There are three key qualities that distinguish transformative leaders who foster respect, empowerment, and fierce belonging.
Think of an uninspiring teacher. Let’s say his name is Mr. Clean (no relation). Professional development isn’t his thing. Nothing quite like experience after all. Mr. Clean lectures, gives out worksheets, maybe a few open-note quizzes, in-class writing assignments, and a big test every now and then. The kids don’t rave about class, but they learn that if they put their heads down and do the work, they’ll get a good grade and one step closer to graduating. Also, if they don’t put their heads down and work, they’ll get on Mr. Clean’s bad side. That’s like a bad restaurant. You don’t visit twice. It’s no mystery to the other teachers that the school could do better, but — say what you will about Mr. Clean — any time you walk by his classroom, it’s under control. We can live with that, right? Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.
Sure. If you don’t want to be inspired. Call me picky, but I’m looking for inspiration. I want a “Top 5 Experience” (the first school I ever worked at would use that phrase often, and though I left after a couple of busy years, I am forever grateful for my time there). The novice or transactional leader cannot accomplish that feat. A transformative leader can.
For those who lead others on a daily basis––and those who aspire to––there are three key qualities that distinguish transformative leaders: heart, honor, and humility. Team or business, adult or youth, 3H leaders foster respect, empowerment, and fierce belonging.
To motivate a group or a person, you need to make a connection of the heart. Search any list of the “greatest leaders of all time,” and you will see historic giants who did just that. Your well-planned-nice-sounding-smile-at-the-teleprompter speech will lose the audience as soon they see the script reflected in your glasses — where they should be seeing themselves. A multi-paragraph pep talk via email is not a talk. It’s a word hunt titled Is there anything in here that pertains to me? Face to face is best, but it’s the feeling on the face — and, most importantly, in the voice — that makes a difference. To motivate, you need to bare your heart to others. Be it through tears or tremors, people who believe are people who feel.
A simple way to make people feel, ironically, is to tell them how they make you feel. Your talk today really pumped me up. I’m so glad to have you on the team. Last night I remembered the comment you made in that super tense meeting and couldn’t stop laughing. You made my day. It’s empowering when people know that they are transforming the life of their leader. That understanding deepens the connection of the heart, rather than increasing disconnectedness through empty praise. That connection plants seeds of love, which, with proper care, ultimately grow into deep roots of belonging.
Leaders often like to say, “My door is always open,” but what’s the point if no one wants to see you? If people are scared of you, they will probably only visit when invited. If they stop visiting after you “listen” to them, they may have learned that speaking to you is a waste of their time. Leaders who connect with the heart make people want to see them because they make people feel good.
One of the most heartfelt expressions is humor — not to be confused with sarcasm or shame or talking smack about the incompetents. Strong and successful cultures laugh together. A lot. Observe a group meeting at an organization, and you can tell a good deal about the leadership and culture before the meeting even starts. Does everyone disappear into phones and computers? Do people sit next to one another? What are the facial expressions? Is there a visible leader? If so, what is that person doing? Does anyone look like they enjoy being here? 3H leaders encourage and model good humor because they understand the value of their long-term investment. And they know that laughter is medicine.
However, humor has limits. When I was an 18-year-old leader in training at summer camp, I had a mentor who was a few years older tell me to throw a dodgeball at his face as hard as I could from about 10 feet away. When I refused, he said, “You just failed your test.” I think it was supposed to be a joke, but I was perplexed. Though that mentor taught me several important leadership lessons, that “test” taught me nothing and left a temporary wedge in our relationship. Mind games don’t empower, they disempower. A 3H leader uses heart and humor to connect and elevate.
Heart is straightforward yet tricky to master. Composure balances passion, patience checks ambition, and consideration revises frankness. Leading with the heart will produce embarrassing mistakes, no doubt. As long as leaders don’t take themselves too seriously and know when to take accountability, the risk is worth the reward. Fabled leadership moments are born out of emotional courage. In the wise words of Technotronic: pump up the jam.
Honor is a strong word. It’s also an old word, one that often evokes images of medieval gallantry and some old-fashioned chivalry. For simplicity, focus on honor (noun) being an adherence to what is right or to a standard of conduct. Honor and its synonyms — integrity, morality, virtue — are common core values, but they also are fraught with the imperfection of subjectivity (the evil monsters of history believed they did what was right). It’s well established that diverse teams are smarter. Leaders then can mitigate the risk of well-intentioned yet misguided honor if they empower a team of multicultural perspectives. Apart from that, do your best and hunger for learning.
There’s no need to labor over honor. If you’re reading this, you probably have a construct already that isn’t so different from the next person. Be nice. Be honest. Work hard. Help others. Yadayadayada. There are more important questions to ask. How often is your honor visible? How often is your honor compromised? How often does your honor contribute to belonging?
People respect leaders who act with honor in visible and memorable ways. Did you see the principal sitting next to Billy today at recess, the boy who is always alone? The president heard about my kids being sick and told me I could take a day off. Look, everybody, the boss just spent an hour cleaning the bathroom that Jerry flooded by trying to flush TPS reports down the toilet! Being visible is different from being self-congratulatory. Everyone cringes when leaders make not-so-subtle attempts to talk about how great of a person they are. Leadership by example is the foundation of leadership training, and it is only as strong as the model. Our lives are emulations of others. Leaders are role models by default. Accept it, waste it, or abuse it.
Wasting or abusing positions of leadership reeks of dishonor (strong word and fun to use). Two pitfalls to avoid are complaining and blaming. A transformative leader does not complain. That’s a no-fly zone. 3H leaders are not sinkers. They also are not blamers. Transactional leaders avoid any kind of personal loss, while transformative leaders always share the blame and practice “Extreme Ownership.” Knowing you let a respected role model down is agonizing. Having that person share your pain instead of piling upon it — and then reaching out their hand to lift you back up — is inspiring. That leads to fierce belonging.
To create a sense of fierce belonging, transformative leaders do more than business operations, they run a family. This is the secret sauce that makes championship teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Navy SEALS, and the cast of the Harry Potter movies. Nothing stands in the way of family honor. People sacrifice more. They endure more. They forgive more, and they sure as Hades don’t want to be disowned (AKA fired). At the same time, leaders cannot neglect their own families and the families of their team in the name of honor. 3H leaders understand that if everyone cares most about their own families — and everyone receives adequate time and flexibility to achieve that elusive work-life balance — that’s best for business.
Making personal exceptions is bad for business. It isn’t impressive to brag about the perks you get when you “sit at the top.” Enforcing rules that everyone but you must follow does not garner respect. At best, this kind of behavior will inspire other people to rise to power so that they too can relish in the luxury of abusing it. At worst — well, that’s a pretty awful outcome. It’s simple advice, but requiring someone to do something that you are not willing to do yourself is not acting with honor.
Doing what is right includes self-care. 3H leaders honor their mind, body, and spirit. They are like elite runners who have mastered pacing. They are prepared. You don’t see them tossing up breakfast in the middle of a race or crumbling a mile before the finish line. Instead of trying to achieve a personal record every day, they make small yet methodical gains, and they stay elite. They make their honor visible and empower others by modeling the transformative power of collective work.
The third fundamental quality of a 3H leader is a modest view of one’s importance: humility. Transactional leaders center themselves. They are motivated by personal interests, and they have a warped perspective of servant leadership. They believe that people serve them, rather than the other way around. Transformative leaders center the shared purpose of their community. Everything they do, uphold, and promote benefits the greater good.
Humility is the great equalizer. Heart without humbleness turns to arrogance and condescension. Honor combined with self-importance produces self-righteousness and impetuousness. Big words. Big consequences. Name a historical atrocity. It likely involves one group of people believing that they are more important than another — and forgetting the simplicity of the “golden rule” that humbles all.
Misguided leaders believe it is courageous and honorable to make “tough decisions” and enforce contested policies, but they lack tact. They add unfair burdens to the plates of others for personal gain. They view themselves as having the strength to do what is right when the people pleasers cannot or will not. 3H leaders exercise critical thinking. They know that confrontations are essential and that unanimous agreements are rare, but they challenge others to adhere to the shared purpose. In tense moments, they remind everyone that the collective good is more important than individual preference. The transactional leader scowls and says, “Because I said so.” The transformative leader smiles and says, “Because we serve.”
Nelson Mandela lived a life of service, and he learned early to be a shepherd:
I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. A leader…is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. (1994)
The shepherd is not vain and does not feed on attention. The shepherd does not hold the flock back. Instead, the flock, while staying on track, is empowered to move forward. The shepherd is humble because there is no shepherd without the flock.
Being a 3H leader is being the least important person in the room. It’s not about you. You don’t need to slam your fist and remind anyone that you’re in charge. You do need to remind everyone that what they do is appreciated, invaluable, and life-changing. Pride can be fun. It can make us feel big and powerful — unbeatable even — but it can also make us look down on others with a sense of superiority. Superiority, however, is a trap. It leaves you paranoid, defending your hilltop from every possible attack, trying to stay on top.
Walking with humility, there is no hill to live and die on. The flock journeys higher.
Why Transformative Leadership and Fierce Belonging
OK, transactional leadership isn’t great, but why transformative and not transformational? Transformational (relating to or involving transformation), by definition, is vague. To be transformative (causing a marked change in someone or something) is to be the catalyst. Serious long-game leaders don’t settle for loose associations. They identify problems that need solving — poverty, hunger, violence, captivity, inequality, apocalypse — and lead like Gandhi: be the change. A better future lies in transformative leadership.
Countless communities will tout that “you belong,” but few achieve fierce belonging. The most successful cultures in the world do. These are the organizations where most people don’t complain about their salaries. The teams where every player is hugging and weeping after the final game of the season. 3H leaders foster that kind of commitment and attachment. They cultivate a Top 5 Experience. Some say if you choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Utter nonsense. People leave the jobs they love all the time. When we find a family worth working for, we never stop working.