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Competencies Leadership

3 Things Transformational Leaders Do Differently

By Sarah Beckett on June, 4 2015
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Sarah Beckett

Conceptions of leadership are evolving. 

“Collective Genius,” which just received the award for the best HBR article of 2014, offers a fascinating look at some of the most successful leadership strategies in recent history, including those that helped shape Google and strengthen the Volkswagen brand.

So what makes a great leader? The title of the article holds the key…

Genius is usually defined as the intellectual capacity of an individual, a view that supports an individualist idea of leadership, where a single person generates the vision and steers the organization.

But “Collective Genius” (full HBR article here) suggests that innovation isn’t the product of a single mind, and that effective leadership relies less on personal dynamism and creativity than on the ability to create an environment where collaboration and curiosity can thrive.

It’s a view of leadership that’s being adopted by some of today’s most progressive and successful organizations and generating some of the most remarkable success stories of recent decades.

Defining the organization’s strength collectively rather than placing it in the hands of a single individual results in a more powerful and sustainable model. It also changes the way we define good leadership.

Instead of using words like “dynamic” and “magnetic” to characterize a leader who can gather individuals around them and convince them to follow, the vocabulary is shifting towards “nurturing” and “fostering”—language that underlines the role today’s leaders play as facilitators who create mechanisms and cultures that support the collective power of the organization.

At HRSG, we define this new approach as “transformational leadership,” and we have identified the observable behaviors that transformational leaders demonstrate on the job. By quantifying competencies such as “inspiring others” and “fostering learning and development,” organizations can select and nurture individuals with the potential to effect transformation in the workplace and across the wider community within which the organization operates.

Let’s look at three things innovative leaders do differently:

They set the stage, not the direction.

Traditionally, leaders were the people who decided on and steered the organization in the right direction. Today, leaders who drive innovation don’t prioritize their own ideas and contributions. Instead, they are adept at creating the conditions that enable key groups within the organization to collaborate openly, exchange ideas, and build towards a consensus.

The HBR article uses the example of Volkswagen’s CMO, who created Marketing Worx!, a series of collaborative “labs” that fostered new creative communities within the marketing department by bringing people together to experiment, ideate, and prototype in a supportive environment.

This new approach launched Volkswagen’s “Think Blue” initiative, which has become the guiding principle not only for marketing, but for the whole organization, with employees in more than 40 countries launching their own Think Blue projects.

The power of this initiative goes beyond anything an individual could impose on a group, but by setting the groundwork for open collaboration, the CMO was able to set off a groundswell of cultural change throughout the organization.

Transformational leadership competency >> Exemplifying Integrity

They build community, not product.

As trite as it sounds, transformative leaders recognize that an organization’s greatest strength comes from its people, not its products or services.

For example, when Google’s SVP of Engineering was tasked with ensuring the organization’s systems and equipment could continue to support an exponentially increasing user base, the logical first step would have been to focus on developing a technical solution. Instead, he looked at ways to build a community of employees who were capable of continually generating new ideas.

By providing the space and infrastructure for his engineers to self-select into two loose teams pursuing very different solutions to the problem, the SVP was able to guide the organization in developing, testing, and selecting the best path forward.

Just as important, the process respected and rewarded the spirit of innovation, thereby ensuring the organization could continue to innovate, adapt, and excel in future.

Transformational leadership competency >> Nurturing Innovation

They welcome difference. The HBR article talks about “creative abrasion,” a mix of intellectual diversity and intellectual conflict that is essential to innovation, but that can create discomfort and the sense of a loss of control.

Leaders who are not afraid to let the inevitable creative disagreements play out and who resist the urge to shut things down too soon for the sake of harmony see better results than those who are focused on building consensus and reinforcing the status quo.

By soliciting—and respecting—contributions from a diverse group, and by allowing ideas to be developed, challenged, and refined, transformative leaders enrich the organization with a wider range of fresh, creative, thoughtful ideas.

Transformational leadership competency >> Embracing Diversity

Read more about the power of “Collective Genius.”

Learn more about HRSG’s transformational leadership competencies.