing team comes up with a perfect vision, it will look great to the outside world, but it’s possible that it won’t get the buy-in you need from those you rely on to achieve it. 


And keep it short. 

A vision can be expressed in under 25 words – you may well include more detail in other documents, but you should be able to express the main thrust of the vision in one simple sentence.  


Make it personal. A vision that is about delivering the best value to shareholders may well be accurate, but it’s not going to inspire your employees to work harder. Vision should make people feel that they will miss out if they’re not involved in it. 

Transformational leadership requires collaboration, cooperation, and persuasion – if you can position it so that everyone can feel they own it, then it will truly transform your business. 

When you first talk about your vision, encourage team leaders all the way down to interpret the vision at their level – what does it mean for them and how will they contribute to it? 

Don’t forget – our first instinct is to resist change, particularly change that we haven’t initiated ourselves. It triggers prehistoric fears of uncertainty and danger. Part of this is the unfortunate habit that HR has of calling redundancy and cost-saving programs ‘change programs’. When we hear ‘change’, we immediately assume that people will lose jobs! And that’s why we must focus on the ‘what’s in it for me’ element of communicating the vision. 

The strengths of a transformational leader 

A transformational leader must have cultural intelligence.  

They need to be able to understand the change they need to implement in the cultural context. This context may be organizational culture and the local and/or micro-cultures that characterize that organization.  

Leaders need to understand the different expectations of leadership that different cultures have and be prepared to re-frame and re-position messaging to meet those expectations and needs.  

Cultural intelligence is the ability to interpret culture and select the most appropriate strategy to bring out the best in the diverse nature of a group. That is a real advantage to a transformational leader. If you recognize and understand the value of each individual in your team and have the skills to leverage those differences, you have a huge advantage, and your team will be more productive and more collaborative.  

Using a tool, such as Country Navigator’s Worldprism, is a fantastic way to start the process not only of developing your cultural intelligence but also of gaining insight into your team to understand their motivations and values. 

Transformational leaders must be excellent relationship-builders 

You’ll need to be able to influence, motivate, and encourage everyone around you. You’ll have to overcome resistance and suspicion. And you’ll need allies and champions – people ready to spread the word and sell the vision on to others. And that requires the kind of charisma and empathy that takes time and practice to master. It requires intentionally setting out to build relationships strategically and taking the time to listen to everyone’s input. 

A transformational leader must have patience and a long-term orientation.  

Achieving a vision is hard and takes several years. Vision-setting is not for those who need a quick win! The transformational leader must be resilient to playing the long game and slow starts. A vision comes to fruition over five years minimum, despite the pressure to deliver immediately.  

Of course, you’ll have stepping stones that contribute towards achieving the vision. Even before you get there, you’ll start working on the future beyond that destination. But vision is future thinking in the knowledge that that kind of change needs time. 

As well has having patience and a long-term orientation, a transformational leader needs to be able to balance the emotions of those around them. They will need to temper the excitement of a brilliant future with the patience and detail-focus needed to get there. 

And that’s achieved best by working differently. For those with a task orientation, you will want to get them focused on the interim goals and the milestones of the vision. For those with a relationship orientation, you can build a sense of mutual support and encouragement, helping each person to understand how their role builds community and how it is the community that will achieve the vision. Celebrate the milestones and build in reflections so that all can see how far you’ve come. 

The Power of Vision to Transform Leaders, Teams, and Organizations 

Now imagine you’re starting a new job again. In addition to the contract, staff handbook, and mandatory training, you’re given a shiny brochure that shows exactly how your role contributes to an amazing vision of the future. How you will be part of a transformation of the company. How you will be part of something brand new and exciting. 

As you formulate your vision, make it relevant to those who will be contributing to achieving it. Involve them in the big picture and the detail.  

Keep the final version clear, concise, and inspirational.  

And finally, develop cultural intelligence, relationship-building skills, and patience, resilience, and long-term orientation. 

We often think that interpersonal skills (often called soft skills) are a bonus – but when it comes to demonstrating the strength of transformational leadership and vision, it is those soft skills that are the foundation and building blocks of success. 

We’ve got over three decades of experience supporting over 1 million people worldwide. We’re passionate about delivering change; how can we help you?

Country Navigator
Post by Country Navigator
Jan 23, 2024 10:03:40 AM