KingChapman Blog

A Field Guide for Observing Transformational Leaders In Action

Posted by Bob Chapman on Mar 12, 2019 11:57:45 PM


If you have ever wondered what kind of bird you just saw, you know how useful Field Guides are. They provide photos, physical descriptions and locations where the bird can be found. With the advent of technology, my favorite field guides are apps. These apps provide excellent color photos. They also include the sounds which the birds make as being able to compare the sounds can be important. A few years ago, I was at the Lake of the Woods in Canada and could hear this unusual bird call which happened at sunset. Since we were in the woods I never was able to see the bird, even though its sound was quite clear. After much trial and error, I was able to identify the bird, which was new to me, thanks to my electronic field guide.

Unfortunately, birds are much more identifiable and predictable than leaders. Part of this challenge is that in many cases we do not have a common meaning or good understanding for the terms leader and leadership. Our understanding is shaped by our context. As an example, in organizations the term leader often refers to a position more than it does to the capabilities of the incumbent. A person is assumed to be a leader given the position that the person holds. It's as if being a leader was determined as part of the selection criteria for the person being selected for the position. While those of us who have spent much time in organizational life know that is not the case, this background assumption nonetheless persists. Another manifestation of this thinking that leadership is based on position is how the terms leadership and management are used in an organization. In many organizations the terms are used interchangeably, as if to have the same meaning.

This collapsing of the meaning between leadership and management is particularly problematic for organizations which are attempting to grow and create value. Sustainable growth happens through execution of growth strategies, innovation, and organizational transformation. Sustainable growth requires leadership. The reason many organizations struggle to sustain growth is they assume that it can be managed. While management is important, it is not what drives growth. That happens only through leadership

Spotting Transformational Leadership

Field Guides help us distinguish different types of birds. It’s a good thing since there is phenomenal number of birds who differ in countless ways. Likewise, there is phenomenal variation in how leaders look, talk and where they work. As an example, the common bias is that leadership is provided by the executives of the organization. Yes, that is an expectation, even though the person’s level of leadership capabilities is often a secondary consideration to their level of management capabilities.

I assert that success in organizational transformation requires transformational leadership. The evidence for transformational leadership is people around the leader taking extraordinary actions which produces excellent business results. Further evidence can be seen if the context or design of the organization has been changed. This change is essential to achieving and sustaining breakthrough results and transformation. Another sign of the presence of transformational leadership is the development of leaders throughout the organization. It is noteworthy when strong leadership is being provided by front-line employees. That is, people who are in hourly or technical positions with no supervisory or managerial duties cannot be expected to be leaders. While this bias is common, it is inaccurate. My firm and I have been involved in many remarkable transformations over the past three decades and have repeatedly seen that some of the most impactful leadership comes from front-line employees. In industrial settings these front-line employees are members of unions, and even union officers. Yet the credibility, passion and skills they bring to the organization are unbeatable. They often are the ones who drive the transformation of the organization over the tipping point, where remarkable things begin to happen.

The challenge to the Field Guide for Leaders is that often it is hard to see what transformational leaders are actually doing. This is because there are not the “right things one should do” nor the “seven easy steps to be a transformational leader”. Each situation is unique, so what is required to engage and inspire people tends to also be unique to each setting. Trying to use a method of transformational leadership that works in another setting is a recipe for failure.

In looking for the evidence of transformational leaders, the place to look is at the actions of people around the leaders, rather than at the leaders. This may initially seem counterintuitive, since we are so familiar with the idea of looking at the leader to identify attitudes and characteristics. However, the information we want from our Field Guide lies with what is happening with those who are being influenced by the leaders. For more on transformational leadership, read What is Leadership?

What is in the Field Guide?

The Field Guide for Transformational Leadership offers descriptions of what is happening in the organization as well as with the people working around transformational leaders. For sake of brevity, let’s look at nine descriptions:

  1. Good understanding in the organization of their Purpose or Why
  2. Invented Future and new context
  3. Values of the organization are well understood by most people in organization
  4. Clarity of direction and strategies
  5. Clarity of desired actions
  6. Strong commitment to achieving results
  7. Creativity and innovation
  8. Intentionality
  9. Inspiration

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Good Understanding in the Organization of their Purpose or Why

Simon Sinek's Golden CircleTransformational leaders enable others to understand their organization’s Purpose. Simon Sinek describes this as the organization’s WHY.

In his Golden Circle model, Sinek describes three levels:

  • What the organization does,
  • how it does it, and
  • why it does it. 

Sinek points out that most of us begin on the outside with the what the organization does. Every organization knows this. Most know how it does what it does and what makes it different from the others. Sinek says that only a few know why they do what they do. He further asserts that the organizations with inspiration leaders, aka transformational leaders, work the opposite way. They begin with their WHY or core purpose and work out through the How and What. Sinek asserts this explains the success of inspirational leaders and inspired organizations.

I strongly agree with Sinek, which is why it is the first factor included in the Field Guide. While I did not have these distinctions to work with earlier in my practice, it is an accurate description of what happens. So, the transformational leaders have organizations and teams in which people understand the WHY and act accordingly. This WHY is reflected in the organizational context and is central to the exceptional performance of these organizations and teams.

Invented Future and New Context

Every organization has a future, whether the people talk about it or not. For most organizations, this future is a continuation of the past. This future shapes the organization’s context. Context is important since it affects how employees feel and think about their organization, its customers, competitors, etc. The power of the context is strong. Further, the context works in the background, so employees are not aware of it until it is pointed out. In fact, it is so much in the background that it determines how employees perceive events and the interpretations which are given to those events. I refer to the existing future and its context as a Default Future. This term is used since this past based 'Future' is already in place and wired into the organization’s context. It’s 'Default' since it is already in place and will continue to operate unless interrupted.

Transformational Leaders interrupt this Default Future by inventing a new one. This is called the Invented Future. This Invented Future begins with the realization that the future does not yet exist and is not necessarily determined by the past. In fact, we have a choice about that future. If the default future delivers the expected value, there is nothing to be done. However, if the default future does not create the desired level of value, then there is a choice to create a new one. This is because this new future is invented, or made up. This Invented Future should deliver financial results, market position, product adoption and the other factors essential to creating value. Among the most important actions of transformational leaders is inventing a New Future.

So, in the Field Guide we see that an important factor for identifying the effect of transformational leaders is an Invented Future which people in the organization understand and are committed to achieving. This commitment by others in the organization is essential to success of transformation.

Values of the Organization are Well Understood

Having the values of the organization being well understood by most people in the organization is another factor which demonstrates the presence of transformational leadership. It is useful to clarify what this means. Most organizations have a statement of values which can be found on plaques on the wall and the website. In most cases this is a ritual which some executive insisted be done in the past. If you spread fifty different companies’ value statements out on a conference table, you will find little difference in the fifty. If you step back and look, you will notice that all fifty share common values even though they are in different industries and at different points in the life cycle of their products. The question to ask is, “how did this happen”? The answer is that this list lives as a ritual which some executive previously mandated to be completed. Often there is little credibility given to this list of values, and certainly these values do not shape decision making and management behavior.

Let me a share an experience about company values. I had been hired to work with the CEO to change the culture in a UK company. I was conducting interviews in the London office. As I looked at the person being interviewed, there was a large poster on the wall which presented the company’s values. In the interview I asked this person about the organization’s values since organizational culture is a reflection of the organization’s values. The person quickly asserted that there was no agreement about the organization’s values and that the CEO did whatever he pleased regardless of how dubious, if not unethical, the actions were. Finally, I asked the person about the poster on the wall. She turned, looked at the poster and begin laughing. She said the executive who championed the creation of those value statements and these posters had been fired. The story is that the CEO wanted no part of these stated values and terminated the executive. As it turned out this was one of many terminations which the CEO made for no reason, not related to financial performance.

Transformational leaders assure that shared values that are articulated, are an expression of the leader’s commitments and come to be appreciated by the people in the business. The values say what we believe in as an organization, what is important to us, and in what ways we can be counted on. Values for a leader will always have a couple of elements; one is doing what we say we will do. The second is results, or as one leader told me “Results, Results, Results”. It is not that leaders are not compassionate people who care about their employees’ safety and well-being. Most do care quite deeply. In addition, they appreciate that employees’ safety and well-being is intimately related to achieving excellent business results.

Clarity of Direction and Strategies

When transformational leadership is present, the employees have a solid understanding of the case or rationale for change, the direction the organization is headed, and the strategies being used to achieve the new future. This information and understanding allows employees to be creative and innovative in developing ideas for how to move the organization forward. Given how close the front-line employee is to customers and users of the products, they often can see opportunities that others cannot.

One of my favorite examples comes from early in my firm’s history as we were working with executives of Ford Motor Company to transform the North American business. The executives were becoming effective transformational leaders and were communicating their view of the future where Ford became the most admired and profitable car company in the Americas. This message was translated to a lower level of engineers who developed a crazy idea related to the Ford Mustang. First, a bit of history. When it was launched under the leadership of Lee Iacocca, the Ford Mustang was a breakthrough product. However, over time this brand lost its luster and had become an unattractive, underpowered “Grandma’s car”. These lower level engineers came up with this crazy idea to mock up a couple of Mustangs to display at a convention of police department managers. The “craziness” included the current poor view of the Mustang brand along with the existing paradigm that all police cars needed to be sedans with four doors. This paradigm was very strong. Undeterred, these engineers convinced their manager to let them present the Mustang with a large V-8 engine, which was not available on the Mustang. Further, there was little evidence that product planners had considered putting such a large engine in a Mustang. As fate would have it, they did take the mocked-up Mustangs to the trade show and made some sales. This led to more serious conversations about how to redesign the Mustang as a performance car. Of course, this is hard for us to even think about today since the Mustang is notable for its large powerful engines in sporty designed cars.

My personal intersection with this story came when I was in Detroit to facilitate a meeting. While waiting for the meeting to start I noticed a news clipping which was posted on the bulletin board. This clip described how a Ford Mustang police cruiser had chased down and caught a Chevy Corvette in the desert area of California and Nevada. It seemed like a nice story, so I asked the manager I was consulting with about it. He went on and on about how powerful this event was for employees of Ford. For decades GM was the dominant car company and their pride and job was the Corvette. Ford had been unable to develop a car which even remotely could compete with it. And then in the desert a Mustang police cruiser had done the unthinkable and outrun a Corvette. My host went on to tell me the entire story about how the lower level engineers had created this breakthrough on their own initiative and had been supported by their managers. This was an example of transformational leadership and a dramatic departure of how Ford traditionally managed innovation. Since then the revamped Mustang has been a consistent successful brand for Ford.

Clarity of Desired Actions

Most employees view company strategies as a bit ethereal and hard to fully comprehend. This is due in part to how often they have heard executives describe new strategies which eventually fizzled out. This past experience results in many employees being skeptical about strategies. They do however pay close attention to the metrics which are in place, how rewards will be distributed and the actions which they see occurring. The evidence of transformational leadership is in the understanding employees have of strategies and how those strategies directly translate to them. That is, they understand what is expected of them as well as how they can contribute to moving things forward. Transformational leaders appreciate that most employees want to contribute in whatever ways they can to assure success of the business and organization.

Transformational leaders appreciate the importance of linking strategies, new metrics and requests for action. A classic mistake executives make is to develop a new growth strategy which calls for very different employee behaviors, and yet to leave the old metrics in place. These new strategies fail since employees pay attention to the metrics for how they are being evaluated and rewarded rather than whatever the latest strategy is. Transformational leaders understand this dynamic and act to assure employees see consistency in the requested actions, the presence of new metrics and close alignment of rewards with the desired actions.

Strong Commitment to Achieving Exceptional Results

Transformational leaders create strong commitment to achieving the results that are needed and promised for the organization. Transformational leaders interact with others in ways which makes this strong commitment clear and motivating to others. Transformational leader’s commitments are to assure that the results are achieved using appropriate actions which are consistent with the values. If the results are not being accomplished, then the leader is not getting the job done. While that statement may seem harsh or judgmental, it puts in stark relief the reason for the being of transformational leaders and the measure which is most valuable. There is a strong tendency to give excuses when an organization or team fails to deliver the expected results, given there are always extenuating circumstances. However transformational leaders simply assert that we achieved the results, or we did not. Asserting that we did not opens the door for creativity, increased accountability and innovation. Accepting excuses does none of those things.

Transformational leaders focus on engaging and enrolling people to achieve extraordinary results. Organizations that achieve exceptional results that were otherwise not going to occur is a clear manifestation of transformational leadership.

The transformational leader’s commitments to results encourages them to change the context and culture of the organization so that people can flourish. This is a huge contribution to others, as they are shown the desired actions and then allowed to create approaches for achieving those outcomes. A metaphor is that transformational leaders equip the people to “fish” for themselves. It is like the old saying, “Give a person a fish, they have a meal for the day; teach them to fish, and they have meals for a lifetime.” The impact of transformational leaders is teaching people to fish and creating the environment in which fishing flourishes.

Creativity and innovation

Generating creativity and innovation is a key aspect of transformational leadership. Transformational leaders generate the creativity and innovation required to have the organization or team get the results. When observing a leader generating, it is evident that the leader’s commitment to the team and results is so strong that he/she will keep innovating and inventing until a workable solution is found. The transformational leader will not settle for mediocrity or a defeat.

Even when the desired result is not achieved, the generative leader’s position is that time simply ran out before we could find the winning solution. A generative leader churns ideas and alternative solutions over and over, looking for an approach that will inspire the team to action and for a course of action that is likely to be successful. The question that the leader continues to ask is, “How can we best optimize the results given that we own this situation and have access to a wide range of resources?” There is a commitment to get extraordinary results and if possible, to create a breakthrough.


Transformational leaders have enormous commitment regarding the success of the organization and its people. Organizations achieve transformations only when their leaders are intentional about the success of the transformation. This means dealing with the discomfort associated with leadership and transformation. Some of the most effective executive teams I have seen used the commitment to be intentional as a core value. The CEO would often ask, “Are we being intentional?” This question was an invitation to step back and assure that actions and ways of being were shaped by the team’s commitments to transform the organization, rather than the convenience of dealing with daily duties. Asking oneself “Am I being intentional about transforming the performance of our business” is an excellent mantra for transformational leadership.


Inspiration is the hallmark of transformational leadership. During implementation, a transformational leader inspires others regarding the needed actions. Transformational leaders inspiring others to act in extraordinary ways to achieve excellent results. Without this inspiration, there is little chance that a transformation will be achieved. With inspiration from transformational leadership there is enormous possibility that the transformation will be achieved.


Transformational leaders are often “unique birds” which can best be identified and understood through the use of a Field Guide. Most important actions are occurring with others in the organization, not the leaders per se. The value of these leaders is the impact they have on others as well as the collective impact which is created. Often some of the most effective leaders are found in the most unusual places.

Topics: Leadership