Some companies are fortunate enough to have a transformational leader as their founder like Steve Jobs at Apple or Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines. But, the true find is when a company that is on a downward trajectory finds a leader who is able to create a legendary turnaround like Mark Hurd at Hewlett-Packard, Bill George at Medtronic, or Gordon Bethune at Continental Airlines. There's no doubt that America needs Barack Obama to be that kind of transformational leader as if the U.S. were a company, we'd be spoken about in the same sentence with General Motors or Sears. So, what advice can we give Barack to be the kind of transformational leader we need today?
First, let's give some credit to James MacGregor Burns who long ago wrote the book Leadership and described two kinds of leaders: "transactional" and "transforming." He wrote, "The relations of most leaders and followers are transactional -- leaders approach followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another...Transforming leadership, while more complex, is more potent. The transforming leader recognizes an existing need or demand of a potential follower. But, beyond that, the transforming leader looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower. The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents."
It's almost like a transactional leader is leading from the bottom of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid while the transformational leader (I prefer "transformational" to "transforming") is leading from the top. No doubt, most political pundits would acknowledge that Hillary Clinton ran her campaign as a transactional leader with her very tangible, policy-driven, and practical approach to solving problems. In fact, one of the chief knocks on Hillary has been her inability to inspire or help people see the bigger picture and, at times, her tendency to focus on the fear-driven survival needs of the electorate.
Barack's campaign mirrored much of what Burns wrote: the "complex" but "potent" message, the fact that Barack recognized the "higher needs" in his followers - the desire for a new kind of politics that stands above the past political pollution, and the "Yes, we can" message that "converts follower into leaders" and has helped convert Barack Obama into a "moral agent." There is no doubt Barack is a different kind of leader: one who asks us to "be all we can be" if I can be so bold as to steal a phrase from Maslow and the US Army. JFK used to talk about a rising tide lifting all boats and that's the kind of feeling many Americans experience when they hear Barack speak, read his books, or really take a moment to understand his truly American Dream of a life story. He needs to give us a bold vision that can unite us and help us to rise above the troubles that will plague over the next two to three years as we get ourselves out of this mess.
Whether in business or politics, transformational leaders need to surround themselves with practical, solutions-driven operators who know how to "make the trains run on time." You've chosen a Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who's a political mechanic and a smart-as-a-whip cabinet that are -- for the most part -- world class subject matter experts in their chosen field. Transformational leaders give their executives a sense of where we're going and some core values that will serve as the guide for how to make decisions. Barack needs to find a few Presidential potholes to fix in the first six months as any company in turnaround needs to have some initial small victories to reverse the negative momentum that was occurring in the prior regime. Emotions are contagious and fear and doom are the current dominant emotions. The timing of this change of leaders is perfect as it can abate the negative ripples that are playing out in mass psychology. Confidence, hope, determination, and accomplishment need to be deeply-seeded in your corporate culture as this will set a high bar that all within the Obama administration can shoot for.
Of course, running a business is different than being the President of the United States. But, as a transformational leader, Barack needs to remember that his greatest gift is in helping us see the sense of "oneness" that we have at our core that can unite us. And, a visionary leader helps us to see the potential of what can be while having a leadership team that can actualize that into reality. Rarely has there been a corporate transformation as spectacular and important as what Barack is about to take on, but he's made all the right moves so far and he certainly has the American people rooting him on.
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