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InFocus

Transformational leadership in action

Obama, Ardern, Southgate. When asked to name an inspirational leader, it’s likely that one of these names might come up. Let’s look a bit more closely at why that might be – and what we can learn from them

Having covered professional network building and then decision making, in the third article of this series we’re going to look at what happens when leaders think big. The concept of transformational leadership demonstrates the value to an organisation of having (and communicating) a big-picture vision. We’re going to look at some examples, examine how they bring their values to life in their organisations and see what we can learn to take into our own working lives.

Transformational leadership is underpinned by a compelling vision and set of values – for the role, the team, the organisation or, in some cases, a government and by extension an entire country. A transformational leader is a role model, embodying the behaviours they expect of their team, and has high expectations of those they work with. They set clear goals and support their team members to achieve those goals within a no-blame culture: the focus is always on how to solve a problem, not who created it.

[Transformational leaders] set clear goals and support their team members to achieve those goals within a no-blame culture: the focus is always on how to solve a problem, not who created it

Transformational leaders can sometimes be perceived as quieter: they are not those who shout about their work. They do not tend to make detailed plans or strategise, instead choosing to facilitate conversations between people they identify as being the best placed to move a project forward.

Transformational leaders have four key characteristics:

  1. They know their team members and demonstrate concern and empathy for them
  2. They encourage their team members to think for themselves
  3. They inspire and motivate their team members to perform to their potential
  4. They model the behaviour they expect to see in others

Transformational leadership only works when there is an inspiring long-term vision of the future in place: everyone in the organisation must know what they are working towards. Transformational leaders also need to have “earned” the right to lead – it does not work well when someone is new to an organisation as there needs to be strong trust between leader and team. This will be a topic for another article – but as a minimum, the leader needs to have demonstrated that they are (1) capable and (2) fair, and therefore worthy of the respect of their team. Let’s look at how some contemporary transformational leaders do it.

In the case of Gareth Southgate, the “team” is quite literal – the England men’s football team. Watching the team progress through the 2020 European Championship, Southgate very publicly demonstrated the leadership characteristics that have led him to success. Firstly, Southgate’s approach is based on integrity and humility. When the team lost on penalties in the final, he said in post-match interviews that no player was to blame. Instead, the focus was on empathy for his players, supporting them and thanking them for their efforts. The message was clear: there is no shame in failure; we learn from it and improve as a result. Secondly, Southgate practises role-modelling leadership based on values. The team played very clean games, reflected in the statistics for yellow cards, offsides and fouls. The integrity that Southgate demonstrates as a leader is simply expected of the team – and the respect that he has earned from nurturing young players means that they are willing to follow his example.

Transformational leadership only works when there is an inspiring long-term vision of the future in place: everyone in the organisation must know what they are working towards

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was re-elected in 2020 with the highest percentage of the vote in over 50 years. She therefore has a very strong mandate for her style of leadership and again, it is one based on values. In an interview with The Guardian just after the election, she said, “I think, if there’s anything people need right now, is they just need to see human beings doing their best as leaders. And that means that from time to time you’ll stumble, and you should be honest about that; it means that people will see your failings and we should be honest about that too. People need authenticity.”

It’s easy to see here the parallels with Southgate: the emphasis on integrity and also on compassion: “We need our leaders to be able to empathise with the circumstances of others; to empathise with the next generation that we’re making decisions on behalf of… You can be both empathetic and strong.” Notably, Ardern has managed to combine an empathetic approach without compromising effective policy. In Ardern’s case, the “team” she’s leading is an entire nation – but she still has a vision for what that “team” can do and be, and she communicates that through her own words and actions. The high level of trust and confidence in her leadership comes from people feeling that rather than preaching at them, she stands with them. There are definite lessons to be learned there.

If someone cited “Obama” as an example of a transformational leader, a reasonable response might be “which one?” Both Michelle and Barack display the characteristics of this type of leadership: fundamentally values-based, leading by example and demonstrating empathy. In the case of Barack, his focus as US President always strived for engagement over force. His personal values and positive outlook were embodied in his earliest campaign slogan – “Yes We Can” – providing a clear point of inspiration for his “team” to rally round. Michelle’s priorities as First Lady were also demonstrated by living her values – her priorities of tackling racism, global girls’ education and female empowerment demonstrated the value that both she and Barack placed in having a diverse team to support their vision. She maintained high levels of personal integrity – in her book “Becoming” she describes her response to personal attacks: “when they go low, we go high”, again modelling the behaviour she expects to see in others.

The challenge this month is to take a moment to consider the concept of values: what are your personal values and those of your organisation? Do they coincide? What is your team’s vision for what good practice looks like, or what a great place to work looks like?

The lesson from these leaders is the value of having a clear vision, and the crucial importance of practising what you preach: enacting the values of your team or your organisation in your working life, and leading with empathy.

So, the challenge this month is to take a moment to consider the concept of values: what are your personal values and those of your organisation? Do they coincide? What is your team’s vision for what good practice looks like, or what a great place to work looks like? Once you have these in place, be aware of how they are realised during the working day. Notice the behaviours you are modelling and the example you are setting for your team: ensure that these are fair and consistent, and your team could be in the cup final before too long.

Hannah Perrin

Hannah Perrin, BSc(Hons), PGCHE, PGDipHE, MA, FHEA, PhD, is Group Development Manager at the Veterinary Management Group (VMG). With a PhD in Veterinary Education, her expertise is in personal and professional development, occupational identity and communities of practice.


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