In one lifetime, it can be rare to witness more than a handful of transformational leaders. Because of the proliferation of the digital age, an unprecedented number of inspiring leaders have been brought to the foreground but very few can be said to hold that elusive quality of being transformational.
Transformational leaders run the gamut from Steve Jobs who mobilized the internet into the hands of billions of people, to Warren Buffet who has literally made billions by accomplishing the previously impossible feat of outperforming the market for decades, to Elon Musk who is blowing NASA out of the water by revolutionizing the way we travel both the Earth and suborbital space. Transformational leaders of the past have included Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, and Galileo to name a few.
What all these individuals have in common is that they carry the marker of a transformational leadership. Transformational leadership is leadership that transcends common and unknown world barriers and that leads its followers into a future that could scarcely have been imagined by anyone else. They achieve the impossible!
To be in this caliber of barrier-breaking luminaries, it is not enough to have a brilliant idea or to be an astounding salesman. But it is do-able. You see there are two characteristics that a person aspiring to be a transformational leader should aim for. They are: vision and benchmarking.
Vision is seeing things as they could be and having a plan for getting there. Normal leadership requires vision, but transformational leadership requires a special type of vision. The vision of a transformational leader is characterized by the following attributes:
1. Unbounded: This is to say that the leader is able to imagine a future without the conventional filters, or bounds, of the real world. They let fall to the side any assumptions about what is achievable or conventional and of what is considered untenable because of technological, political and sociological forces.
Who in the 70s or 80s could have imagined the smartphone-wielding, tablet-carrying generation this would be when they were struggling to fit simple lines of code unto a colossal mega-computer that took up entire floors of a building? But Steve Jobs did. He saw the world unbounded by the constraints of the technology of his time and he brought that vision to life.
2. Stubbornness: Yes, you read it right. Transformational leaders are stubborn individuals because they must constantly wage war on the masses of people who cannot see or believe in the vision they have. They understand that moments of weakness or self-doubt cannot be allowed the time of day because they are the only one who can truly see the future they want and they have to convince the world to go along with them. They realize that they cannot inspire their followers to believe if they have doubts themselves. And so yes, a tremendous degree of stubbornness and inflexibility is necessary. It does not give license to a lack of empathy or complete ignorance though. Think of civil rights activists like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or Nelson Mandela. They all had visions of a better world and they knew it would take resilience, stubborn action, and a strong will to get there.
While a transformational Leader must have a powerful vision, they must also benchmark. Benchmarking is the process by which a leader brings to life his vision. It is setting milestones that indicate you are heading in the right direction. Benchmarking is made up of the following components:
1. Reverse Goal-Setting: A transformational leader may not always see every step of the way, but this is a tool in his or her arsenal that can be used with deadly efficacy in building the roadmap to the vision. Reverse goal-setting is very much like reverse-engineering. You see the outcome—a.k.a. the vision—and you determine what would have to occur immediately before it for the outcome to be realized and what would have to occur right before that and so on and so forth until you get to step zero. This process transforms a grand vision into a startlingly do-able series of steps.
2. Periodic Assessment and Adjustment: This is the quintessential must have tool in the box of not just transformational leaders, but any individual aiming to have meaningful achievements in their endeavors. Results must be periodically assessed for corrective action if any. The transformative leader excels in this arena because they have developed great judgment (post on good judgment forthcoming).
As an underscore, there is a cool psychological trick leaders and other individuals can use when road mapping their visions: write the vision down! It seems simple enough, but a lot of people do not do this. The very act of writing it down brings what was formerly a thought into material reality via ink and paper or screen and pixels. This act immediately sends a message to your subconscious that the idea, vision, or goal is real and prompts it to start devising means to making every aspect of it a reality.
Folks, there you have it—the tools to a transformative leadership experience: Vision and Benchmarking. There are no ifs, buts or should haves on the road to greatness—you must have stubborn will not only to sustain you through adversaries and adversarial situations but to also transform them into your best allies and opportunities. That is what transformational leadership can do at its essence. It makes the impossible, the obvious reality!