Transformational Leaders: The Intentional Disruptors

Deborah Harnett Kennedy, Southern California Partner, Unstoppable Conversations

Deborah Harnett Kennedy, Southern California Partner, Unstoppable Conversations

Transformational leaders are not born nor are they merely lucky. They are leaders who have developed themselves and their skills to innovate, disrupt, and ultimately mobilize others to realize an inspired future for their organization.


Define a Purpose

In today’s landscape, constant disruptions—changing consumer expectations, rapidly evolving technology, uncertain political climate, to name a few—are just another day on the job. For leaders who aim for their companies to go beyond the status quo, they must do more than respond to and manage disruptions. Instead of reacting to or trying to predict these disruptions, transformational leaders intentionally disrupt. This disruption begins with creating a future for the organization that goes beyond any future that could be predicted for that organization. A purpose that will take an organization, industry, or even the world, into uncharted territory.

The ability to define this kind of purpose—what we at Unstoppable Conversations call a Noble Cause—is where transformational leadership begins. To understand and create one’s purpose, a transformational leader asks questions such as:

•           What is the remarkable future my leadership is in service of? 

•           What is the remarkable future my company is out to fulfill? 

•           What future would most certainly not happen without a disruption of the status quo?

The answers define one’s leadership purpose.

When IBM CEO Ginni Rometty took the stage at the 2019 ConsumerElectronics Show, she made IBM’s purpose clear, “To prepare society for the technologies of the future” As CEO, Rometty, who stepped into IBM’s top job in 2012 has said, she is “obsessed with what’s next and is continuously looking ahead to the next big thing.”

It’s a large pivot for the 100 year old company but one that Rometty, is confident will pay off. According to the company, cloud and security revenue was up 20 percent in 2018. The increased trust in their cloud and security services led to a 4 percent total revenue increase from 2017, or $20 billion.

Transformational leaders like IBM CEO Ginni Rometty do not simply seek out easy wins for short-term gains. Instead, they conceive and take a stand for new, long-term possibilities. They invent and commit to futures free from conventions in order to achieve unprecedented results. Like Rometty, helming a company founded over 100 years ago, transformational leaders are willing to reinvent their organization, “continuously looking ahead to the next big thing.” Leaders spark transformation by exploring with their organization that which is inspiring, exciting, and challenging. They encourage new thinking which lets go of the everyday notions of “the way it is” or “the way it should be” or “the way it’s always been done.”


Stay True to Their Purpose: Authenticity 

A purpose does not guarantee success. A transformational leader must still navigate all forms of challenges, interruptions, and obstacles: the quarterly results may not reach projections; the naysayers will raise their voices.

In the face of such challenges, transformational leaders hold strong to their commitment to fulfill their purpose. Holding to their commitment over time and against all obstacles creates a sense of authenticity which creates credibility and trust. It is this authenticity and trust which then moves or inspires people into alignment and action to create the desired future for the organization.

The key to being authentic and building that trust is consistency: acting consistently with who one says they are and what one says they are committed to. This is all the more vital in times of transformation. Change can be threatening for people. Employees will often comment that the new direction is not clear or that the executive team must know more than they are saying. According to a 2017 Gallup report, only 22% of U.S. employees strongly agree that their company's leaders have a clear direction for their organization. And only 13% strongly agree that their organization's leadership communicates effectively. A large part of effective communication is listening. It is well known that most people resist change, actively or otherwise. A transformational leader does not resent or ignore this resistance. Rather, they are willing to listen openly to why people may not want this change, getting to the root of the resistance. 


Inspire Commitment from Others

Defying those numbers above, a transformational leader ensures employees know who they are following, why, and where they are being led. This is the reason for a clearly-defined and consistently communicated purpose.

Transformational leaders achieve intentional disruption through their ability to articulate a new future and to inspire others to commit themselves to that vision. The actions taken by the people who make up the organization build momentum and give a transformation initiative life. Gaining trust and commitment is not something that can be assumed, demanded or forced. People must be able to see themselves contributing in some way to the defined purpose. They will not be able to see ways to contribute without the who, what, when, where and how. To achieve this, transformational leaders must know how to vividly share their vision. 

Often, leaders focus on the short-term. This can fail to take into consideration the needs of all the parties involved to realize their common, defined purpose. Instead, the focus falls on strategy and execution rather than on the people who must mobilize to make this future a reality—what they are thinking and how they are feeling when they are being asked to embrace and help drive change. Without taking into consideration all the concerns of all players involved, this lack of holistic consideration can and will derail even the best strategy.


Focus on Integrity 

Fulfilling new possibilities demands that leaders hold themselves and their people to account and deliver on their promises. They keep commitments in the foreground until fulfilled. They focus attention on consistency and effectiveness of systems, processes, practices, and procedures, ensuring they are in sync with the vision and values of the organization as well as with their purpose.

 In other words, they consistently have their attention on workability— what Werner Erhard, Michael Jensen, and Steve Zaffron call Integrity.  (See Erhard, Jensen, and Zaffron, Course Materials for:‘Being a Leader and the Effective Exercise of Leadership: An Ontological/Phenomenological Model’ [October 3, 2016]. By this, we don’t mean the common, morality-based, meaning of integrity, but rather the utilitarian definition. That is, Integrity is seen as “free from flaws” and “the state of being whole and undivided.” 

To understand this particular meaning, consider the wheel of a bicycle. What does it look like when a bicycle wheel has integrity? Well, the wheel has all its spokes; the frame is intact with no warping or dents; and the tire has its full tread and is inflated with the appropriate amount of air. In other words, the wheel is structurally and functionally sound. In this state of integrity, it operates as designed to fulfill its intended function.

Transformational leaders must require of themselves and their people a corresponding condition of Integrity in order to achieve an organization's stated purpose. This means the ability to do what one says they are going to do and by when one says they are going to do it. And, because challenges, obstacles, and interruptions are commonplace, this also includes the ability to communicate quickly when one has not done as promised. 

Transformational leaders do not waver from their purpose and the purpose of their organization. They stay the course despite the demands on their time and attention, and the frequent need to make quick decisions and move into action swiftly. They are able to inspire commitment from their people by considering the wholeness of their people’s reactions and feelings to the real and sometimes difficult work required to achieve that purpose. True transformational leaders are the light keepers of the organization's future. Their commitment allows them to stand, unwavering, for the fulfilment of a bold future that otherwise would never happen.