What organizational leadership means has shifted significantly over the last ten years. Transformational leadership (collaboration) is at the forefront of executive-level organizational development conversations and initiatives, with transactional leadership (exchange) most recently being regarded as only applicable to unique situations, or as simply outdated.

Over the last few weeks, as part of an advisory research project around transformational leadership methodologies, I’ve been examining recent individual coaching client results who I worked together with to improve their professional leadership effectiveness. I noticed something that is generally missing from the methodologies, yet stands out as key to realizing the benefits of transformational leadership in my coaching clients’ experiences.

Transactional and Transformational Leadership

Fundamentally, transactional leadership directs while transformational leadership collaborates. The former focuses on the results, and latter integrates inspiring greatness in those around the leader. No question this statement is arguably an oversimplification, as so many organizational considerations and complexities – identity, values, purpose, employees, partners, investors, etc. – are connected to and impacted by each leadership style or methodology.

For the sake of brevity (you’re welcome!), let’s look at leadership development through the lens of an individual working to become more effective at the transformational leadership approach. (For more background on transformational leadership, this CIO article provides a deeper dive)

Individual and Organizational Impact

Transformational leadership inspires and drives collaboration that results in improved performance, productivity, communication, and engagement. It creates a common purpose between leaders and those they lead (professionally or personally), and can transform the culture of the group, community or organization in which it is embraced. Transformational leaders create a relatable vision that others trust and support with their actions due to the transparency of purpose.

The Determining Limit to Effectiveness

Transformational leadership approaches and methodologies are generally sound and make sense. So why do so many leaders struggle with successfully implementing this way of working, and doing it consistently, and effectively? To use an analogy, the area of research and examination of client notes I referred to earlier would indicate the methodology is one size fits all (like spandex!), which is fantastic in that it is valuable and broadly applicable. However, each person that wears it is individually unique in how they are built and what’s underneath will, to a certain degree, ‘show through’.

Doing the Hard Work: Reflection

It’s tempting as an organizational leader to embrace and simply ‘apply’ a transformational leadership development approach. Announce the strategy, set an internal communications cadence to increase awareness and visibility, integrate frameworks into existing processes, and update how evaluation of management functions is measured. Of course, there is a catch.

The hardest part of transformational leadership is the work that needs to be done to get there… for organizations, this is commonly referred to as change management. These are the processes and methods that support the most effective transition from current state to envisioned state. Successful change management encourages, supports, and moves the people and their behaviors and actions toward the inspired vision.

And for the individual leader, change management of self is the hurdle. It distinguishes whether transformational leadership becomes a resume phrase, or is wholly embodied in thought and action and integrated into the professional relationships and culture of the team or organization. That level of commitment to self-improvement requires a significant amount of reflection and introspection. We need to understand what needs to be changed, strengths and weaknesses related to that change, and how to overcome our own resistance or previously unseen obstacles preventing us from making that change. Doing this level of commitment is challenging. The difference… is transformational.