Are You a Transformational Leader?

By Sam Standard, Ph.D. March 31, 2020
Are You a Transformational Leader?

When it comes to leading, how good are you? I mean, really? As leaders, most of us take pride in our ability to work with others, be agents of change, and guide teams through the ups and downs of operational life. Typically, we have strengths and weaknesses. 

Transformational leaders admit weaknesses and face them openly. Terrible managers think they have nothing to learn and that any shortfalls are the result of others' shortcomings or of circumstances beyond their control. Psychologists call this the "fundamental attribution error," and it is endemic in our culture and our companies.

In case you are a manager who is blind to your shortcomings, here are some sentiments that signal it's time to develop better leadership skills:

"I know everything." You sit through training on interpersonal communication or leadership skills, and leave thinking the information doesn't apply to you. You report to your team that you learned little, if anything. Welcome to hubris, dear leader. Your lack of humility and resistance to change suggest you are set in your ways and blind to information that can help you.

"I'd leave if I could." You've said to someone on your team, "We're lucky to have jobs" or, worse, "You're lucky to have a job." By delivering this message, you devalue your people and the organization, and inspire fear in a passive-aggressive manner. You lack empathy—and your team resents you for it.

"Did you hear about … ?" You gossip to team members about other team members. Speaking poorly of others speaks poorly of you. Gossip is bad for morale, superficial, unprofessional and possibly unethical. It makes people wonder what you are saying about them.

"I'm above review." You consider 360-degree feedback to be impractical or a bad fit for your organization. If this is your response to a full review from supervisors, peers and subordinates, you are afraid of change and that your weaknesses will be exposed. If you think there is nothing you need to improve, you are in deep water. Even when they don't have a chance to provide feedback, people know your weaknesses. They've also lost respect for you for not facing them.

Facing Weaknesses

Rudimentary leadership skills include task competence in your field, a strong business sense and basic intelligence. Becoming a transformational leader requires humility, charisma, openness to change and interpersonal skill. Developing these qualities requires a willingness to grow and a tolerance for candid self-assessment.

To become a transformational leader, incorporate these qualities:

Acceptance of responsibility. Eagerness to accept responsibility separates great leaders from average ones. "Pseudo leaders" deflect blame, make excuses and engage in fast talk to shift responsibility to someone else. They may eventually accept responsibility after all else fails, but by then it's too late. Being eager to accept responsibility for your actions wins respect from your people, and it models the integrity, confidence and professionalism you expect from them.

Generosity. Generosity at work means putting your folks first, serving as their mentor and hearing what they are saying. Dropping your own agenda and wanting to see your people succeed—even when you will lose them—are examples of generosity.

Authenticity. Don't fake it, dear leader. You should actually care for those around you. If you are superficial, your people will recognize this and will either keep their distance or be suspicious of underlying motives.

Interpersonal skill. Resist the phrase "manage relationships." If your people feel "managed," they probably feel manipulated. Interpersonal skill means you are deliberately honest in your words and actions. You walk the walk, encouraging honest communication and accepting criticism gracefully. You offer praise publicly and point out mistakes in private. You encourage feedback. Great leaders give and engender respect.

Humility. Set the bar high for yourself and your team yet be humble. If you are a star performer but act as if others can't match your level, you will undermine confidence. If you don't pull your weight but demand that others do, you will be derided as a hypocrite. Work hard and produce results but remember that your way is not the only way.

Respecting others, valuing honesty, advocating for fair and honest feedback, and modeling high but reasonable expectations are signs that you lead well. Withdrawing, shutting down open communication and being a harsh taskmaster are signs that you need to work on developing leadership qualities. Taking leadership seriously suggests that you may just have it in you to be one of the greats.

Sam Standard, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and executive coach in Burlington, Vt. He can be reached at

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