Developing Transformational Leaders for a Changing World

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Once upon a time, leadership was a little more standard than it is today. Would-be executives emerged from MBA programs into a corporate world in which, for the most part, they knew what to expect. Business as usual was the norm. Today, however, the status quo is anything but, with the World Economic Forum reporting on a number of factors that have led to a period of dramatic change in the world of work:

“As automation, primarily in the form of robotics, artificial intelligence and other new technologies, are developing at an unprecedented rate, and are having a significant impact on multiple industries, they are leading to wide-ranging changes to the jobs, tasks and skills required within each sector. Concurrently, a number of other factors, such as labour mobility and migration; demographic change; changes in the delivery and quality of education and skills; and growing talent needs in sectors such as infrastructure, healthcare and education are also changing the nature and quality of work.”

As a result of this uncertainty and rapid change, higher education institutions whose mission is to develop future leaders are at crossroads. When “business as usual” is turned on its head, so is “education as usual.” According to University World News, universities should no longer focus solely on teaching future leaders to steer the ship, but to chart the course and navigate through choppy waters.

“Beyond knowledge delivery, teaching and learning needs to focus on producing graduates who will go beyond the status quo and have the cognitive flexibility to deal with complex problems and the entrepreneurial mindset to transform knowledge into innovative products, services or solutions.”

What students need coming out of their MBA programs are the skills to be successful transformational leaders.

What Is Transformational Leadership?

Transformational leadership is an approach designed to inspire change in individuals, social systems, communities, or organizations, and it’s a style well-suited to navigating uncertain and rapidly evolving terrain.

The concept of transformational leadership was introduced in 1973 by James Downton, expanded in 1978 by James Burns, and expanded again by Bernard Bass in 1985. According to Bass, there are six key characteristics of transformational leaders:

  1. Encourage motivation and positive development among followers
  2. Exemplify moral standards and encourage others to do the same
  3. Foster ethical work environments with clear values, priorities, and standards
  4. Build company culture by fostering a mind-set of organization over self-interest
  5. Emphasize authenticity, cooperation, and open communication
  6. Provide coaching and mentoring while allowing employees to take ownership of their work

In essence, transformational leaders lead by example to develop a culture of open communication that embraces innovation and change with a clear focus on values.

So how can higher ed institutions help students build the skills they need to become transformational leaders?

Transformational Leadership Begins with Communication

The foundation of becoming a transformational leader is communicating in a way that builds trust with followers and fosters that environment of authenticity, openness, and values-based innovation, and there are three key communication skills for would-be transformational leaders to start with.

  1. Authenticity: a leader who expects followers to be open and authentic must be open and authentic, herself. This means avoiding the temptation to put on different personas for different audiences and focusing instead on engaging with investors in the same way you’d engage with colleagues, potential new customers, and friends. While transformational leaders will certainly personalize their messages for each audience, they’ll also bring their same selves to every conversation.
  2. Trust: Authenticity goes a long way in inspiring trust, but there’s even more to it than that. To really inspire trust, leaders must learn how to take accountability for their actions and opinions and communicate transparently about what’s happening, what’s not, and why.
  3. Clarity: Confusion might as well be change’s middle name, so while clarity is important in any communication event, it’s especially critical for transformational leaders to be able to communicate clearly about company initiatives, upcoming changes, and the values driving them. When employees and other stakeholders can’t suss out what’s important, they can’t fully buy in or remain engaged.

We encourage educators and administrators in higher education to focus their leadership curricula on the soft skills that students will need to manage their organizations through times of uncertainty, rapid change, and technological revolution. And like so many facets of successful leadership, that starts with communication.