“While personal maturity may mean being able to see beyond yourself, leadership maturity means considering others before yourself.” American leadership author John C. Maxwell reminds us that the best transformational leadership example you’ll find is within those who strive to make the world a better place.
The catalytic power of transformational leaders
To transform is to change something. That seems simple enough but there’s a big difference in how leaders generate that change.
For example, Jack Welch transformed GE into a multinational company beyond all expectations in the 90s. Nevertheless, he is not known for his transformational leadership style. On the contrary, as the Guardian describes in their article on Jack Welch, he led through fear and excessive expectations. This attitude contributed to the company’s decline right before Welch stepped down.
The best way to understand how Welch transformed GE but not his employees is to look at transformational leadership originally defined by leadership pioneer James MacGregor Burns. Welch met two of the four pillars.
The 4 pillars: individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation and idealized influence need to work together in a perfect balance for true transformation. In Welch’s case, he influenced others by setting examples and defining extreme expectations but nowhere was he empowering others. The stimulation and influence were there but without considering and motivating others, a leader’s vision will only be short-lived.
The following examples show leaders who have transformed by moving away from solely focusing on self-interest to achieving change with their own take on the 4 pillars. Most importantly they’re supported by compassion and a desire to serve others.
5 transformational leader examples
- Mahatma Gandhi
As a truly inspiring transformational leadership example, he not only visualized a better future for India but also showed individual consideration. One of the several ways he did this was by living among the people he supported, sacrificing his own comforts. Moreover, he empowered and encouraged others to challenge the status quo and inspired them by consistently embodying his values of humility, compassion and forgiveness through non-violence.
- Nelson Mandela
The best transformational leadership example is Mandela and his quest for freedom and justice. Mandela easily epitomizes the 4 pillars of transformational leadership. His compassion is what makes him a particularly outstanding leader.
Mandela chose empathy and forgiveness rather than anger and logic which is how he gained the trust of his oppressors. Instead of arguing to achieve his goals, he shared his belief that we are all connected in our humanity. It wasn’t about him as a leader anymore but about making life better for others around him.
- Richard Branson
Another interesting transformational leader example is Richard Branson. It’s hard to not get drawn in by Branson’s charismatic style. But, have you noticed he’s more or less disappeared from the limelight to devote more time to his philanthropic passions? This demonstrates his shift in focus to making this world better than when he first found it.
He also demonstrates the 4 pillars by how he inspires and empowers others. Moreover, he’s famous for focusing on coaching and delegation as well as leading by example and creating a long-term vision. That vision is very clear to him and again, goes above and beyond his individual needs. He’s focused on caring for people and the planet as he states in his article about his book “screw business as usual“.
- Warren Buffet
This paper on the case of Warren Buffet describes his journey to becoming a transformational leader. As you can see, it doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, everyone needs to go through the learnings of life before they can become transformational.
Buffet’s pivotal transformational moment was the controversial case with Salomon Brothers in the 90s. He surprised the industry by stepping in to liaise directly with the Treasury department and collaborate with Salomon Brothers bank despite facing a substantial fine. His people focus, vision and compassion rekindled trust within the financial sector, something never seen before.
- Bill Gates
Another interesting example of transformational leadership is Bill Gates who is a notable mentor and visionary. Creative, focused on growth and transparent, Gates is also passionate about supporting the world through his nonprofit foundation.
- Taiichi Ohno
Perhaps a less established transformational leadership example if you’re not from the manufacturing sector is Taiichi Ohno. Known as the Father of the Toyota Production System, he too was focused on empowering people around him. Today, lean principles impact many sectors and overlap with agile principles.
The journey to wise transformational leadership
Susanne Cook-Greuter, developmental and self-actualization expert, explains how every leader matures into their ideal transformational leadership style in her paper on vertical growth. This paper summarizes how we are all capable of developing from linear reasoning to a systems view but not everyone does.
Those who do develop on this journey, such as Mandela and Gandhi, become adept at leveraging compassion and wisdom to empower others. Their worldview shifts from simply understanding patterns and rules to relishing complexity. Furthermore, they fully embrace the extent to which our concepts create illusions of what we want to see versus what others are experiencing. At that stage, becoming a transformational leader is a natural evolution. They instinctively inspire people to reach for great heights. Simultaneously, they lead by example and put growth and learning at the center of everything.
It’s worth noting some of the disadvantages of transformational leadership. When you reach such stages of leadership maturity, there’s a danger of disconnecting from people. On one side, a transformational leader seems inspiring but it can also appear elusive to some. For example, those leaders will talk in decades rather than months or years. Moreover, they’ll creatively blend order and chaos which can feel daunting for some or simply alien.
The subtle difference between a great transformational leader and one who’s perhaps still transitioning is that the former can adapt to situations. They are highly aware of themselves, how they impact the system and the paradoxes they operate in. That’s how they find new ways, not just of doing things, but of redefining assumptions and concepts for a better world for all.
Focus on vertical development with these 3 key points to further your transformational leadership style:
- Find challenging experiences
Vertical development or leadership maturity is about applying awareness and insight to complex and uncertain environments. It isn’t about being right. It’s about leveraging soft skills to understand different perspectives. At the same time, you co-create common ground and empower people toward a higher vision.
Such development means letting go of our views. Then we can transcend the ego so that the community is at the heart of everything we do. This can only happen if life challenges us to reassess our belief system.
For example, a promotion to a new area or a relocation to a different continent and culture forces leaders to reevaluate their assumptions and habits. That’s when they can start seeking better ways of doing things as they develop cross-cultural skills.
- Connect with people from all walks of life
To grow into a transformational leader, you need to expose yourself to people who live and think differently. How else can you develop different viewpoints to inspire and motivate all individuals?
- Make sense of experiences with an external post-conventional coach
The most important aspect of becoming a transformational leader is how you interpret and make sense of your experiences. For instance, it’s very easy for relocated leaders to live in an ex-pat bubble and disconnect from the local culture.
Moreover, challenging experiences are destabilizing. Leaders can either become the victim and hold onto their fixed views for an alleged safety net. Alternatively, they can choose to change and work through their emotions to create new beliefs with the help of a leadership coach.
Ideally, you want to work with a transformational coach who has also developed leadership maturity and wisdom. A useful tip to check in with your future coach is to ask them what matters most to them in life and how they make decisions.
Transactional coaches will tend to reply in terms of achievements, effectiveness and data-driven decision-making. On the other hand, transformational coaches will explain that for them it’s about leveraging the interplay of awareness and action to transform self and others. They relish chaos and order and enjoy finding ways that honor both sides of any coin.
How will you strive for transformational wisdom?
If you want to make a real impact both in the business world and the wider community, you need to develop your own strategy to become a future transformational leader. The journey takes self-discovery, discomfort and curiosity and it is best to undertake it with a leadership or language coach.
We all have it in us to become wise transformational leaders. The difference is those who choose to question themselves, their so-called reality and the world around them while then driving their own inner change. You too can do this by seeking out-of-comfort-zone projects and interacting with people vastly different from you. Most importantly, work with a coach who can guide you to make sense of it all.
Then, not only will you have the ability to impact the world as you become a better version of yourself, but, in Gandhi’s words, you’ll also “be the change you wish to see in the world.”