How Transformational Leadership Inspires Change

Philip A. Berry, President
Philip Berry Associates LLC

About the Author
Philip Berry is involved with global management consulting, executive coaching and training specializing in leadership development, global talent development, global diversity, innovation, team building, and corporate social responsibility and employee relations effectiveness. Mr. Berry has extensive global experience, was previously Vice President, Global Workplace Initiatives for Colgate-Palmolive and also worked for Procter & Gamble, Digital Equipment Corporation and IBM.

The entire world has been caught up in the events leading up to the 2008 United States Presidential election. The selection of Barack Obama as America’s first African American President, and his highly effective campaign, provides us with a prime example of the power of transformational leadership, and the means by which change occurs.

The notion of transformational leadership is not just pertinent, however, to the worlds of politics and the community. It is highly relevant to the corporate world and organizations as well.

While Obama’s ethnicity is obviously noteworthy and is a large part of what makes this election so significant, there is another critically important component of this moment which people have a tendency to ignore. It has to do with the transformation that has taken place in the minds of voters in the US and the hearts of people around the world.

The change that has occurred is a direct result of the President-elect’s ability to inspire change. He didn’t change the people themselves, which would be impossible.

What he did change was the way they see the world and their place in it.

Business leaders operate under similar circumstances because they also must engage employees and inspire them to feel a part of an organization.

Transformational leadership involves more than charisma and emotion. It involves more than giving good speeches and making people feel good.

In his hallmark definition of the term James MacGregor Burns coined the term transformational leadership as “leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations – the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations – of both leaders and followers.” [Italics original]

The leader is not merely wielding power, but appealing to the values of the follower.

In this sense, values mean, “A principle, standard, or quality regarded as worthwhile or desirable,” (Webster’s New Riverside University Dictionary).

Burns insists that for leaders to have the greatest impact on the “led,” they must motivate followers to action by appealing to shared values and by satisfying the higher order needs of the led, such as their aspirations and expectations.

He said, “. . . transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and the led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.”

Change doesn’t just happen. It needs an impetus. Einstein in his Theory of Relativity applied the laws of physics to matter and we can apply this theory to universal behavior. As force is applied to an object in the direction of motion, the object gains momentum and gains energy.

President-elect Obama was the force for change; he introduced a new direction that would address the needs as he saw it.

In order for the notion of transformational leadership to be relevant, three elements must be present:

1) A Clearly Articulated Vision

2) Statements that Inspire People to Connect;

and 3) A Detailed Plan to Execute.

1) A Clearly Articulated Vision
The history of the world is replete with examples of charismatic leaders who have led their nations and a cause. The names of Mohandas (“Mahatma”) Gandhi, Napoleon Bonaparte Julius Caesar, Mao Tse-tung, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt evoke tremendous feeling. The Industrial Revolution also evokes thoughts regarding the titans of industry like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell and JP Morgan who had an incontrovertible and formative impact on that era.

The vision that was articulated by the individuals in these two categories, the ability to inspire people to connect and the plans that were executed to make the vision a reality is indisputable.

In the present, we may not know the names of all of the transformational leaders who are making change in their sector, but it certainly is happening. Apple, Google, Tata Motors, Carrefour, and Toyota, for example, are having an undeniable global impact on our everyday behavior and interaction. Apple’s iPod, for example, has revolutionized the way we think about listening to music, the way we purchase music, the way we share music, and even the way we define our personal space.

The question for business leaders within organizations such as Apple is how to achieve the multiplier effect of this leadership pattern in order to bring about continuous innovation and improvement?

How do we replicate this leadership pattern at the department and team level in order to generate change in every sector of an organization?

How do we grow transformational leaders so they can rise to the positions of influence to positively impact organizational change?

Transformational leadership must occur throughout the organization, not just at the top, in order to bring about the full synergistic effect.

For example, when a CEO articulates the vision of a company, it is up to the global presidents and department vice presidents to execute the vision. But they must also be able to communicate that vision in a way which translates into local or regional needs. People must buy into the vision and relate it to “what’s in it for me.” To the extent that they do this, the overall vision becomes more compelling. This starts the process of aligning the vision and connecting it to local needs and desires.

A clearly articulated vision must have in it the elements which point to a better way for dealing with the present and the future. It must provide a context to address the most pressing issues in a manner which is innovative and compelling.

Innovative because any change strategy needs to outline what will be different from the status quo. It must be compelling because it must be believable. People must feel that this vision will definitely lead to a better way of doing things.

2) Statements that Inspire People to Connect
The most powerful visions also are those which have a few words that are easily understood and restated. This eases the communication process and enables everyone to embrace the vision as their own.

In the 21st century a brief statement is marketing sin qua non. In others words, it is essential to excellent communications.

As transformational leaders seek to communicate their vision using various venues, they begin to appreciate the marketing challenge of disseminating their message out and ensuring comprehension of their message.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The medium is the message” meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived, creating subtle change over time. 21st century transformational leaders ignore the medium at their peril.

In order to give a vision the wings it needs to travel, it must Inspire People to Connect. This is when a vision really begins to come alive. It comes alive because people believe that the vision will take them from where they are to where they want to be.

In organizations it means that employees can begin to align to a better way of doing their work; reaching their customers or constituencies; and providing the goods and services which will make them more effective, productive and profitable.

When people connect on a cognitive and emotional level it begins to move them to action. This action contains the seeds for producing change. Einstein stated that “no problem can be solved with the same type of thinking that created it”. Inspiring people with a different message gives them an alternative way to approach their challenges.

It is this connective element that provides the momentum to a vision and gives it longevity.

It is this connective element that enables people to align with each other in a different way to meet their challenges. By connecting with the vision they are also reenergized to act.

When we talk about motivation this is where it begins. People are motivated to act and engage differently because they can connect to something new, innovative and inspiring.

Obama’s incredibly effective “Yes We Can” slogan is a great example of how a simple statement can encompass a lofty inspirational theme, yet still pertain to day to day action. The slogan was simple, inspirational, easy to remember, and resonated on a number of levels regardless of one’s unique personal circumstances. Furthermore, Barack Obama and his team revolutionized the way they used the internet to connect their vision to people. They provided a continuous stream of messages via mobile phone, internet, the web and countless other technological mediums in a personalized manner practically every day for two years! You always felt that the vision was on top of mind and that they were speaking directly to you. Every message had your name on it. You didn’t feel you were part of a mass communication campaign. The messages were simple, informative and compelled you to action.

Corporate transformational leaders need to embrace these same innovative techniques if they are to connect with the workforce of today.

This type of connection or engagement is crucial to attracting and retaining high potential workers.

When workers are fully engaged, a noted Gallup study of Oct 2006 indicates, they are more motivated and more productive. Specifically engaged employees work with passion and have a profound connection to their organization. They drive innovation and move their organization forward.

Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to how people connect to a vision. They must go through a process of enrolling with the vision so that they feel it is their own.

In essence, a vision connects when people internalize it and say that it is not just someone else’s vision, it is their own. This feeling of ownership is crucial to success.

By implementing goal alignment processes, organizations can involve every department in the effort. Individual departments need to know tactically what their role is in contributing to the greater good. They must feel that this vision will definitely enhance their way of performing and interacting. When they have this ownership, then they are motivated to act in different ways.

This engagement is directly correlated to employee retention as staff will leave an organization when they can’t get their needs met, and they feel that they don’t identify with the way things are done and with the values or vision of the organization. In short, just having a vision statement will not achieve results.

3) A Detailed Plan to Execute
In order to increase the ownership process, one has to move from “what “and “why” to “how”. Transformation falls short when this is not in place. Invariably many great plans fall apart at the connect points.

A critical connecting point is a detailed plan to execute the vision. This begins to complete the circle. It is no surprise that when you have a wonderfully articulated vision, people will then want to see how it works. For many, this is the litmus test of whether the vision is a good one or bad one!

Consequently, transformational leaders must help people understand that their vision is just the starting point. They must articulate the complete process that individuals must go through to make true change a reality.

During the transition period, it is easy for people to get discouraged because the path to a new future can be difficult to see and follow at times. There must be constant communication and education along the way to keep people focused on the goal.

The vision becomes a compass leading people through the turbulent times.


Indeed change can happen in any organization when there are transformational leaders who clearly articulate the vision; inspire people to connect to the vision and detail the plans in order to achieve the vision.

It is this type of leadership that will bring about true innovation, productivity and employee satisfaction as organizations strive to be relevant on a global basis.

The success of the Obama campaign was not magic. It relied on a disciplined approach articulating the vision, inspiring people to connect to it, along with a plan of execution.

This same pattern can be duplicated in the business world on an organization-wide level. And if done correctly, it can yield awesome results from the entry level to the corporate suites. The challenges in front of us demand no less.