5 Ways to Be a More Transformational Leader

“Transformative change happens when someone has a vision and does not let reality and negativity get in the way.” – Dr. Robert Quinn

Robert Quinn was one of the experts I interviewed for my upcoming book “A Better Place to Work: Daily Practices that Transform Culture.” We talked about transformational leadership and what it takes to create a positive organization. Being the vision-keeper for change is not easy, as most organizations are more focused on problem solving than on new possibilities. But when the person leading the change can present a compelling vision in a way that gets others engaged, it is infectious.

Here are 5 ways to shift your leadership style in a transformational direction:

  1. Be Positively Deviant

Deviating from the norm in your organization takes courage and requires vision. It is often difficult to go against the grain yourself, let alone bring others with you. I remember starting a new position as a manager years ago with a team who were stuck on doing things a certain way. Being new I had a lot of questions about why things were done in these ways. My new team would typically answer with comments like “because we’ve ALWAYS done it that way!” Or if I’d suggest something new, the answer was “that won’t work because…”

I decided that a little positive disruption was in order. We spent time talking about how we could turn these practices upside down, shift our focus to a more transformational approach, and most of all, catch ourselves before answering a question with “we’ve always done it that way!” We set some ground rules for our team meetings and over time this team became more positive and effective. Looking back twenty years on that experience, it was one of the most enjoyable teams I’ve been involved with.

Being positively deviant often means asking questions versus problem solving. It means being prepared to go through deep change, and find your purpose and vision. It often means speaking truth to power, and always looking for the proactive stance versus the reactive one.

How can you be positively deviant today?

  1. Encourage Reflective Action

Another way of being more transformational is to practice what Quinn calls reflective action.

This means giving team members the necessary space and time to be reflective, which in turn improves decision-making capacity. Our corporations are often very geared toward action, and we create and reinforce this in our workplace cultures by rewarding those who speak and act quickly. Quinn describes reflective action as a balance between being too reflective (nothing gets done) and too active (mindless behaviour). The challenge is to be both reflective and active, which we can achieve by making time for reflection when we’re away from the current task.

For example, have you ever been trying to come up with an idea for something at your desk, and then when you walk away from it (take a break, go for a walk, meditate, etc.) all of a sudden, a stroke of inspiration hits? Taking this contemplation away from the project actually increases our capacity for increased mindfulness when we come back to complete the task.

As a team leader there are many ways to encourage and incorporate reflective action. I once introduced this concept to a team, and after we spent some time discussing our current work situation I asked everyone to take a 10-15 minute walk with a pen and notepad in hand. They were instructed to go outside and walk while contemplating the situation and then just write down anything that came to mind. When we reconvened, the ideas were much more diverse than they would have been had we simply stayed put and brainstormed together.

Another option when you’re brainstorming ideas as a group is to give people a few minutes individually first to reflect and write down their thoughts before jumping into the big group brainstorm.

How can you incorporate reflective action into how you lead?

  1. Ask Transformational Questions

I have an exercise I use in wellness leadership retreats where I ask participants a few weeks in advance to contact 15-25 people who know them best (work colleagues, friends, family) and ask them this question,

“When I am at my best, who am I?”

It comes from Robert Quinn’s “The Deep Change Field Guide; A Personal Course to Discovering the Leader Within.” Although it may be easy to identify our flaws or even the areas where we excel, it is often harder to get to our unique skills – the way that we most create value for the world. I just ask them to notice what the answers do for them.

What I most often hear is “the feedback makes me want to be at my best more often.” Isn’t this exactly what we want our team members to be doing? This is an example of a transformational question; the kind of question that shifts thinking in a positive way, inspires people, and gets them engaged in a vision.

Here are a few other questions that if used at the right time, in the right way, can have a profound effect on transforming your team:

  • What do we believe in?
  • What do we want our culture to be?
  • How does this fit with our purpose and vision?
  • What is the most powerful action we can take right now?
  • How can we work with what is available?

Click here for more on transformational questions.

  1. Examine Your Hypocrisies

Self-transformation is critical to transforming organizations. Quinn recommends examining your hypocrisies as a leader as a method of self-transformation. What would happen if we all examined our hypocrisies and then worked at removing them? Sometimes we’re so caught up in what we’re supposed to be that we fail to see how hypocritical our actions are, and how damaging this is not only for our own health, but to the integrity of our leadership of others.

I can talk about this with some credibility, since, like every leader, I have had my hypocritical moments!   Once was in the year of 2001 as I was leading the team heading into the 5th Annual Health Work & Wellness™ Conference.

My problem was that I was coming into this conference very exhausted and stressed. We had some growing pains the year prior and had experienced a loss. Although we were heading into this conference with 475 delegates registered and it was a very financially successful year, it had been a tough haul to get there and the stress was showing.

In addition to that, I had not quite learned the art of saying no yet, and when my Communications Manager got me a spot on the morning television show the day before the conference, I took it. What that meant was losing a day of preparation time to fly in a day early. We were up late preparing, and then up extremely early the next morning to get to the studio. Already coming into this conference tired and stressed, I added an extra helping of strain to my pre-conference experience by agreeing to do this show. Not being a morning person, this added a whole other layer to the story!

The morning of the show I was so tired I could hardly remember my name, and when I think back on it, who would really want to attend a wellness conference led by someone who looked like I did that morning??   I was given a video of that interview, and (having not destroyed it yet) I watched it recently and it is painful. It certainly was a wake up call for me.

What we went on to do after that conference was hold our first-ever one-day retreat as a Conference Team. Not to debrief the event, but to develop our mission and vision going forward, decide how we would work together as a team, how we would schedule and communicate with each other in future, and most importantly how we would apply everything we were teaching through this conference to our own team. In other words, we examined our own hypocrisies hard that year.

What I did personally was to begin to pay closer attention to my own practices around sleep, scheduling, breaks, disconnecting, working smarter and being more aware of what was going on for my team members.

What are your hypocrisies as a leader and how can you close the gap between what you say and what you do?

  1. Develop Your Resilience Wardrobe

Rosamund Zander was our opening keynote speaker for the Health Work & Wellness™ Conference 2006: People…Performance…Profit. She quoted her father-in-law as saying:

“There is no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing!”

Building resilience is like having the appropriate clothing for any kind of weather – the storms, the conflicts, the black days, the perpetual rain that can sometimes occur in work situations.   As leaders, not only do we need the appropriate clothing (practices) but we need to remember to use those practices on ourselves first (like putting on your oxygen mask first) when things get rocky. This is a transformational leadership skill.

What is in your resilience wardrobe? What can you pull out on a minute’s notice to protect you from going on that downward spiral toward exhaustion and burnout as you walk through the storms?

I combed the research as I was writing my book and asked some of the experts I interviewed for their best recommendations around resilience. Of the many practices discussed more fully in the book, here are just a few suggestions:

  • Practice email intelligence – pick three times each day to check and respond to emails. Research shows that checking more frequently disrupts focus, causes more stress and releases more cortisol into our body, which interferes with memory and lowers immunity.
  • Take time to meditate – studies show that a short daily meditation improves positivity and creativity. If this is not a daily practice for you, consider that the effects of meditation tend to be cumulative, so even if you miss a day or two, 12-15 minutes/day on most days will make a difference!
  • Learn mindfulness, the process of tuning into our surroundings and being aware of how we are responding to them. Mindfulness can increase the positive emotions in our lives, help us to deal with chronic stress, and can increase productivity, innovation and satisfaction. One simple way to start is to take a few minutes every so often at work to notice your bodily sensations. Is there tension anywhere? How are you sitting or standing? And then consciously let go of any tension you become aware of.


Questions to Ponder About Becoming a More Transformational Leader:

  • In what ways do I want to become a more transformational leader?
  • How do I see myself leading differently a year from now?
  • What steps am I willing to take to shift away from the norm and be positively deviant at work?



Deborah Connors

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.

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