On Becoming A Transformational Leader

“Life can be more than simply manageable. It can and should be rewarding, engaging, and at times simply magnificent.”
Liz Bywater, organizational consultant

More than 65 years ago, the Second World War ended in Europe. In addition to all the military and civilian casualties, 6 million Jews, 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians, and 1900 Catholic priests were humiliated, starved, raped, burned and murdered. It was a Holocaust beyond human comprehension. Perhaps that’s why some idiots have the audacity to claim it never happened … or say they’d like to see it happen all over again.

In times like that, in times like these … indeed in ALL times … we need transformational leaders who say enough is enough. We need transformational leaders who say things can be different and things can be better, and then set about doing exactly that.

Such was the case with Irena Sendler. During WWII, Irena got permission to work in the Warsaw ghetto as a plumbing/sewer specialist. But she had an ulterior motive.

Irena smuggled Jewish infants out of the ghetto in the bottom of the tool box she carried. And she carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck to smuggle out the larger kids.

Irena even kept a dog in the back of her truck … that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The soldiers, of course, wanted nothing to do with the dog, and the barking covered up any noise made by the kids.

While serving as a plumbing/sewer specialist, she smuggled 2500 kids out of the Polish ghetto. Ultimately, she was caught and the Nazi’s broke all of her arms and legs and beat her severely.

But that didn’t stop Irena from being a transformational leader. She kept a record of all the names of all the kids she had smuggled out of the ghetto. She kept the names in a glass jar buried under a tree in her back yard. After the war, she tried to locate any parents that may have survived the Holocaust and tried to reunite them with their children.

Of course, most of them had been gassed. So she helped her rescued orphaned kids find foster families and adoptive parents. All of this work … for years and years … as a transformational leader … while most of the world never heard her name or knew her story … until 2007 when she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Unfortunately, she was not selected. The prize went to a politician who gave a slide show on the possibility of global warming. Irena Sendler died a few months later, on May 12, 2008, at the age of 98.

The important thing is … she did what had to be done. As a transformational leader, she did the right thing at the right time, no matter what the cost, with or without the support and recognition of others around her.

The same truth applies to your organization. If you want your organization to be the employer of choice, to be a better place to work, to be more profitable and more productive, you need more than a group of managers at various levels in the organization. You need some transformational leaders.

And the same goes for your own life. If you want a better life, you need to do more than manage it. You need to lead your life like a transformational leader.

For you to become a transformational leader on the job or at home, you must do at least five things.

1. Take some risks.

Irena Sendler certainly knew there was a great deal of risk in doing what she did. But it was more important for her to do the right thing instead of the safe thing. And I hope the same comment could be made about you.

That’s why I tell my audiences, “Taking risks is central to everything worthwhile in life. Without taking risks, you cannot make real gains, develop power, earn respect, or experience success. There is simply no way you can grow without taking chances.”

All transformational leaders know they have to take some risks to get the results they want. I talk about that in “The Change Payoff: How To Turn Resistance Into Resilience And Results.”

Ray Bradbury said it especially well. He said, “If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

2. Manage or conquer your fear.

As you well know, you can’t steal second base with your foot firmly planted on first. You’ve got to take some risks. Irena Sendler knew that.

But she also knew she had to manage or conquer her fear … and so do you if you want to accomplish your goals or experience greater success in any part of your life or work.

Unfortunately, when you’re asked to tackle an unfamiliar task, you may hear the soundtrack from “Jaws” playing in the background. You know … the music from the 1970’s shark thriller that has become synonymous with utter terror and impending doom.

But the fear of wading into the deep end is often unfounded, as one South African marine biologist proved with the great white sharks themselves. The biologist theorized that sharks are actually attracted to fear, which creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And he decided to prove his point by swimming in open water — without protection — alongside several great white sharks.

Because he didn’t allow fear to hold him back, the biologist survived more than 30 up-close encounters with the terrors of the deep and proved what President Franklin Roosevelt said long ago: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Of course, you skeptics are saying, “Yeah sure, conquer my fear. I just can’t shut it off like a light switch.”

Well, yes, you can … if you follow the next point.

3. Practice courage.

The more you practice courage, the less fear you’ll have and the more courage you’ll acquire.

You see … transformational leaders are not necessarily the ones who have no fear; they’ve simply learned to do the right thing despite their fear … just like Irena Sendler. I’m sure she was very frightened by the Nazis, but she practiced courage in spite of them. She instinctively knew what General Omar Bradley taught, that “Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.”

You don’t have to be a super hero with nerves of steel to accomplish great things as a leader. Sometimes, all you have to do to practice courage … to show courage … and be courageous … is to stand your ground. As tough-guy actor Gene Hackman noted, “The difference between a hero and a coward is one step sideways.”

Courageous leadership does not have to be flashy or attention grabbing. Often times your most important use of courage will come in simpler ways. As theologian Charles Swindoll puts it: “Courage is not limited to the battlefield or the Indianapolis 500 or bravely catching a thief in your house. The real tests of courage are much quieter. They are the inner tests, like remaining faithful when nobody’s looking, like enduring pain when the room is empty, like standing alone when you’re misunderstood.”

4. Stop making excuses.

Transformational leaders NEVER stoop to this level of mediocrity. That’s why I get sick and tired of hearing adults blame all their problems on the way Mommy and Daddy raised them 40 years ago. I want to shout at them and say, “Grow up! What do you want your parents do to about that? Shove you back in the womb and try to raise you differently the second time around?”

And that’s why I get sick and tired of politicians blaming their lack of success on what some other politician or administration did several years before. Again I want to shout at them and say, “Quit being a cry baby! Every mature adult knows that he or she has to deal with the hand that was given to them. Stop making excuses and start making progress.”

If you want to be a transformational leader on or off the job, you’ve got to stop making excuses. And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever say something as silly as you’re too old to change or too old to try something new. That’s stinkin’ thinkin’ of the highest order.

Just take a look at actor George Burns. He won his first Oscar at age 80.

Golda Meir was 71 when she became Prime Minister of Israel.

At age 96, playwright George Bernard Shaw broke his leg when he fell out of a tree he was trimming in his backyard.

Painter Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was 80 years old. In her lifetime she completed more than 1500 paintings, 25% of those after the age of 100.

Michelangelo was 71 when he painted the Sistine Chapel.

Physician and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer was still performing operations in his African hospital at 89.

Doc Councilman, at 58, became the oldest person ever to swim the English Channel.

S.I. Hayakawa retired as president of San Francisco State University at 70, then was elected to the U.S. Senate.

And Casey Stengel didn’t retire from managing the New York Mets until he was 75.

5. Do your best.

You see … transformational leaders are never satisfied with merely getting by. They insist on doing their best. Irena Sendler certainly did. Out of all the millions of people who lived in Europe during the Nazi reign, I wonder how many others saved more than 2500 children, smuggling them out one at a time.

Of course it’s not easy to do your best when times are tough … whether it be WWII or the Great Recession we’re experiencing right now. But now, more than ever, is when we need transformational leaders to step up and do their very best at doing the right thing. In fact, “Mediocrity is a sin,” according to Navy Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. He admonished us when he said, “Don’t do your bit; do your best.”

Of course, the lazy ones might say, “Yeah sure. Why should I work so hard to make things better at work or at home? What’s in it for me?”

I can answer that question in one word … happiness. As Theodore I. Rubin put it, “Happiness does not come from doing easy work, but from the afterglow of satisfaction that comes after the achievement of a difficult task that demanded our best.”

Action:  Which of the five characteristics of a transformational leader best describes you? Which one do you most need to improve?