Artifact: Concluding note from transforming leadership essay
Kellerman (2012) asks, “What reasons do followers now have for going along with leaders? There are only two: either we go along because we have to (or think we do), or we go along because we want to” (p. 70). A former boss, James, saw both options and chose to transform the “norm” by going with the latter — and his efforts spilled over onto the whole organization.
One of the important lessons I learned from James was that, sometimes, transformation and retention are two sides of the same experience. James was democratic in his management style, understanding that while he held the chief executive role, he did not always believe he knew best. This was difficult for some of the staff who were used to being led differently. Burns (2003) affirms this, noting, “Tension can develop in this process. As leaders encourage followers to rise above narrow interests and work together for transcending goals, leaders can come into conflict with followers’ rising sense of efficacy and purpose” (p. 26).
Some people were given opportunities they never had before, while others simply couldn’t deal with the drastic change in direction. Some of the “loyalists” who worked under the former CEO chose that moment to make their exit, and that was the main lesson about transformation and retention. James knew that if he pushed too hard with these “old guard” colleagues, the outcome would be no better, almost as if heeding Palmer’s (2004) advice:
On rare occasions, we may need to breathe someone into life… But most people can and must come to life in their own way and time, and if we try to help them by hastening the process, we end up doing harm. (p. 63)
I’ve taken this to heart in the attention I pay to any new organization with which I work. Especially in those moments when chief leaders or team leaders are new. The idea of what they might become — and, by proxy, what the organization itself might become — is exhilarating and also tremendously challenging. “That is what makes transforming leadership participatory and democratic” (Burns, 2003, p. 26).
How often in my young career did I sit at my desk, angry or upset, thinking to myself about my boss: What do they know? I could do their job better than them! My thoughts back then were two types of failure. On the one hand, it was a failure of competence — I really did believe I knew better than my boss. On the other hand, it was a failure of confidence — I did not know enough to trust that my boss knew better. In both cases, I failed collectively at seeing the true benefit of leadership and the need we, as followers, have for it.
Kellerman (2012) muses, “Evolutionary leadership theory argues that since humans live in groups, and since groups with leaders do better than groups without, leadership and followership were as critical to the survival of ancestral humans as they are to their contemporary counterparts” (p. 69). Leader-less organizations exist in a vacuum. In those vacuums, on the off chance something positive happens, it almost always seems to happen by accident, or at the very least, without intention.
It took working in an organization like that, led by James, for me to realize the full potential of what transforming leadership can mean to a place and its people — not simply the people who are led, but the stakeholders who are served by those who are led. When operationalized, this type of spillover benefit is wonderful. Of transforming leaders, Burns (2003) reminds that they “…champion and inspire followers…” (p. 26), which is a rarity.
Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming leadership: A new pursuit of happiness. Grove Press.
Kellerman, B. (2012). The end of leadership. Harper Business.
Palmer, P. J. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. Jossey-Bass.