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Being a 3H Leader: The Keys to Transformative Leadership

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.