The Human Resource Movement brought enlightenment to the sixties, with “your staff are your greatest asset” and “happy staff are productive staff”. Yet the vocabulary of “resources”, “assets” and "productivity” ensured the discussion remained firmly positioned in accounting language. You wouldn’t talk like this about your friends or family.
Enter the transformational leader, inspiring, idealistic, thought-provoking. I was 34 when Nelson Mandela emerged from his 27 year spell in prison, 44 when I joined Roger Perks’ governing body at one of the first ever grant-maintained schools in the UK. Both “infected” others with their vision, values and personality. But it was not just politics and education. Richard Branson of Virgin and Steve Jobs of Apple were among those who forged new furrows in the business world using a similar leadership style.
Not surprisingly, people often love working under transformational leadership. I recall a comment of a friend of mine from mainland China in the early eighties: “People respect Deng Xiao Ping, but they loved Mao”. And I guess that says it all.
Such cult-like abuses have begun to turn many away from this type of leadership, and the last decade has seen a return with a vengeance to management by targets in the public sector and management by profit at all costs in the financial sector. But I want to suggest that we might keep the baby and change the bathwater.
One of the 4 “i”s of transformational leadership is “individual consideration”. A radical departure from a fanatical commitment to treating everyone equally, this means treating everyone differently, through careful listening and observation of their unique strengths and needs. From the very outset, for example, the leader should be thinking about succession. Who will take over from me? How will they lead differently from me? What preparation do they need now to meet that challenge when it comes? Individual consideration demands nothing less.
Secondly, transformational leaders should pay constant attention to another “i” - our own integrity. The storytelling that forms a natural part of the transformational leader’s toolkit so easily succumbs to spin. We confuse our aspirations for the future with the realities of the present. We need to take a firm grip on the timeline, and distinguish clearly between the two. We only have to reflect critically and frequently on our rhetoric to know when we are crossing the line.
With these two caveats in place, I think transformational leadership, and the great tradition of powerful oratory which accompanies it, will yet find its place. Please, if you gravitate towards this kind of leadership, don’t let it fall into disrepute. Instead, redeem it through a radical others-centredness and a high standard of integrity. You will do the world a great service.
Photos courtesy of:
Abraham Lincoln, November 1863 from Wikimedia Commons
Gandhi Smiling from Wikimedia Commons
Nelson Mandela by Festival Karsh Ottawa