When You Lead, Do You Transact or Do You Transform?

starstwoI’ll start today’s blog out by saying most of us are transactional leaders. Perhaps the word leader doesn’t belong in that sentence, but, the point is not that word. The point is the word transaction. According to dictionary.com, the word transact means “to carry out or conduct” as in business or any other matter in life. It’s as simple as setting out to the store with a shopping list, and proceeding to shop, return home, and prepare a meal. A task at hand. A job to do. When a leader is a transactional leader, he or she may be a decent manager. Day to day tasks get done. Assignments are given to subordinates and business life carries on. When purely transactional, leaders are typically going to be a little bit controlling and expect subordinates to carry out activities without push back or opinion. The concept of buy in may be foreign, and if understood probably not embraced.

So, what do I mean when I speak of a transformational leader? Well, let’s consult dictionary.com again. In this definition we see things like “to change in form” and “to change in condition” and “metamorphose.” For the linear thinker this is weird stuff. For the run of the mill manager who has an action plan and daily tasks, this may even be frightening. Right off the bat let me say this. Transformational leaders are abstract thinkers. Linear thinkers cannot wrap their minds around this concept. This stuff is not for the wedding planners and accountants of the world. This stuff is not for people who like tidy arrangements and things according to plan. Rather, those who transform run to and embrace the chaos of life. They then begin to work their magic and mold and make the chaos take shape. They are closer to the artist Vincent Van Gogh who said “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.” They embrace the human condition and form it and so their world is rarely boring.

When we look at transformational leaders in life, the greats come to mind. Abe Lincoln. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Mother Teresa. And so forth. These are people who ignite passion in others.

So, what on earth does this have to do with business, or with human resources, you ask? Well this is where it gets fun. My favorite boss is a guy who in my interview laid it all out for me in our round two meeting. We were at Starbucks discussing terms of employment and he said, “Cari, have you ever read a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni?” To which I replied yes I had, and in fact Patrick was my favorite speaker at a recent SHRM conference (due to his high energy and humorous wit and brilliant ideas!). He then bluntly told me that’s what I was walking into and we had our work cut out for us. In any event, this boss of mine was a transformer. He was a truth teller. He invited me into the chaos and laid it out. You’ll work hard. You’ll challenge people. You’ll learn that HR is a little bit compliance and management and a whole lot of mess and working with people to help make them better over time. But if you follow me, you’re in for the adventure of your business life. And, really, this is field neutral. As long as you work with people it counts in sales, finance, nursing, engineering, accounting, and so on. If you work with people you will be helped if you learn to be a transformational leader. Follow me and we’ll have fun together doing this thing called work. Cool stuff.

So, let’s dive in a little further and turn to what the Organizational Psychologists of the world have to say about transformational leaders. Below are some attributes of transformational leaders (Hellriegel and Slocum, 2011):

  • Stimulates follower identification
  • Creates intellectual stimulation
  • Provides inspirational motivation
  • Fosters idealized influence

These are the folks who have faced the human nature within that is self protective and controlling. They have chosen to believe that by being something greater than transactional, they can be better. And so they tap into others to seek to do what they alone could never do. Tapping into others is what the list above is all about. It is about creating group identify and knowing your people. It is about stimulating and challenging people and drawing out their good. It is about making life, work, whatever, exciting. It is about taking all the different souls in the world and merging the group in a way for the better – where one person’s weakness is covered by the other person’s strength, and vice versa. United we stand as the saying going, and divided we fall. Transforming is about uniting.

Doing this, if I go back to my original proposition above, requires one to abandon the linear and transactional ways. Transformational leaders are complex thinkers and can wrap their understanding around the abstract. The emotional IQ of transformational leaders is quite high as the transformer is able to draw out strengths in others and inspire others to action. Note I did not use the word manipulate others. If you are interested in that, you cannot authentically transform. Transformers have good in mind.

This transformational type of leader is like the teacher, the general, the coach, the preacher or the president. They inspire others to act because people believe in them.

The thing about the above is it is all couched in relationship. This leader gets to truly understand his or her employees. He or she meets their needs, challenges and inspires and really creates a loyal following. They create identification and belonging. They challenge the mind and stretch people and for it we all feel better. They inspire – right up at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy chart! They draw on the differences to make the group stronger.

So the challenge for today is this. Look around and ask – what can I transform in my domain? How can I make life better? Happy abstract reasoning to you all on this great 4th of July holiday!


Hellriegel, D and Slocum, J. (2011). Organizational Behavior 13th Edition. South-Western College Pub Hardcover.