Transformational Leadership is Collective

We tend to think of leadership as something that the head of a group or team provides to those under their charge – direction, inspiration, motivation, vision, and decisive decision-making – a package of skills that managers need to possess if they are to lead people. These traditional leadership activities are what I refer to as “transactional leadership”. Transactional leadership qualities are absolutely necessary and have their time and place but their impact is relatively short-lived and can create a level of dependency on the leader. When a tough decision is required, it is shunted to the project manager; when direction is required, the team look for it to be given rather than forging it for themselves; when inspiration is needed, the team waits for it to come rather than creating it.
There is certainly validity in our traditional leadership paradigm. However, in high performing teams you tend to find that leadership is “collective”. It is a collection of attributes and is delivered through a collective of individuals across the organisation. It is in nurturing this collective leadership that a team’s leader can realise some of their greatest influence.

Recently a group of four friends were debriefing me on an extended hiking and cycling trip they took to northern Italy. Toward the end of the trip they concocted a friendly competition to see who had provided the best leadership on the trip – each member of the group was to cast a vote for their selection. Much to their surprise, the end result was a tie – everyone received a vote! It seems that each person’s idea of what represented leadership was a little different – be it planning the details of accommodation, meals and transfers; routing finding and obtaining directions from locals in Italian; providing motivation and inspiration to the group when the conditions got tough; or making decisions when the collective heads needed to be brought together as one. In short, individually and as a group they needed different types of leadership at different times and each of them had strengths in leadership that they brought to bear when required.

Teams in the business environment similarly need a diverse range of leadership to suit different points in the project or to foster different elements of team performance. Often times, teams rely on or are expected to rely on the team leader as the source of this leadership. In the best teams, the motivation and mindset is such that people throughout the team see a part of their role as delivering an element of leadership and leaders of those teams see their role as creating that motivation and mindset. The types of leadership that you want from your team members include:

  • “Lead-by-doing” around commitments that have been made to the team or that the team, as a whole, has made to each other. These commitments can include actions or adherence to agreed business processes and rules of engagement.
  • Rallying the team to persevere during challenging times or when the work becomes drudgery.
  • Lending a supporting hand to a team member when required without having to be asked for help.
  • Keeping an “eye on the prize” and pulling up the team or individuals when they are moving contrary to its purpose or the value they are looking to deliver.

Research tells us that for teams to perform in an exceptional way, we want to establish a mindset of creativity and collaboration, and that the team needs to be motivated in ways that make them fully engaged and fully committed. The key leadership qualities that create this type of team environment are what I call “transformational leadership.” These qualities transform an army of obedient foot soldiers into a thinking, adaptive, self-aware collective of knowledge workers and include:

  • Trust. Demonstrating trust in our people creates the environment where they are free to express their ideas (no matter how radical) without fear of recrimination; and where they take ownership and accountability for their own work. It allows people to fully engage without the risk of blame when things don’t go to plan.
  • Connect. When a leader stays connected to the team’s challenges and successes they can better anticipate the type of support that will be most beneficial. They are also better positioned to be supportive at the right times.
  • Design. Effective leaders design a framework for their projects specifically aimed at fostering collaboration and commitment. An effective framework design includes a plan, a methodology for achieving this plan, and measures to demonstrate progress and assess performance. It also includes an accountability structure that focuses on people meeting their commitments and staying true to the team’s approach rather than purely on results.
  • Align. By gaining alignment on what represents value for the project, a leader creates a sense of purpose for the team. This alignment needs to include the business value the project is looking to deliver, the strategy for delivering the project and the value that exists within the individual interactions between team members. This alignment cannot be directed – it must be co-created with the team.

Transformational leadership qualities may need to come from the team’s managers initially. However, if these behaviours are actively modelled by the leadership, they can very quickly spread to other members of the team and become part of the collective leadership. This is their transformational nature – the true power of this type of leadership is realised when it no longer comes solely from the top down but from the edge of the organisation in. That is when your teams are engaging the full depth and breadth of their capability to deliver business value.

Questions for consideration:

  • Does your leadership style look to develop the collective leadership of your team?
  • Does your organisation’s leadership development program focus on transactional leadership qualities or does it incorporate elements of transformational leadership?
  • Is your business benefitting from the power of collective leadership?

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share them in the comments area below.

6 replies
    PEARL MOORE says:

    Transactional leadership, as you rightly pointed out, focuses on the exchange between the leader and their team members, where the leader provides direction, decisions, and motivation in return for the team’s compliance and performance. This approach, while effective in certain situations, especially where quick decision-making is paramount. Thank you for this insightful article on leadership styles, particularly the concept of transactional leadership.


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