Have you noticed transformational leadership creeping into our language lately? Is ‘transformational’ the term du jour of the leadership lexicon or is there something more to it?
It seems given its increasing use that we should have a fairly clear idea as to what is transformational leadership. That should be especially true if we are going to start requiring it in the job descriptions of higher education CIO’s, not to mention university presidents. So what is transformational leadership anyway?
There is a danger in seeking transformational leadership as an attribute in a job candidate. The danger lies in there not being a shared understanding of what is actually expected. If you have been in higher education for any length of time you get accustomed to its use of language which is not always literal.
Transformational leadership for you might simply mean you want someone who can improve team morale, energize the department, or craft a jazzy vision statement. But your candidate, who may come from outside higher education, may think you are seeking someone who is a change agent.
This isn’t simply limited to knowing you need to move away from the current state ‘A’. It is also about agreeing on the desired future state of ‘B’, ‘C’, or ‘D’ and the pace of that transition.
As an example, what do you think the Department Chair position currently posted for North Dakota State University requires when is says:
“The Chair will have the opportunity to enhance all facets of the department through transformational leadership.”
What does that mean? How does ‘opportunity to enhance’ square with ‘transformation’?
What does it mean that Bentley University wants transformative operations processes from their new VP of Finance/CAO? And why does SUNY deliberately note their “transformative strategic planning effort” as part of their current CIO job posting?
The other danger of the language of transformational leadership is the message is sends to your staff. It says something is currently broken and requires a transformation which is so much more than just change or improvement.
Maybe it’s just me, but if you post a position seeking a transformational leader that says something about the current state of affairs is not working for you and that you need a transformational leader to fix it. In this way transformation implies turn around.
Think of it this way. If you football program has had a few losing seasons you hire a transformational leader turn things around. But you don’t hire a transformational leader to take over a winning program when your coach retires.
So I would encourage a little soul searching before using this language if only out of caution so you don’t send the wrong signal to the organization that you are not happy with the current state or team.
Be careful what you wish for
As part of your soul searching consider if you are really ready for a transformation. That means asking your leadership team if a transformational leader will be allowed to be successful in driving transformation. That also means examining why the previous person didn’t succeed.
That’s important because transformation isn’t a long term endeavor. Transformation tends to be more disruptive and immediate than simply continuous improvements or change. More importantly, be clear on what is out of bounds before deciding you a want a transformation.
Let’s assume colleges really do want transformational leadership from their new hires just as they seek faculty that can provide transformational learning for students. What could a college expect if their CIO really did transform IT on campus?
Potentially the customer service orientation might be transformed giving greater importance to the institutions customers, the students, potentially sacrificing some service levels to the internal users, the faculty and staff.
You might expect a transformational CIO to overhaul the IT governance model, project selection & funding method, and operational processes to implement best practices. To do this they would certainly look to one of the generally accepted frameworks for IT governance which would bring much more of a predictable and repeatable approach to these core functions.
It would also mean greater transparency and accountability in the decisions surrounding investment choices and strategy which would likely be far more objective than is customary in many organizations.
The transformation of IT would also likely mean real restructuring and real efficiencies. I am not talking about losing a symbolic 5 pounds after the holidays. This could be more like losing 30 or 40 pounds and keeping it off.
Transformational vs Inspirational
And so I am concluding the quest for transformational leadership is much more focused on the inspirational elements that define transformational leadership theory than it is about the execution elements or achieving a specific result.
It seems to me higher education likes the idea of transformation similar to dreaming of fitting into our old skinny jeans. So we incorporate transformational language into job descriptions much the same way we wordsmith lofting mission and vision statements.
I am sure it is easy to take exception to this position. And so I would challenge you to define the desired future state you seek post-transformation with some specificity. This exercise will force you to decide if what you really seek is transformation or something else.