What is Transformational Leadership?


Table of Contents

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Why Do Leaders Need to Transform?

Understanding the WHAT, WHY, & HOW of Leadership

Beware The Failure Gap

Moving From Agreement to Alignment (5 Steps)

Building Intentional Optimism Into Your Leadership Transformation

5 Principles of Leaders Who Matter

Why Do Leaders Need to Transform?

We’ve all seen the grim statistics – major organizational transformations often fail to return as expected to the business. Many fail to produce any significant change in products, processes, ways of working, market presence, or financial growth. This happens despite senior leaders’ best plans and intentions and the most earnest change management practitioners.

Transformation is hard work. We want the most senior leaders of transformation to do the RIGHT hard work, starting with themselves first and then working to change others. We believe the focus on changing others without making sure senior leaders align and transform themselves is a misplaced investment because organizations will only go where their leaders go first.

When senior leaders fail to change, they have an amplified impact on the rest of the organization.

Doing the right work requires the most senior leaders to change themselves before changing others. In their best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner called it ‘modeling the way’ and it is absolutely required if a transformation is going to meet its goals. Too often, senior leaders are allowed to avoid confronting and changing themselves individually and as a leadership team. Instead, we let them focus on organizational factors like re-working the org chart, re-engineering processes, or getting their team members to change without tackling the amplified impact their individual mindsets and group dynamics have on success. When senior leaders fail to change, they have an amplified impact on the rest of the organization through the model they set.

So what does leadership alignment look like in the real world?

  • Moving budgets and people to the appropriate places for maximum impact on the organization
  • Discontinuing programs and projects, even if they’re a favorite of the leadership team
  • Delaying short term results for long term impact
  • Letting go of traditional symbols of power, success, and status
  • Changing hiring guidelines and reassessing talent
  • Reassessing supplier relationships
  • Developing new leadership skills at the most senior levels
  • Reimagining distribution models

It takes a courageous leader to go first and do the hard work of aligning to deliver on the promise of transformation. And no individual leader can do it alone- the most senior leaders in the organization must align and deliver together for success.

Understanding The WHAT, WHY, & HOW of Leadership

Companies have a phenomenal number of strategies highlighting WHAT they intend to do. Operations, talent, sales, IT, corporate – you name it, there’s a strategy documented somewhere. Businesses spend a huge amount of time and money developing these strategies. Consultants are called, meetings are held, binders are created, and charts are developed. Maybe there’s even a clever infographic!

After the consultants go home, meetings wind down, and infographics get pinned on the wall, the world goes back to normal. And a year later the annual cycle starts all over again.

Strategies are critically important for businesses – people need to know what the direction is and why they are heading there. Unfortunately, the investment in strategy is often lost because leaders don’t personally change their decisions and behaviors in ways that deliver on the agreed-to plans.

In almost equal measure, companies spend resources defining WHY they do what they do, often bringing in brand firms to create beautiful mission, vision, and purpose statements (what we call MVPs), underpinned by values that tell the world how they intend to act. The MVPs typically highlight a positive social impact, leading the industry in some way, and/or delivering to customers. Values are almost always some version of integrity, respect, excellence, innovation, accountability, and customer focus.

MVPs and values are worth stating because they clarify intention. Unfortunately, they tend to stop at clarity, becoming beautiful posters, knickknacks, and taglines for marketing to customers and employees rather than guardrails for decisions and action. MVPs and values only become more than words on a page when the most senior leaders visibly align their actions to them.

Nothing changes until leaders change.

HOW leaders lead together is the missing link. Senior leaders must define and align to how they work together to deliver more than any of them can do individually, if they want to create exceptional results organizationally. The strongest WHAT and WHY will fail to be executed without clarity on HOW senior leaders lead together.

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We believe in the power of HOW and the impact of alignment because we’ve seen it accelerate transformation and growth.

When senior leaders put in the time and effort, the results are remarkable.

They include:

  • Stronger market position
  • Accelerated financial growth
  • Faster speed to market for new products
  • More predictable outcomes
  • Increased productivity throughout the organization

The organization delivers on leadership commitments in a way that sends a clear message to employees, customers, communities, and investors: we are aligned as a team. It is a powerful platform and a compelling message that can’t be created through clever marketing, big binders, or fancy charts. It comes from the leaders themselves.

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Beware of the Failure Gap

Executives are often in their senior roles because they’ve proven adept at navigating those often conflicting expectations while delivering consistent financial results, perhaps with just enough innovation to keep a Board happy. Unfortunately, these skills don’t translate well when an organization needs to massively shift across its value chain, from the inside out.

Significant organizational transformation requires visible leadership from executives who might be better at delivering operational excellence.

When that’s the case (and we’d argue it is the case for many organizations today, whether they realize it or not), it is easy to fall into the Failure Gap – the space between agreement and alignment. This is where good intentions flounder.

We see the Failure Gap most often when executive teams come to agreement on priorities, strategies, opportunities to pursue, or transformational changes that are needed without doing the hard work of aligning to what needs to be done. The bigger the change, the wider and deeper the Failure Gap grows. Changes might be necessitated by a new purpose, a significant strategy shift, or in response to a disruption in the market. Whatever the reason, everyone AGREES that changes must happen. Then, nothing changes. The same decisions, investments, and priorities are maintained across the organization. The result? The desired transformation gets sucked into the Failure Gap.

How Do I Transform My Leadership? Moving From Agreement to Alignment

Helping leaders to visibly move from agreement to alignment during times of transformation is vital. They need to do more than nod in agreement and drive others to change. They must take on the hard work of shifting their own behavior and decision-making processes to deliver different outcomes.

If you are ambitious enough to transform your business, your leaders need to transform, and so do you.

It requires the courage to:

  • Interrupt old patterns of decision making and learn new ones
  • Let go of ways of working that made you successful in the past
  • Create visible alignment to a new strategy, direction, or purpose

Through our work at Karrikins Group, we help leaders to actively and visibly move from agreement to alignment. As we’ve worked across industries with companies of all sizes, we’ve found a handful of tangible actions that help leaders to do the hard work of starting with themselves to move to alignment. Five of them consistently rise to the top at organizations that succeed in moving into alignment and delivering accelerated growth and amplified impact.

1. Co-Create Clarity

Knowing what alignment looks like in terms of decisions and behaviors can only be done collectively. This can drive some tough discussions about long-held relationships with suppliers, distributors, employees, and customers. It can also challenge individual leader autonomy and preferred projects. However, without these kinds of discussions, it is impossible for a leadership team to move forward in alignment.

2. Acknowledge Tradeoffs

Tradeoffs create tension in the systems of leadership that are most familiar and comfortable. They are natural – they will never go away, and the goal is not to fully resolve them. Instead, alignment requires recognizing when and where they are influencing decisions and how leaders respond to them. A common tradeoff is short-term results and long-term investments. There is no consistent right answer – tradeoffs are made every day in this space. Making the tradeoff visible and wrestling with it in a different way is a critical step in transformational alignment.

3. Share the Struggle

Leaders sometimes make the mistake of thinking that their job is to protect their people from change. In today’s business environment, where change is a constant, a leader’s highest order calling is actually to create change-able people. In doing so, leaders cultivate resilience and capability among their teams. One easy way to build this muscle is by sharing the struggle to change from the highest levels in the organization. When a leader says it is time the transform, the best way they can lead the charge is by telling their organization exactly how it will be hard for them to change and the hard work they are putting in to do so. Speaking from the heart and talking through how they navigate tradeoffs and personal preferences that are challenged by the new direction will make it real to people. This creates the groundswell that is needed across the organization as others start to model their thinking processes and ways of working.

4. Foster Accountability

Anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows that accountability is a key element of success. Leaders need to demonstrate to their organizations that they are being held accountable to their own change before they ask others to do the same – they can’t just hold others accountable; they must do the same for themselves. Accountability Coaches can work with leaders and their teams to set the conditions for alignment and help them to stay accountable to the new direction. It is very difficult to see habits, behaviors, and default settings that teams have settled on over the years. Having an outside eye on things can help make these visible and create safe and clear paths to change.

5. Insist on Transparency

Create processes that promote transparency across the most senior team. Transparency and accountability processes are less about status reports and more about comparing individual notes, sharing challenges, and being honest about how and why decisions are being made. Senior leaders, especially P&L owners, often work autonomously within their own budgets, and sharing information and insight with their colleagues might not be a natural practice. Building a new kind of sharing across the senior team will help drive transparency, create a sense of connection, and ultimately move the organization towards accelerated impact.

Build Intentional Optimism Into Your Leadership Transformation

By being more intentional about using optimism as a lever for change, leaders can drive stronger changeability throughout the organization, and motivate people to respond to disruption, change, opportunity, and crisis with resilience and strength. It takes work to be intentional about optimism, but when it spreads, the results are powerful and long-lasting – more so than the spike in attention we see when a burning platform approach is used to motivate change.

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5 ways to build intentional optimism in your leadership

To amplify Intentional Optimism, the Karrikins Group OPT-IN model™ has five actions you can take to strengthen how you show up as a pragmatic and forward-focused leader. It combines future possibilities with a pragmatic view of what’s required to get there.

1. Orient toward the best likely outcome.

Figure out what you can control and where you can have an impact and decide what you will do in that space to create a positive outcome. It is important to remember that “best” and “likely” don’t always equal awesome. If you are skidding on black ice toward a concrete barrier, the best likely outcome might be that you mitigate harm by making whatever adjustments to speed and direction you can before the inevitable impact. Optimism isn’t about ignoring reality, it is about finding the place, no matter how small, where you have control, and working there to make a difference.

2. Pursue forward-focused questions.

Ask questions that accelerate you toward disruption, create learning opportunities, and help you to make progress. Watch out for questions that assume limitations or negative results. Optimists ask questions that push into what is possible while also pragmatically framing what is required to get there. Sometimes “forward-focused” means acknowledging and working through obstacles, changing direction, or learning and moving on.

3. Take on the hard work.

Don’t bother being optimistic if you aren’t willing to work at something. Believing that something bold will be easy isn’t optimism – it is delusion. Own how you show up and do the hard work to have the impact you want to make. You might have to change yourself first, which is the hardest work of all. Figure out what is getting in your way. Do what is hard to break through – ask for help, give up comfort, take a risk. Optimism is not believing things will be easy; it is believing in your ability to do hard things.

4. Include unexpected others.

Does your organization use the same Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to solve every problem? Optimists have faith in the ability of others to contribute in unexpected ways and to grow into SMEs by being included when it really matters. Take a chance by bringing in someone unexpected to problem solve or ideate. Optimists also know the value of the Skeptic and the Inventor – being the bridge between the two creates exciting new possibilities. Plus, it is way more fun!

5. Notice and name your choices.

One of the most powerful ways to tap into your inner Optimist is to notice and name your choices. Being intentional about what you are doing by paying attention and giving voice to it helps you to build your internal response systems and gives you a sense of control over what is happening around you. At the same time, it makes your choices more visible to others and helps spread optimism to the rest of your team.

Principles of Leaders Who Matter

Leaders who matter – the ones who continue to drive innovation, who accelerate disruption, who turn companies around, and who start up companies that change the world – were all a part of the research and case studies that went into writing the book MATTER by Peter Sheahan and Julie Williamson. As we talked with and read about these extraordinary people, we realized that there were a handful of consistent principles they all demonstrated. While they looked different across industries and companies, these five principles can be developed by any leader who wants to create more value.

1. Optimism is a choice.

Embrace being a symbol of what’s possible for your organization. Leaders, both formal and informal, are powerful models of the culture and guide how people behave and how they feel within an organization. If you believe there is a bright future for your market and your company, so will your people. This doesn’t mean being naïve – that bright future might require some seriously hard work. You are the person responsible for providing the light to show the way.

2. Disruption starts with you.

Be willing to disrupt yourself, visibly and often. Challenge your own thinking, and expect others to do the same. The questions you ask your people will set the standard for how willing they are to push forward. Instead of asking them to defend a business case, ask what other options they see – challenge them to go beyond the obvious. Ask them to understand not just what to do, but how to do it – how will people’s decisions have to change? How will it look and feel, and how do you make that the ‘new normal’?

3. Knowing is powerful.

Traditional models of leadership have required that leaders know all the answers. In today’s world, Google knows all the answers, at least to the traditional questions. You need to ask the questions that require critical thinking and that help you to get smarter as a leader. Traditional data is awesome, but being able to see the whole board is even better.

4. Authenticity is the best response.

When your market calls you out on something, don’t hide too far behind lawyers and public relations management. Today’s world is fast and it is transparent. Know your supply chain, know your distributors, know what happens with your product every step of the way, and be ready to respond to questions about it honestly and to make tough changes when necessary.

5. Abundance creates value for all.

You can’t stop progress, but you can choose to amplify it in a way that benefits you and your market. When you put your organizational assets out in the world, when you are bold enough to create value for others, it builds you up in extraordinary ways.


Transformation can feel like walking through mud; slow, dirty, and hard to progress. It is not a one-time event but rather a journey to generate changeable leaders who are able to continually grow and transform as individuals and who inspire actions that are in alignment with their future desired state.

Change requires action. We must move leadership teams from compliance-based behaviors to inspired ownership of the future they have collectively created and committed to. Therefore, we ask senior leaders to start with self first, create clarity around how their leadership needs to change, and then alter behaviors to deliver on their shared aspirations. Our process creates leadership clarity, commitment, connection, and courage while building a foundation for team accountability to the necessary changes.

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