2020 has provided an unprecedented test for the skills of modern leaders.
As they balance business survival with concern for employees and society, leadership that engages effectively with high ambiguity and low predictability has become critical.
As a leadership style, transformational leadership has valuable characteristics in a time of crisis. It shows an innate preference for decentralisation of decision-making, elimination of micro-management, and trust in the innovation of the team, rather than the leader alone.
In circumstances where dramatic change is accelerated, this approach to problem-solving and development is crucial.
Centralised, reactionary ways of work simply move too slowly and limit access to the latent creativity in the team or organisation.
Transformational leaders are more likely to trust their colleagues, preferring to focus their energy on creating space for those colleagues to do their best work. These leaders are also more comfortable with uncertainty and keep their team motivated and connected to a common purpose.
Despite its apparent commitment to freedom, flexibility, and tolerance of failure, transformational leadership is guided by conscious and active decision-making.
These leaders have a clear sense of what to do in a crisis, but equally important, they also know what not to do.
1. Tighten Control
An instinctive reaction to a challenging situation is to seize control.
“Some leaders want to be the hero in such circumstances, feeling they are solely responsible for delivering success,” says Stuart Mackenzie, CEO of Maynard Leigh Associates. But this approach can be disastrous.
“Most CEOs assume they know best because they are the CEO,” says Jonny Combe, UK CEO of PayByPhone. “Chances are, most CEOs – myself included – are good at some things and not so good at others. Therefore, in a crisis, you need more than ever to draw on your whole team.”
“Transformational leaders understand that if they fail to let ideas flow, they’ll not only deny people the opportunity to grow, but they’ll also deny the business of good ideas.”
Rather than taking greater control, transformational leaders empower others.
“Transformational leaders facilitate change without command-and-control,” says Lutfey Siddiqi, Visiting Professor in Practice at LSE IDEAS. This less prescriptive approach means that employees can maintain direction in a leader’s absence: a vital asset in a crisis.
This method of managing change rests on dialogue, not force.
According to Rob Morris, Managing Director and Chief Innovation Officer at YSC Consulting,
“Transformational leaders navigate crises well as they tend to seek input from followers, ensuring that their views, sentiments and capabilities are well reflected in the management of the situation at hand.”
This is beneficial for the business as well as staff. As Andrew Mawson, founder and MD of Advanced Workplace Associates, points out, “Transformational leaders understand that if they fail to let ideas flow, they’ll not only deny people the opportunity to grow, but they’ll also deny the business of good ideas.”
2. Lose Focus on People
In a crisis, many leaders stop making time for people, focusing on a narrower view of business.
“But viewing people and business as two different things and thinking you have to choose between them is a mistake,” says Victoria Stakelum, Deputy CEO of Arden University. “In most businesses, your people are your most valuable asset.”
In a crisis, many people will struggle to focus or to maintain motivation. Leaders need to be aware of who is battling and ensure that employees feel supported.
“Transformational leadership is about setting the right example and being human,” says Elena Donio, CEO of Axiom. “It’s that (almost) impossible balance between being relentless and decisive, but also human and empathetic. We’re all experiencing the same storm, but we’re in very different boats.”
If anything, a crisis calls upon leaders to take more care for people, as Cara De Lange, author and founder of Softer Success, points out. “In this pandemic, we have seen transformational leaders creating a safe space for their team members to talk about their mental health and UNITE people in their efforts and goals as valued members as a cohesive team.”
3. Be Inflexible
Transformational leaders will already have greater flexibility built into their business.
“Other forms of leadership aim for cookie-cutter efficiency, i.e. lowest possible cost of delivery under the assumption of relatively static market conditions,” argues Lutfey Siddiqi. “These over-optimised, inflexible arrangements can prove brittle when hit by sudden, structural shocks.”
“True leaders will be prepared to adapt their line of thinking as more facts emerge.”
Transformational organisations are more flexible and so able to adjust. Retaining that flexibility doesn’t just mean encouraging new ideas and approaches – it means responding to them in the right way.
“Punishing mistakes stifles creativity,” points out Joanna Swash, CEO of Moneypenny. Leaders need to let people try new things, knowing that not all of them will work.
This way of work includes requires that leaders and colleagues accept their mistakes.
“Transformational leaders are agile thinkers: they will be wise enough to acknowledge when a decision that they’ve made hasn’t quite turned out the way they anticipated,” says Rachel Houghton, managing director at Business Moves Group.”
“What’s more, true leaders will be prepared to adapt their line of thinking as more facts emerge.”
Above all, it’s important not to indulge in what Elena Donio refers to as ‘quick-sanding’: “Getting stuck in yesterday’s agenda, when yesterday’s agenda is no longer relevant.”
4. Lose Perspective
When life as you know it is turned upside down, it’s easy to lose perspective, becoming bogged down in minutiae or abandoning core goals and values.
Transformational leaders, experienced in focusing on the big picture, are better at avoiding this risk.
“In a crisis, this concept of purpose is critical,” says Sean Mills, Director at leadership and engagement consultancy ENGAGE.”It means that transformational leaders are much less likely to jump to conclusions or react in a knee-jerk fashion to unexpected scenarios.”
“They will readily turn to experts for guidance and listen to the opinions around them to make decisions that are the most likely to help their long-term strategy.”
Building the right team helps, according to Elizabeth Stewart, Head of Executive Assessment & Development at global executive search firm Odgers Berndtson.
“Rather than being in the thick of it, [transformational leaders] have already developed their talented lieutenants – directors and heads of departments – who they trust to carry out the disruption plan.”
“Transformational leadership takes a step back and monitors the unexpected hurdles, drivers or triggers that might stop the plan from being executed.”
By employing trusted staff, transformational leaders maintain their perspective on long-term goals, then share that perspective to keep others on track.
5. Give in to Fear
It’s easy for fear to govern our responses in a crisis – fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of making the wrong choice.
“A transformational leader understands how to make the shift from defensive to constructive.”
“Fear can create uncertainty,” says Cara De Lange, “and because of fear other leaders may not be able to see the bigger picture.”
The defensiveness that comes with fear can lead to behaviour that’s harmful to good leadership.
“This includes a number of behaviours such as making excuses, avoiding responsibility, following rules blindly, and being resistant to change,” say consulting psychologist Dr Mara Klemich and leadership consultant Stephen Klemich, founders of Heartstyles.
“A transformational leader understands how to make the shift from defensive to constructive.”
There is a physiological element to the fear reaction, and understanding its roots can help in overcoming it.
“In times of stress the body typically reacts in ‘threat’ state (the fight or flight mode) which floods the body with cortisol, limiting rational thinking and creativity,” says Katherine Moore, former Head of Medicine for Team GB Olympic squads and now Head Coach at Track Record.”
“Through careful planning, leaders can predispose themselves and their team to react in a ‘challenge’ state, which floods the body with oxytocin and supports creativity and relationship-forming.”
6. Turn silent
In a crisis, you’re so busy acting that it can be easy to forget to talk. Leaders obfuscate to avoid awkward truths or hold their cards close to their chest. But a crisis is a time when people need clear, open communication more than ever.
“The main thing is offering people a glimpse at the roadmap,” says Rachel Houghton, “so they know why and how the business is doing what it’s doing, and what their part is in that journey.”
Clarity of communication is one of the traits of transformational leaders.
“Be crystal clear on expectations,” says Jonny Combe. “Invariably, any leader has expectations of what standard they want the business to live up to but expressing that standard repeatedly and clearly is key.”
If leaders communicate the goals and standards of an organisation clearly, then it’s easier for employees to stay on track when everyday routines are disrupted. The current crisis has demonstrated how important it is to be ready for such disruption.
“With a newly remote workforce, a strategy can help your employees connect with each other to ensure everyone stays on mission,” says Neta Meidav, CEO & Co-Founder of Vault Platform. It’s the framework employees adhere to and set their sights on.”
Openness is essential for transformational leaders, according to Mara and Stephen Klemich, and particularly so in a crisis.
“They don’t feel the need to come across as knowing all the answers when dealing with an uncertain situation such as the current outbreak of Covid-19. They focus on telling their teams what they are doing to deal with emerging issues through regular communication.”
Carving Out a Path with Transformational Leadership
Though some individuals are naturally inclined towards a transformational style of leadership, this is a learnable approach for any leader. The skills it requires are accessible, as are the tools (increasingly digital) to support it.
The need for transformational leaders may be stronger than ever before, but so is the opportunity for such leaders to effect lasting positive change.