The 10 Essential Qualities of a Transformational Leader

transformational leader

There’s a shift underway in how enterprises operate.

Just look at four basic elements of operations:

In many organizations today, leadership functions hierarchically in command and control fashion, outcomes are mostly initiatives and projects, work execution happens by function (usually in siloes), and the cadence is relentlessly focused on the quarter.

But business leaders in cutting-edge enterprises are realizing the strategies of today won’t cut it tomorrow.

To compete tomorrow, you have to embrace a new perspective on how you operate. Your leadership must be transformational, working across journeys, functions, and departments. Your outcomes must focus on experiences. Your work execution must be coordinated in an enterprise ecosystem with multiple groups assembling into teams and teams working together. Finally, your cadence must shift from a quarterly focus to a focus on continuous delivery.

Put simply, we’re experiencing a shift to a modern operating model. And this requires a new kind of leader—a transformational leader.

Your success hinges on your ability to become this type of leader. It’s not primarily about digital. It’s about effectively leading the transformation. As George Westerman of MIT says, “As sexy as it is to speculate about new technologies such as AI, robots, and the internet of things (IoT), the focus on technology can steer the conversation in a dangerous direction. Because when it comes to digital transformation, digital is not the answer. Transformation is.”

So, how do you make this shift?

Here are the 10 essential qualities you must embody to get there.

1. Understand the digital work crisis.

Regardless of where you work, you’re likely racing to digitize your processes across departments, from sales to finance to customer support and beyond. Since digitization saves time and money, it’s without question the right direction to head in, which is why spending on digital transformation will reach nearly $2 trillion in 2022, according to IDC. And yet for all the benefits that digitization brings, it also brings new pressures—pressures that collectively are creating a digital work crisis.

In this digital work crisis:

In short, the digital work crisis is the combination of all the pressures that come with digitization, including overwhelming software options, endless iterations, global competition, isolated workers, communication overload, information overload, and an increased rate of technological change.

You have to be clued into these trends to be a transformational leader.

“As sexy as it is to speculate about new technologies such as AI, robots, and the internet of things (IoT), the focus on technology can steer the conversation in a dangerous direction. Because when it comes to digital transformation, digital is not the answer. Transformation is.”—George Westerman, MIT

2. Focus on modern work management (not just project management).

In the era of modern work, a fixation on project management won’t cut it. Transformational leaders know that they must take the principles of project management and apply them across all work. This is where work management comes in.

Work management is about workflows across the entire enterprise. It focuses on visibility into work performance results (not tasks). As Scott Shippy, PMO Sr. Director at Viasat, says, “Work management goes beyond the project. It includes business as usual—ongoing activities that occur in a cyclical nature. Work management focuses on how you keep the business running in an efficient way day in and day out across the organization.”

Josh Blackwood, Principal Technology Solutions Consultant at ADP, echoes this, saying, “Project management is a time-boxed activity with a specific start and end date. Work management tends to be more focused around continuous and operational activities.”

MaryAnn Erickson, Workflow Systems Engineer at Allianz Partners, adds, “The art of project management is in creating a plan of how to get things done–the art of work management is in doing it. This is an art. It takes not just a tactical or a technical mind, but a creative one to excel at this type of work.”

This expansive view from projects to all of work is a critical shift for the transformative leader, especially as business outcomes increasingly revolve around customer experiences and journeys.

3. Make change management a central role.

The speed of technological change will only get faster in the coming years. As a result, you need someone in a key role who understands what will stick versus what is just a fad. As the writer Rob Liano says, “You must embrace change before change erases you.”

Companies, teams, and individuals that fail to adapt to the change always swirling around them are in danger of being run over and made obsolete by that change. In other words, not changing is not an option. Yuval Harari writes, “If somebody describes to you the world of the mid-21st century and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then if somebody describes to you the world of the mid 21st-century and it doesn’t sound like science fiction—it is certainly false. We cannot be sure of the specifics, but change itself is the only certainty.”

Given these facts, it’s more critical than ever to invest in resources that can help you make sense of change. Find experts who understand workforce trends and put them in positions where they can launch your company forward.

Perhaps the most impressive illustration of why change management matters comes from, of all places, Domino’s Pizza. Around a decade ago, Domino’s decided to take the ample criticism of their pizza seriously and completely rework the product. Because of this change, Domino’s became the highest performing stock from 2010 to 2017:

Watch the full story here:

This turnaround story is proof that change management matters regardless of your industry. You can’t keep the status quo and hope for success. You have to change with the times.

4. Act like the future of work is human (because it is).

Copywriter Hugh MacLeod was fond of saying, “If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face.” It’s true. No one wants to be treated as a means to an end. That’s why in his book Marketing Rebellion, Mark Schaefer makes the claim that “the most human company wins.” To put this into practice, Schaefer advises companies to, among other things, “be fans of your fans. Make them the hero of your story.” These human stories connect with prospects and customers at an emotional level, which is essential for building an empathetic and authentic brand.

Relationship extends into the workplace. Gallup writes that their research has “repeatedly shown a concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job.” Specifically, they find that women who “strongly agree” that they have a best friend at work are “more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the women who say otherwise (29%).” Another study from Brigham Young University showed that employee productivity increased by 20% after employees were randomly assigned to play video games together with team members they didn’t have a prior relationship with.

[Harvard Business Review Report: “The Future of Work: A Nexus of Strategy and Execution”]

Above all, you must make sure that technology helps rather than hurts relationships. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book Team Human, “anything that brings us closer together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our individual or collective will.”

Digital technology must serve us—not the other way around.

5. Know the most marketable skills of the future.

Until a few hundred years ago, you would have likely spent every working day of your life in a single profession: farming. Since the 1300s, when such data started being tracked, the percentage of people working as farmers in European countries fell from around 75% in the 1300s down to roughly 2% today. In the United States 64% of all jobs were farming jobs as recently as the 1850s. (Today it’s 2%.) Back then you’d wake up every day and farm — and you’d likely do this one job until you were too feeble to work anymore. One job for life.

Desk jobs, globalization, and university education changed that norm. While people stay at the same job longer today than people used to over the past four decades, we still change jobs far more often than people did hundreds of years ago when job options were almost nil.

To reduce your anxiety in the face of change, you’ll want to:

  1. Be comfortable with ambiguity.
  2. Develop a zest for learning.
  3. Embody empathy.
  4. Get stuff done—and done right.

These are the most marketable skills of the future.

6. Practice minimalism as a work management strategy.

Warren Buffett was fond of saying, "You only have to do a very few things right in your life, so long as you don't do too many things wrong." There’s a reason Buffett’s fond of saying it. This philosophy has led him to a life of financial wealth.

In a word, the philosophy convened in Buffett’s quote is minimalism. Whereas maximalism is about living out of fear that you'll miss out on potential benefits if you don't do every action that could possibly benefit you in any way, minimalism is about reflecting on what matters most and acting only on those things.

In our State of Work report, we’ve found that while 64% of us say our workplace regularly asks us to think of how we can do things in a completely new way, a full 58% of us say we’re so swamped with getting day-to-day work done that we don’t have time to think beyond our daily to-do list.

Minimalism can help resolve this problem by getting us to cut back on the busyness that gets in the way of our ability to think. As James Clear writes, “We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you are working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.”

7. Play to the strengths of each individual on your (cross-departmental) team.

In an era of increased complexity, it’s more important than ever to interact across departments. After all, it’s too easy to get comfortable in your niche and lose focus on the overall strategy you’re pursuing.

This requires having a clear sense of strategy top to bottom. Knowledge workers should have a firm grasp on what the overall strategy is — and how their efforts fit into that strategy. What’s more, the strategy should remain consistent the whole way up the organization from managers to directors to vice presidents and to executives.

It also requires playing to the full range of strengths on your team. To do this, it helps to have your team take personality type tests such as Discovery Insights, Myers-Briggs’ Type Indicator, DiSC, and others. This way you can understand at a glance where people’s strengths lie and take full advantage of them as a team. In addition, one of the best ways to understand the strengths of your team members is to simply ask them: “What strengths do you bring to the team?” Chances are, they know best.

When each person does what they’re best at, you’ll end up with a far more effective cross-departmental workplace.

8. Speak to elephant and the rider.

According to the writer Jonathan Haidt (and echoed in Workfront CEO Alex Shootman's book  Done Right), all human beings consist of an emotional self (called the elephant) and a rational self (called the rider). The rational self can give directions to the emotional self all it wants, but, like a rider trying to lead an elephant, the emotional self has its own will and might ignore those directions completely.

We’ve all experienced this. We get into a disagreement with a friend or a colleague, and despite our best efforts, our stress levels rise. Our rational self can’t simply lecture the stress away. The emotion exists, regardless of what our best logic says.

Because of this, we cannot ignore emotion if we hope to successfully lead projects. We must consider what people are feeling, because feeling is the elephant that moves the rider forward. As Chip and Dan Heath write, “When change works, it's because leaders are speaking to the elephant as well as to the rider.”

9. Don’t let data overwhelm you. Find what matters most.

Generally speaking, the problem facing us in the digital age isn’t a lack of data. It’s just the opposite: Too much data.

In our State of Work report, for instance, we found that only 4% of respondents said that they want more data, while 13% said that they’re drowning in data to the point that it makes their job more confusing. What’s more, 40% of respondents said they have good data but struggle to make the right decisions with it.

This circles back to the importance of minimalism. It’s critical to not get sidetracked with thinking that the best strategy is to amass more and more data. Instead, focus on a strategy or two that generates the business results you’re seeking, and then get the data you need to execute on that front.

The data itself doesn’t matter. What you do with the data matters.

10. Adopt the mindful way to get work done.

Alain de Botton once wrote, "It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much."

Do you relate? Do you ever feel like it’s difficult to concentrate at work?

Mindfulness expert (and consultant for Harvard Medical School) Shinzen Young outlines a simple way to concentrate. He recommends systematically becoming aware of what you see, hear, and feel at various moments of your day.

It’s a practical and immediate way to become a transformational leader. Ask yourself the following questions:

If you’re constantly distracted by what you see, hear, and feel, chances are your work is less effective. And you might not be alone. Just imagine what’s happening to your team and your enterprise when distractions are high and concentration is low. The results can be devastating — particularly since concentration is the definition of work.

Transformational leaders know that work requires deep concentration. "Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand,” wrote Alexander Graham Bell. “The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

Success hinges on your ability to focus.

New Leadership for the Era of Modern Work

Tomorrow’s leaders will operate at a different level. They’ll work across journeys, focus on experiences, coordinate at a global level, and shift their cadence from quarterly delivery to continuous delivery. Embody these ten best practices and become the transformational leader your enterprise needs.

Photo by Cody Davis on Unsplash

[Harvard Business Review Report: “The Future of Work: A Nexus of Strategy and Execution”]