The transformational leader is the pivot to organizational transformation. So, what distinguishing activities does the transformational leader undertake?

The transformational leader engages in five critical activities:

  1. Transformational leaders craft and execute a life altering strategic vision. New thinking is brought to the organization. It may occur at a strategic inflection point of the business; a time when the fundamentals of the business are about to change. Louis Gerstner faced this challenge when he took over at IBM (see “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”). He bet the industry was heading towards a high bandwidth networked world where many devices would be connected to the network. Decision makers would be senior business leaders, people IBM knew and understood. He built IBM’s strategy around the idea that customers would need a new type of service that would help them integrate technology from various suppliers into the processes of an enterprise. In arriving at his vision he asked two crucial questions: “Who are our customers today; who will they be tomorrow?” and “How are we serving our customers today; how will we serve them tomorrow?” His response altered IBM’s course.
  2. Transformational leaders have an execution plan. On becoming the enterprise leader, they may for a few months spend time listening and gathering information needed to develop and articulate a new vision. Short and long term credible achievable goals are set. They place the enterprise’s fate in their own hands.
  3. To support the vision they work towards three outcomes:
    1. Organizational Change: Gerstner broke up the geographic fiefdoms, the long established organizational structure. He replaced it with one focused on industry sectors rather than geographic markets. The response was a reluctance to accept the change and even attempts to sabotage it. Gerstner met these challenges head on. He also paired back the paternalistic benefits programs and shelved IBM’s commitment to life-long employment.
    2. Culture: The organization’s culture is altered so it is not in conflict with the vision. Often the transformational leader engages in transforming an encrusted culture, as Hunter Harrison did at CN Rail (see “Switch Points”).
    3. Values: They establish values that support the vision. Values are not ethical principles of conduct, a code of ethics. Rather, they are behaviours which demonstrate high moral standards. They define what is at stake. Values are the benchmark by which the realization of the corporate vision and mission are measured. Transformational leaders define the organizational values, the behavioural which guide leaders and followers. For example, Gerstner emphasized the need to work as a team. He altered the compensation program so as to reward employees for accomplishment, pay for performance.
  4. The transformational leader is aware that the world order is being transformed. In this environment the transformational leader sees his task to craft an entrepreneurial and innovative firm capable of competing in a global world. The enterprise must function with a minimum of bureaucracy, be fast and furious rather than a plodding process driven hierarchical organization.
  5. “Get it done now” is the transformational leader’s motto! Organizations need not abandon planning, research, and debate. Yet, in the new world order enterprises cannot afford months seeking insights and prolonged deliberation on strategy. They need to get the job done. The transformational leader adopts an approach of successive approximation when developing strategy. He gets the core thinking done and creates a sense of urgency to quickly achieve the goals.

To identify the transformational leader’s distinguishing activities, observe behaviours. Is the leader engaged in crafting and executing a life altering strategic vision? Do they have a plan? How do they support the vision? Are they creating an enterprise that is entrepreneurial and innovative? Does the leader create a sense of urgency?

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