April 28, 2022

Transforming Your Leadership Approach

Jimmy Chou

I was lucky to facilitate a conversation around transformational leadership at ACG Richmond’s recent breakfast meeting. Transformational leadership is all about finding what motivates people and inspiring positive change.

“But Jimmy, a lot has changed recently… quite frankly, I’m changed out.”

Keep reading! The information and diagrams below show how small changes have a compounding effect on people and teams. Plus, leave with 3 simple steps to start tapping into transformational leadership today.

Have you ever experienced or seen someone behave this way at work?

  • Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit shortcuts to expedite decisions.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible – never less than five.
  • Haggle over the precise wordings of communications, minutes, and resolutions.
  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, paychecks, and so on. See that three people must approve everything, where one would do.
  • Hold meetings when there is more critical work to be done.
  • Refer to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of the advisability of that decision.

Trust me, you’re not alone. Believe it or not, these common behaviors and practices were developed by our very own government. In 1944 during WWII, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) published, Simple Sabotage Field Manual.

It was written to help citizens carry out acts of “simple sabotage” to destroy enemy communities and businesses.

How is it so many of us experience modern work the way it was laid out in this manual? Since when did enemy sabotage become business as usual?

How did we get here?

The “science” of management gained steam during the third industrial revolution. During this period, we experienced incredible productivity gains from mass production in factories and the automation of manual labor.

The management emphasis was on command and control, seeking opportunities to squeeze out cost savings and efficiencies from the workforce. Total Quality Management, Reengineering, Six Sigma, Lean, and Waterfall software development principles evolved from this time.

The best-run businesses completed work through structured processes, passing from functional silo to functional silo across an organization’s value chain. A well-oiled machine for sure. Management knew best, and the leadership and people practice of the day supported the top-down, hierarchal view of the organization we are all familiar with today. In this world, high performance equaled compliance, so to perform better, we needed more governance, more rules, more policies, more processes, and so on...

The world today looks vastly different. Why doesn’t our approach to leadership?

If high performance in the third industrial revolution was dictated by higher levels of compliance, then high-performing organizations today are driven by collective intelligence and cross-functional collaboration.

The fact is people are not machines. Businesses are made up of people serving other people. People, and more specifically teams, are all you have. And your teams need to tap into something bigger than just the work. They need to tap into their motivations.

Today, the role of the leader is to create the right conditions for people and teams to thrive…to unleash intrinsic motivation and creativity.

What do people need now?

As a leader, you must understand what motivates your people and teams. There are two types of motivators: extrinsic and intrinsic. A lot has been researched and written about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. We won’t go deep here, but it’s an important distinction to understanding because understanding WHY we work dictates HOW WELL we work.

  • Extrinsic (indirect) – emotional pressure (guilt, shame, disappointment), economic pressure (reward, punishment), inertia pressure (“always done it this way”)
  • Intrinsic (direct) – play, purpose, potential

There's a big body of research on human motivations. But where the research picked up steam was in Edward Deci's work in the mid-70s on the study of human behaviors and motivations at work. Deci's work is deep but it's a bit academic. Then, Dan Pink came along, and his gifted storytelling raised to the forefront the importance of intrinsic motivation as the biggest driver of a business' success. A few years later Doshi and McGregor took the research further with a survey of over 20,000 workers and an analysis of 50+ companies and summarized the top intrinsic motivators as Play, Purpose, and Potential.

The focus for leaders is on the direct motivators. The more directly connected the motive is to the activity itself, the better performance becomes.

  • Play occurs when you’re engaging in an activity simply because you enjoy doing it. The work itself is its own reward. This is not foosball and ping-pong; it is the work itself that fuels motivation.
  • Purpose occurs when you do an activity because you value the outcome of the activity vs. the activity itself. The purpose doesn’t need to be grandiose, but it needs to be clear and credible.
  • Potential occurs when you find a second-order outcome (vs a direct outcome) of the work that aligns with your values or beliefs. You do the work because it will eventually lead to something you believe is important, such as your personal goals.

Transformational leadership starts with building motivation

Our instincts might tell us that our teams are motivated by pay and leadership more than anything, but that’s just not true. Compensation is a baseline need. Once we're above the line, what the research shows and we've found in our experience is that there's a point of diminishing returns with comp. We've found that investing in our culture and our team in these top areas to enhance play, purpose, and potential is a higher return investment. Leadership is also important in setting the context and conditions for the team’s success, but what we do individually matters less than we think.

Notice the top three processes to build motivation...

  1. Role design – inspires play and purpose
  2. Organizational identity – live and breathe your values; engage the team in defining and understanding the why
  3. Career ladders – rather than an up/out and “the end is the destination with one career ladder,” create more individualized career ladders – specialists/experts, customers, managers, etc.

It aligns perfectly with the intrinsic (direct) motivators outlined above: play, purpose, and potential.

Embracing polarities

What is more important, control or empowerment? It’s a bit of a trick question. In today's complex and rapidly changing world, teams need leaders who can embrace polarities. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

As leaders, we need to solve problems: do we have people come back to work or continue to work virtually? Do we hire candidate A or candidate B? What is the best month to run the next campaign? An either/or mindset supports us in coming up with the best answer because the solutions are independent of each other. We make the choice, then move on.

As leaders, we also need to navigate polarities – situations that require us to focus on two interdependent, seemingly opposite states over time if we are to be successful. How can I provide the structure my team needs to be efficient and the flexibility to be creative? How do I preserve what’s gotten us here and grow into new opportunities? How do I take care of short-term challenges and focus on executing our long-term aspirations? Holding both poles at the same time and working towards getting the upsides of both while limiting the downsides creates the leadership mindset the world needs now. Not everything is a polarity, but as you start looking for them, you might find polarities all around you.

3 simple steps for transformational leadership today

If you’re interested in tapping into your team’s motivators and transforming your approach to leadership, I suggest starting with these 3 simple steps.

  1. Ask your team how well you (as a leader) are doing against the “Play, Purpose, Potential” dimensions. Use a tool like an anonymous online poll, host small group listening sessions, or any method that feels natural to you. Just asking will increase motivation…as long as you follow through with what you learn.
  2. Download and fill out the polarity navigator above. Pick one polarity you find most relevant to your company's situation and collaboratively fill it out.
  3. Reach out. Transformational leadership is better together. Email me or click the button below. I would love to talk through steps one and two together.


Jimmy Chou

Chief Executive Officer & Board Chair
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