“It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” “No, it’s a Transformational Leader”

Gagan Adlakha

Gagan Adlakha

An Executive / Transformational Coach and a specialist in the area of people performance with over 25 years of experience. He joined the IT sector in its high growth phase and handled a variety of roles covering the complete gamut of the HR function for about 10 years. He rounded off his corporate experience by handling business roles for the next few years. His experience has been across countries, cultures, levels, and industries.

Is the transformational leader is the new Superhero?

Leaders who can help transform an organization have always been in demand, however, with the clichéd VUCA world upon us, it has moved from being a desirable trait to a vital and essential one. The pace and complexity of change are the new super villains. There is so much happening and so fast. The speed of change externally necessitates the need for it internally too. ‘Transform, (or pivot, as startups call it) or Die’, is repeated like a mantra these days not only for the organization but also for the leaders themselves.

What does a leader need, to become that new leader – a transformational leader? A leader typically reaches the top on the dint of performance in his/her respective functions and/ or the industry. However, as they say, ‘what got you here, will not get you to where you want to go”. Organizational leadership and especially, of the transformational kind, is a different ball game. So, what are the superpowers that exist under the cape of such a leader?

Well, apart from her or his obvious domain/ industry skills the following leadership capacities are seen as critical:

1.    Systems Thinking

Organisations are conceptual constructs. What we experience of it are behaviors of the people representing it, or manifestations of it, largely as products and services.

Thus, change or transformation will be felt and seen in the change of behavior of its people and its many manifestations in the final products or services of the organization. No behavior change, no organizational transformation.

How do we change behavior? Very often, behavior change is ‘asked for’, from individuals in the organization – through feedback, reviews, 360 surveys, training, coaching, competency frameworks, expected values etc. – without recognizing that over 90% of people’s behavior is driven not on their own volition, but by the system they exist in.

The errant car driver’s behavior on the roads of Gurgaon, completely differs from his behavior on the roads of Singapore or US, not because of freshly acquired skills or a higher will, but because of the demand imposed on him by the system. 

Systems drive behavior; to get the right behaviors going, leaders need to put the right system in place.

Keeping this in mind, a leader will need to use the Systems Thinking lens while diagnosing and transforming the organization. This primarily starts by looking at its various elements (purpose, vision, goals, structures, values, processes, shared leadership, competencies etc.) and their interlinkages. In a system, a cause can have many effects and an effect can have many causes. Understanding and working on a system must be approached as both a science and an art- – a critical capacity for a transformational leader.

2.    Empathy

Most transformations do not deliver, because they are largely dealt with, by the left-brain, rather than the whole brain. The so called right-brain stuff is often deprioritized and that’s what trips it all up. And in this, the lack of empathy is usually the biggest bungle.

Empathy can be of many kinds, however; the following two stand out for a change leader. Firstly, a leader aiming to transform an organization will invariably have to deal with people, their feelings and their emotions. Creating the right energies and obviating the wrong ones can greatly enable the transformation and reduce the resistance to change.  But this requires a high EQ, especially a heightened empathy. The superpower of empathy comes by getting into people’s skin not just their shoes. It enables them to recognize, accept and respect the thoughts, perceptions and feelings of people, thus enabling their transformational journeys.

The second kind of empathy helps in making strategic decisions that are critical to the process of change. A person with high empathy will find it easier to place him/herself, others and the organizational system in probable future situations to feel and understand it. They would benefit not only from a clearer horizon, but they would be able to imagine the future for various stakeholders and the context they may exist in.

This understanding and feeling will lead to better decision making, better strategies and thus lead to better results.

3.    Learnability

However hard a leader tries; however, much planning may have been done, each transformation is a journey into the unknown and/or the yet-to-be experienced. The context will continue to change, mistakes will be made, people will be unpredictable, there will be unintended consequences, resources will be under stress and things will emerge… however, what will be of utmost importance is the ability to recognize, accept, learn and recalibrate swiftly. Many bull-headed leaders have failed to do that and failed miserably.

Learnability ought also to be infused into the organizational system, as the emergences may happen in any part of the organization and the learning there needs to be transmitted to the rest of the system at full tilt. Else the same mistakes will be repeated in different parts of the organization, wasting precious time and resources. Repeated mistakes will also impact the morale of the team and increase the resistance to change. Something the leader desperately wants to avoid.

4.    Execution

This one is probably the most obvious super power of a transformational superhero.

One of most infuriating business challenges today is closing, what is commonly known as, the execution gap. The execution gap is the perceived gap between an organization’s strategies and expectations, and its ability to meet those goals and put ideas into action.

Transformation is a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of a job and the leader needs to lead from the front and not from the sidelines like a consultant. Something akin to the famous Thomas Edison quote: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”- execution is a grind!!

Execution is not just one skill, it’s actually a cluster of skills like pre-execution planning, goal-setting, punctilious evaluation and governance, establishing accountability, handling people and conflicts – all come together to create movement, maintain momentum and navigate the ship to carry the dreams and visions to the sturdy shores of reality.

5.    Self Awareness

This is the most non-intuitive superpower but is probably the most fundamental of all. Every action or inaction of the leader impacts the organization in a myriad of ways and the leader needs to be mindful of this. The leader’s own behaviors impact the organizational system, maybe, more than anything else. And where do the leader’s behaviors come from?

Like the external system driving behaviors in an organization, our individual behaviors are also determined by the system within. Our aspirations, values, fears, belief structures, processes, EQ, abilities and attitudes make up our internal system. A leader needs to be very aware of his/her own system, for it will influence every action of his/hers having far reaching impact on the system and people they are responsible for, and any transformation they attempt.

A superhero or a super-team?

Getting all this in one person is really tough, that’s where Shared Leadership teams come into play. Where it’s not just one leader but a group which takes on the leadership role, where different people with varied but complementary skills and attitudes come together to create a Shared Leadership team owning the whole system and helping it grow, thrive or transform. It’s not easy to make such teams but the effort might be worth it for such teams will also provide a greater span, better feel and quicker action while being a safer bet and more sustainable.

So, while I hope you find your Transformation Superhero, don’t you think it will be a better idea to nurture a Shared Leadership team?

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