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Becoming a Transformational Leader: 3 Tips for CEOs

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Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Published January 30, 2020


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

Picture of Cathy McCullough

Cathy McCullough
a Business Growth Consultant and Culture Expert with Rhythm Systems

There was a pause in his verbal stride as we talked. It was an awkward pause, which is why it caught my 3 Tips for CEOs to be transformational leadersattention. As I looked at him, I could see his head was slightly tilted downward, his eyes staring at the floor. When he looked up, his entire facial expression told me he was suddenly in a different place. As his executive coach, I paused, too. 

“So what’s going on? Where are your thoughts right now?” In another moment, he looked me squarely in the face and began to authentically express his inward pain.

“I want to be a leader that people want to follow. I’m good at being a CEO, but I’m good at a tactical level. People follow me because they have to. It would be such an amazing life experience for me if people would follow me because they wanted to follow me.” 

Most leaders don’t get up in the morning asking themselves how they can make the people around them miserable, or how they can cause those people to be massively confused and uncertain, or how they can ‘control’ those people during the upcoming day. Instead, most leaders really do wake up desiring to do good things. Then… the busyness of the day kicks in… and it takes over, crushing any sense of good intent. As the day progresses, leaders simply do what human beings do: They revert to auto-pilot, and the world of auto-pilot runs almost completely on habits—many of which are bad habits. Auto-pilot is just easier.

Transformational leaders have learned how to minimize the auto-pilot in their lives. They’ve learned, instead, how to maximize their own sense of self and be true to that sense of self. They’ve lived the drudgery and hard work of breaking away from a lot of bad habits that once helped define them—and they’ve had the courage to grow into living by a new definition of self.

I share with my executive coaching clients that becoming a more transformational leader is a very (very) personal journey, and they need to be ready for that.

If your desire is to become a stronger and more transformational leader, here are a few tips to begin your journey:

(1) Increase your level of conscious awareness. Becoming a transformational leader will require you to pause… to slow down… to turn auto-pilot off so that those internal bad habits (which become visible in your behaviors) aren’t controlling you. Instead, you’re controlling you. Doing this will require that you slow your pace to the level of conscious awareness. It’s impossible to have conscious awareness if you don’t grant time on your calendar for personal reflection. Conscious awareness is about being in touch with who you are and why you do some of the things you do.

  • What do I truly believe about being a leader? (Let me write those beliefs down, one-by-one, and then think about them.)
    • If I want to become a more transformational leader, which of these beliefs might be off-center?
    • Which ones do I overlook almost every single day?
  • Why did I feel defensive when the team challenged what I presented to them?
  • What is it about me that has me telling people what to do vs. helping them do it themselves?
  • What in my leadership world do I need to let go of? Why aren’t I able to do that (fully and without exception)?
  • Why did he react that way? What could I have done differently in that situation so that he wouldn’t have felt so diminished?

(2) Focus on the upside. It seems like it’s human nature for our thinking to migrate toward the negative. However, you can’t be transformational from a negative platform. Move, then, from focusing on problems and what’s wrong with everything to focusing on solutions and opportunities. To be transformational, you not only need to pause yourself; you must also be the leader that pauses those around you so that more robust and in-depth strategic discussions occur. Transformational leaders understand the business relevance of slowing down in order to honor deeper-level strategic discussions.

  • “Ok… so that project was a massive failure. We all know that. Let’s look at it this way: What did we learn, and how can we apply what we learned to the other strategies we have in place for this quarter (or year)?”
  • “Instead of simply dismissing that big idea, let’s take a deep dive. What might be some opportunities for us within that idea?”
  • “As a team, let’s take the time to align our thinking. How does what we’re talking about here help the company in the long-term? How can we explain to our people that what we’re all doing today links to our future?”
  • “Let’s make sure we understand the compelling purpose behind why the process we’re talking about is so sacred to us. Then, let’s be open to making the necessary adjustments that align with that compelling purpose.”
  • “How might we challenge our own assumptions on this?”

(3) Grow Your Capacity for Personal Resilience. Without resiliency, your leadership influence shrinks. Learn to stretch your thinking into new domains and begin to make analogies you’ve never made in the past. Flexibility and adaptation are requirements for transformational leadership because transformational leaders recognize that the world around them just doesn’t always go as planned, and force-feeding a plan or a personal agenda rarely works. In your journey toward becoming a more transformational leader, stretch your mind.

  • Instead of focusing on being a leader, focus on your character. Live to the values you hold most dear.
    • Read publications from outside of your industry. Doing so will stretch your thinking (and the strategic application of that thinking) in ways you never imagined possible.
    • Read blogs, read articles, read books. Read… and learn… and adapt. After all, knowledge isn’t power. Applied knowledge is power.
  • Make a list of specific things you can…
    • Start Doing to bring your defined sense of character to the forefront.
    • In the light of that sense of character, what do you need to Stop Doing?
    • What do you need to Keep Doing?

These three tips for your journey toward becoming a transformational leader are what I call “Starter Tips.” There’s so much more depth in each of these, and there are more elements to the journey. These are all, though, great places to start. They individually require time, energy, and effort to master. Simply start with the one that makes the most sense to you, and give yourself permission to pause, reflect, learn, and grow.

Be brave (which this journey will require you to be); be strong; be authentic. Don’t be afraid to look within, because to become a transformational leader you will be required to have a heightened sense of self. After all, this is a journey toward self-mastery.

Amazingly, at some point during your transformational journey, you’ll suddenly begin to notice that people are following you… not because they have to follow you, but because they’ve chosen to follow you.



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Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images