A colleague preparing an academic paper was contemplating the hypothesis that transformational leadership was less likely in hostile expedition environments than the less physically life-threatening environment of business – the harsh exacting nature of wilderness necessitating a more traditional command and control leadership style.
Clearly much depends upon our interpretation of the term transformational, but my initial response was to think of Ernest Shackleton, who displayed extraordinary and inspirational leadership. His famous trans-Antarctic expedition was transformational for those accompanying him.
Certain military leaders also come to mind. Julius Caesar’s legions were devoted to him and I believe, would have considered their experience with him to be transformational. Admiral Nelson was a legend in his own time. And, imprisoned on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s comrades found the experience of his moral leadership, transformational.
My colleague’s paper rekindled questions of my own. Extreme experiences in nature, war, or any other truly hostile environment take us close to the imminent possibility of injury or loss of life. A very bad end in business, however, looks more like a collapsing market, tumbling share prices, site closures and redundancies – extremely stressful and challenging, but rarely life threatening.
Loyalty in expeditions is visceral and trust is the bedrock upon which lives depend. Loyalty and trust in publicly owned businesses is conditional, often highly selective, and likely to evaporate if performance persists in failing to meet shareholder expectations. It seems to me that transformational leadership is not just less likely to occur in the business sector but very unlikely to occur at all without an essential missing ingredient.
The possibility of leadership being experienced as transformational necessitates those involved in perceiving profound meaning in the purpose of the organisation. This is the challenge and opportunity offered to business leaders today. Create businesses that genuinely serve the needs of people and seek to support the emergence of a just, equitable, and environmentally sustainable world, and transformational leadership within business will emerge abundant and celebrated.
Such a world is within reach, but first we need our business leaders to experience another phenomenon unfamiliar, even feared, and certainly un-admitted by most. Some years ago I had the privilege of accompanying a group of business leaders to South Africa. It was a learning journey and involved many potentially transformational experiences, not the least of which was a meeting with Mac Maharaj.
Maharaj held senior leadership positions in the ANC during the war against apartheid. Alongside many of his now famous contemporaries, he was obliged to make many decisions that would endanger the lives of the men and women he led. We asked him: “With your experience of leadership in such harsh and uncompromising circumstances, what insight could you offer us that might relate to our own world of business leadership?”
He paused and considered before answering, and then very softly replied: “self-doubt”.
We leaned back in our seats, also taking time as we absorbed a reply none of us had expected. Not self-confidence, but self-doubt. He continued: “I’ve had it up to here with leaders who have no self-doubt. Leaders who have no questions, no curiosity, no questioning of their own certainties and self-evident truths. At one time I had a deputy like that. I believe his unwillingness to question his own assumptions and accept the likelihood of his personal fallibility, led to the death of many good freedom fighters. Leaders need confidence, of course, but the leader who is willing to allow self-doubt to invite tough questions and profound listening, that leader I could trust.”
It is self-doubt that might lead to questions that challenge the assumptions underpinning business as we currently know it; questions that challenge growth and profit as the purpose of business. Imagine the society we could create if we chose to serve the wellbeing of people and nature first, and the generation of profits second. The first would be the purpose, the second would be the means. Businesses would still thrive and compete, and shareholders would receive their rewards, yet now business becomes the engine that transforms our world. Transformational leadership is the enabling and generous practice of a profession that has found it’s true vocation.
This article first appeared in the Guardian, Monday 24 February 2014