Addressing a round table in Melbourne for entrepreneurs and achievers with innovative minds, I explored what distinguishes Transformational-Leadership from the rest.
In 30 years of action research with leaders and innovators, I found that Transformational- Leaders shared these traits in common . . .

1.   Transformational-Leaders understand that transformation is central to leadership

All true leadership is transformational. If we’re not transforming we’re just tinkering around the edges, working with symptoms but not dealing with the cause. The breadth of challenges prevailing today for our organisations, calls for a more advanced generation of leaders capable of transforming.

There’s a distinction between transformation and change. Change can mean many things – a trivial, surface only difference without much or lasting significance. If I change the room my team meets in, for instance, that alone is unlikely to improve morale. Change can also be huge, like the sudden difference to a beach after a tsunami. In contrast, transformation is a complete, emergent process, a shift from one form or state into another.

2.  Transformation involves transforming the Self

Transformation isn’t only about what happens ‘out there’. A personal path is walked alongside the leadership task or project undertaken with others. This ‘inner leadership’ awareness often brings surprises – not all of them welcome as some may bring up demons forgotten but not gone, or a challenge to confront a weakness, waiting and needing to be transformed.

To remain removed and detached can produce an attitude of disinterest, blame and lack of responsibility. This is divorced from esprit de corps, innovation and possibly even the conditions required for innovation. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy. To open to your own transformation is to come alive.

There is state of ‘Zen-like detachment’ and observation that is quite distinct from the ‘change happens out there and it’s nothing to do with me’ state. Zen-detachment is a masterful state chosen with full awareness to best fit the situation at hand. It does not abandon compassion and connection in the way careless detachment may do.

3.   On a daily basis, Transformational-Leaders are conscious that what they do and say now
creates the future

As leaders, we’re involved in creating the future. We’re manifesting something, whether that be a viable company, philanthropic project, new product, expanded market, or functional community. We also help shape the spirit of the place. Transformational-Leaders are aware that all they do today is the basis of what they manifest tomorrow – or next year. What they do in the present matters. So if they transgress, they own it and make amends wherever possible.

The power lies in today being a conscious creator of the future. One that adds value and looks to what’s possible not just what’s easiest/quickest/necessary right now. Whether you are a small business owner or MD of a large corporate, as a leader we all have a piece of the future world that we collectively manifest.

Being aware that you create the future through your present, together with your team and colleagues, adds a new dimension, energy and mindset to your work.

4.   Transformational-Leaders go beyond the intellect to the more expansive level of the Original Mind

Logic, rationality, mathematics are what we are schooled in and what our economic and legal system is built upon. But Transformational-Leaders know it is not all there is and can be mistaken for reality.

Of course logic and reason are brilliant and useful tools, but they have their place and use. They are tools, not our default setting. Because beyond them lies our sense of wonder, imagination, creativity, joy, the intelligence of the heart and love as the most powerful force in the world.

When I first enter organisations the talk is often all about strategy, finances, technology and problem solving. But caught in that paradigm, leaders have lost clear sight of their own dream and risk becoming removed from their humanity.

Zen Buddhism describes an over-emphasis on the intellect and reason as delusional and illustrates with the metaphor of mistaking the servant for the master. The general is supposed to be the servant, but instead usurps authority. According to Taoist psychology, the conscious mind (that does the thinking) is a servant to the original mind, but the activity of the conscious mind tends to become so self- involved that it behaves as though it’s an independent entity. When the ‘sword is turned around’ in the metaphor, the original mind retrieves command over the delinquent conscious mind. The original mind includes and goes beyond the logical mind.

5.   Transformational-Leaders focus on their core Purpose

Purpose has enormous transformational potential. Your purpose as a leader is why you were drawn to lead in the first place. It is the enactment of your personal truth. Purpose is quite distinct from the leadership task, although the two need to be in alignment. The nearest I can get to describing purpose is through two notions – your Dream and the ‘grand will’.

The Dream is the ennobling quest, some feeling or idea that is harboured as both inspirational and aspirational, that brings associations of joy and of contribution and generating value. It was often part of a youthful aspiration held as children about what we would do or the way we would be when we grow up, wrapped in a childlike fantasy.

As mature adults, the dream is likely forgotten or regarded as a silly fairytale, mistakenly put in the same category as a belief in father Christmas, or real justice.

However that youthful dream may be a trusted reflection of our original mind before it became too changed and clouded by social constructs. The early dream, if you can start to recall it, contains a pure and authentic theme belonging to your Purpose. You know when you start to hit on it because your spirit starts to soar.

So listen to what is emerging from within you about your course of being in the world. It is not for your aggrandizement, but so that you can bring what is emerging into reality as it needs to be. This is the “grand will”.

6.   Transformational Leaders hold the conviction of “I-Thou”, creating symbols and metaphors that speak to people’s hearts and minds

Philosopher Martin Buber describes the ‘grand will’ in his writings on I-Thou, although these ideas are found in other philosophical and psychological literature, such as writing as diverse as Victor Frankl and David Bohm.

The philosophy of I-Thou and oneness embraces the idea that everything is interconnected and we are all part of the unfolding whole. The notion of relationship is not so much an intellectual premise as a deep knowing about the world and who we are within it in relation to others. This contrasts with an ‘I-It’ relationship, where the other is objectified.

Transfomational-Leaders quality of relationship and understanding enables them to stand in the shoes of the other and catch unique moments in the history of their organizations, creating symbols and metaphors that speak to people’s hearts and minds about purpose and meaning. This brings us the seventh and perhaps the most important Trait.

7.   Perhaps most importantly, they cultivate the capacity for self-renewal through a habit of regular reflection and inner work.

There are times along the leadership path when turning to others for renewal is not possible or wise. Others are turning to you, and sometimes the circumstances test all your resources to the limit. Yet you must find it within yourself to generate hope and spirit, and pass it on to others.

Reflective practice is vital for self-renewal. It isn’t something that can be learned overnight, but regular and frequent time out to “reflect’ builds the skill that has great reward. This is learning to be a mentor to your self, investigate your own thinking patterns, challenge your motivation and intent, explore our self-awareness and question self-management.

With the noise and distraction of the external world cleared away, the conditions are right to become clearer, discover what really matters and what is your truth. Here you cultivate your dream, take stock of present reality, assimilate, and work out the next plan. With renewed focus and energy you can restore yourself.

Reflective practice eventually takes us back to the core self, the original mind and back to Source.


Di Percy is a director of Vogel Percy, with long experience assisting many of Australia’s top businesses leaders in transformational change. Di is the Founder of OD Australia and a non-executive director including the State board of CEDA for five years and the Dharma School chair for two years. M.Bus (psychodynamics); MAICD; MASA