Three traits of a transformational leader

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What qualities do leaders need to take their organization on a transformational journey: converting a seemingly far-off mission into day-to-day practice for their teams, in a way that yields meaningful new results?

Truly transformational leaders embrace paradox: they deal with the now while being focused on the future; they are decisive in conditions of uncertainty; and their leadership comes from listening and is marked by humility. Working closely with just such a leader for the last five years, I’ve witnessed these three qualities at play in the massive transformation of business performance. The result was high-margin double-digit growth despite challenging market conditions, achieved by a highly engaged organization hungry to take on more. And at the heart of the journey was operationalizing the mission to “put the customer first.” The crux of the transformation entailed translating this mantra from an abstract idea into the everyday actions and decisions of every team member — into how they filtered and responded to data, how they interacted with internal and external stakeholders, how they looked out and planned across multiple time horizons, and how they prioritized and executed next steps.

For the leader, it was essential that she model behaviors that would align the team during this period of change. This was all the more important as the transformation coincided with the pandemic, civil unrest, and unprecedented issues with supply chain — greater disruption condensed into a shorter period than most companies had ever experienced in their lifetime. This unsettled world required constant adjustments and pivots to operational plans but on the upside, they learned to harness customer-centricity as their compass through the noise. As they navigated together, I observed these three essential leadership qualities in play:

  1. Future-focused activator. The leader leveraged her strategic thinking and execution mobilization strengths to build a high-potential team, and then inspired her people to lean in and bring their very best every day, just as she did. At the same time, she continuously communicated a clear and compelling picture of future success. The combination of these two attributes is critical: if you’re overly future-focused, or only concerned with activating in the here and now, it simply doesn’t work…
  2. Resolute, yet adaptive. The leader rolled with the punches and responded thoughtfully to market and company evolutions in real-time by making tough calls — without all of the information. What boosted teams’ confidence was the disciplined groundwork they laid to identify, better understand and deepen relationships with target customers. These insights enabled them not only to anticipate customers’ needs through tough times but also aided incredibly in the quest to innovate novel ways to delight them.
  3. Inspiring because of humility, not in spite of it. This last quality was essential to enrolling the broader ecosystem (including key partners outside of the company) to coordinate a series of deliberate shifts and changes critical for success. The result was an utter transformation in how this organization and its partners proactively planned, mobilized and ultimately delivered a more cohesive and prolific set of offerings and services to their customers. The result was a win-win-win for all.

What these actions inspired in those around this leader — particularly her extended leadership community — was deep reflection and self-work on their default patterns of thinking and behaving. Witnessing small successes snowball into bigger ones fueled their own ambition and sense of what they could achieve, all of which contributed to better performance. An organization that began the journey as insular and reactive has since become dynamic and outward-looking — and an excellent partner to those seeking to achieve mutually beneficial business goals.

The practical challenge when reading about lessons drawn from the experience of others is to relate them to our own circumstances. So here’s a simple thought experiment. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Which of these seemingly paradoxical qualities – future-focused activator; resolute yet adaptive; inspiration stemming from humility – comes most naturally to me?
  • Which do I tend to overlook or find hardest to grasp?
  • What is the cost of that?
  • What could I gain from fully embracing and leaning into each one?

As the global economy faces yet a new set of challenges in the post-pandemic era, what traits must you embody to help your organization transform?

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