It’s a bird or It’s a plane. No it’s a Transformational Leader!

Gagan Adlakha

The Transformational Leader is the New Superhero!

Leaders who can help transform an organization have always been in demand, however, with the clichéd VUCA world upon us, it has moved from being a desirable trait to a vital and an essential one.

Speed and complexity of change are the new super villains. There is so much happening and so fast. The speed of change externally necessitates the need for it internally too. ‘Transform, (or pivot, as startups call it) or Die’, is repeated like a mantra these days not only for the organization but also for the leaders themselves.

What does a leader need, to become that new leader, a transformational leader? A leader typically reaches the top on the dint of performance in his/her respective functions and/ or the industry. However as they say ‘what got you here, will not get you to where you want to go”.  Organizational leadership and especially,of the transformational kind, is a different ball game. So what superpowers does such leader need to have for this?

Well, apart from her or his obvious domain/ industry skills I think the following leadership capacities are critical:

  1. Systems Thinking

Organisations are conceptual constructs. What we experience of it are behaviors of the people representing it or manifestations of it largely as products and services.

Thus, change or transformation will be felt and seen in the change of behavior of its people and its many manifestations on the final products or services of the organization. No behavior change, no organizational transformation.

How do we change behavior? Very often behavior change is ‘asked for’ from individuals in the organization – feedback, reviews, 360 surveys, training, coaching, competency frameworks, expected values etc. – without recognizing that over 90% of people’s behavior is driven by the system they exist in and not by their own volition.

The errant car driver on the roads of Gurgaon behaves completely differently on the roads of Singapore or US not because of new skills or a higher will, but the demand that the system puts on him.

Systems drive behavior; to get the right behaviors going, leaders need to put the right system in place.

Keeping this in mind, a leader will need to use the Systems Thinking lens while diagnosing and transforming the organization. That primarily starts by looking at its various elements (purpose, vision, goals, structures, values, processes, shared leadership, competencies etc.) and their interlinked. In a system, a cause can have many effects and an effect can have many causes. Understanding and working on a system is both a science and an art, and a critical capacity for a transformational leader.

  1. Empathy

Most transformations do not deliver primarily because they are largely dealt with the left-brain rather than a whole brain. The so-called right-brained stuff is often deprioritized and that’s what trips it all up. And lack of empathy plays a vital role here.

Empathy can be of many kinds,however; the following two stand out for a change leader.

Firstly, a leader looking at transforming an organization will necessarily have to deal with people, their feelings and their emotions. Creating the right energies and obviating the wrong ones can greatly enable the transformation and reduce the resistance to change. This will require high EQ, especially empathy.

Recognizing, accepting and respecting the thoughts and feelings of people and to help them in the transformational journey will require the leader to get into people’s skin not only their shoes.That’s the empathy superpower.

In the other kind, empathy will help in making better strategic decisions that will be critical in the change process. A person with high empathy will find it easier to place him/herself, others and the organizational system in various probable future situations and understand and feel it. They will be able to see and feel how the future might look like for various stakeholders and the context they may exist in.

This understanding and feeling will lead to better decision making, better strategies and thus better results.

  1. Learnability

However hard a leader tries, however much planning may have been done, each transformation is a journey into the unknown and/or the yet-to-be experienced.  The context will change, mistakes will be made, people will be unpredictable, there will be unintended consequences, resources will under stress and things will emerge… what will be of utmost importance will be the ability quickly recognize, accept, learn and recalibrate. Many a bull headed leader has failed to do that and failed miserably.

Learnability will also be needed to put into the organizational system as the emergencies may happen in any part of the organization and the learning there needs to quickly transmitted to the rest of the system. Else the same mistakes will be repeated in different parts of the organization wasting precious time and resources. Repeated mistakes will also impact the morale of the team and increase the resistance to change. Something the leader desperately wants to avoid.

  1. Execution

This one is probably the most obvious super power of a transformational superhero.One of most infuriating business challenges today is closing what is commonly known as the execution gap. The execution gap is the perceived gap between an organization’s strategies and expectations and its ability to meet those goals and put ideas into action.

Transformation is a roll up your sleeves kind of a job and the leader needs to lead from the front not like a consultant from the sidelines. Something akin to the famous Thomas Edison quote: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”- execution is a grind!!

Execution is not just one skill, I believe it’s actually a cluster of skills like pre execution planning, goal setting, punctilious evaluation and governance, holding people accountable, handling people and conflicts, etc- all coming together to create movement, maintain momentum and navigate the ship to help create the dreams and visions into reality. 

  1. Self Awareness

This is the most non-intuitive superpower but is maybe the most fundamental. Every action or inaction of the leader impacts the organization is a myriad ways and the leader needs to be mindful of it. The leader’s behaviors impact the organizational system, maybe more than anything else. And where do the leader’s behaviors come from?

Like the external system driving behaviors in an organization, our individual behaviors are also determined by the system within. Our aspirations, values, fears, belief structures, processes, EQ, abilities and attitudes etc. make up our internal system. A leader needs to be very aware of his/her own system, for it will influence every action of theirs having far reaching impact on the system and people they are responsible for and any transformation they attempt.  

A superhero or a super-team?

Getting all this in a person is really tough, that’s where Shared Leadership teams come into play. Where it’s not just one leader but a group which takes on the leadership role, where different people with varied but complementary skills and attitudes come together to create a Shared Leadership team owning the whole system and helping is grow, thrive or transform. It’s not easy making such teams but the effort might be worth it for such teams will also provide a greater span, better feel and quicker action while being a safer bet and more sustainable.

My bet is that its wiser to develop Shared Leadership teams rather than look for the messiah – The Transformational Superhero.

Author-Gagan Adlakha is a Leadership Coach and a specialist in the area of people performance with over 28 years of experience.  An XLRI 1990 alumnus, he has designed and delivered solutions for organizations including the Max, PepsiCo, Amex, Unilever, Colgate, Airtel, Genpact, Hewitt, Whirlpool, Accenture, Interglobe, GE, ITC, Hero, RB, Mother Dairy, Ericsson, Cap Gemini, Jubilant, Viacom18, Aditya Birla, Godrej, CK Birla, Star, and IBM. His experience has been across countries, cultures, levels, and industries. Currently Gagan is working at Vyaktitva since 2004 as Leadership Coach & Sr. Partner.


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