The 5 Essential Behaviors of a Transformational Change Leader

There are five essential behaviors that make transformational leaders different than the average, run-of-the-mill manager. Are you showing them?

by Bob Tipton

I’ve been reflecting on just what makes transformational leaders different than the average, run-of-the-mill manager. After some serious contemplation, I’ve netted it out into the “5 Essential Behaviors of Transformational Change Leaders (TCLs).”  I sometimes struggle to show these five essential behaviors myself — but when I do, I have a much better chance to become a vibrant, powerful, positive force in the world. I’ve seen for me, and I’ve seen it for others.

As shown below, you’ll see I’ve contrasted the behaviors of transformational change leaders with transactional managers. As you read, ask yourself — how am I behaving? How do I expect others to behave? Am I behaving more like a transactional manager or a transformational leader?

Okay — here we go…

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Behavior 1. Act Courageously

Transactional managers think of fear as a sign of weakness — and that somehow they need to be able to overcome it before they can move forward. They give away their personal power to the fear, and wind up more-often-than-not creating exactly what they are most afraid of. Fearful of being laid off? Guess what, your behavior will push you to the top of the list!

Transformational change leaders aren’t unfeeling, “ice-water” in their veins types that laugh in the face of fear. Instead, they recognize that fear is a normal outcome of everyday life. They don’t “overcome” their fear by forcing it to the side, they hold on to their fear, learn from it, use it to keep them alert, and move forward anyway. Courageous behavior is a commitment to moving forward even when fear is part of the bargain, and a TCL can “live in the tension of opposites” (fear and courage at the same time).

Behavior 2. Demonstrate Authentic Optimism

Transactional managers are addicted to motivational speakers. The read books like, “The Power of Positive Thinking” and look for ways to pump themselves up using a myriad of things. Look for them at the lines at Starbucks EVERY DAY — trying to infuse some optimism and positive energy through a chemical reaction to a latte. To them, happiness is an outcome of external circumstances.

Transformational change leaders recognize that joy is a choice, not an outcome. Their positive outlook on life is not manufactured, it’s genuine. TCLs know that no one can make them feel in any particular way without their permission — and when negativity is offered to them, they simply say, “I don’t accept your gift of bad feelings.” They know their behavior in this respect is CRITICAL to the behavior of others around them. Authentic optimism is contagious, and a TCL looks to “infect” everyone with whom they come in contact.

Behavior 3. Collaborate through Empathy

Transactional managers look at information as power, and look to create win/lose situations as a normal course of their activities. You’ll hear them say things like, “It’s all about survival of the fittest,” and “who cares their ‘feelings,’ business is a competition, right?” They’ll regularly behave like the one with the most, best, most current information is the winner.

Transformational change leaders behave in a completely different manner — TCLs recognize that most people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. TCLs know that “winning” the journey of life belongs to ALL of us, not just the one with the loudest voice, biggest truck, or largest muscles. TCLs understand that empathy is FIRST when it comes to understanding — it’s not just something you do to “show” someone that you care. A TCL wants success for YOU as much as they desire success for themselves.

Behavior 4. Operate from Principles, not Polls

Transactional managers seek to find the most “politically-correct” answer to a situation, and strive to behave in a non-threatening, uncontroversial manner. You’ll find them going along with the crowd and not rocking the boat — after all, it’s safer that way. Further, if they are put into a position of having to make a decision, they’ll make sure they have plenty of survey / poll data available to support the decision they’ll be making. They have a wardrobe of “Teflon-coated clothing” — Nothing sticks to them!

Transformational change leaders operate from a strong platform of principles. There’s no such thing as “situation ethics” to a TCL — they behave the same way at work as they do at home. They behave as if integrity is not optional — it’s mandatory, and it’s the most important quality a person can have. There are “right” decisions and “popular” decisions. TCLs make the right decision, every time.

Behavior 5. Radiate Passion for Purpose.

Transactional managers prefer assigning blame to “them” — you know, the government, management, the “administration,” the “other” political party, etc. rather than embodying and LIVING a mission based on principles. At work, transactional managers often point cynically to the fluffy language on the wall (you know, the Vision, Mission, Values stuff). They behave as if they are somehow disconnected and “more special” than the organizational mission.

Transformational change leaders are walking, talking examples of a life built on equity, unity, mastery, autonomy, and altruism.  It’s EASY to understand what a TCL’s mission is — just follow them around for a little while, and you’ll see it.  In particular, watch a TCL and how they treat someone that has absolutely nothing to offer them related to personal advancement — like a front desk clerk, a flight attendant, a homeless person.  TCLs behave as if “everyone matters,” or to quote Horton from Dr. Seuss, “A person’s a person, no matter how small…”

The picture to the left is of Cozy Dorton, a legend in the state of South Dakota related to the Destination Imagination (DI) program.  DI is my favorite after-school program for kids. Why? Because it teaches kids real-life skills like creative problem solving, time management, leadership, budget management, team dynamics, etc.  Kids that participate in DI become transformational change leaders in their own lives.

Cozy (what a great name, no?) is a kindergarten teacher in Spearfish, SD, and she truly represents the qualities of a transformational change leader herself. She works to create the same with everyone with whom she comes in contact.  That smile is contagious, her energy is infectious, and she just has a knack for bringing out the best in everyone.

Are you worried that you may not be able to behave like a TCL? Join the crowd!

But, I’ve come to discover that it’s okay to “fake it ’til you make it” when it comes to these behaviors. After all, our brains can’t tell the difference between “remembered reality” and a story that we repeat to ourselves over and over. Both are the same to our brains. So — if these 5 Essential Behaviors of a Transformational Change Leader leave you feeling a bit, well, challenged — keep at it! Keep behaving that way — and eventually it will become natural to you.

Finally, think about this question for a moment, “If you could spend a week on a desert island with someone other than your spouse, who would it be?”

Once you get past the “silly responses” related to your favorite celebrity, or someone who is great to look at, but with whom conversation ends in about 15 seconds, I’d bet you will pick a TCL.

So who would it be? How about someone off of this list.

Abraham Lincoln. Moses. Daniel Pink. Rosa Parks. John Glenn. Gandhi. Jamie Oliver. Martin Luther King. Chip Foose. Oprah Winfrey. Wayne Dyer. George Clooney. Jim Collins. Cozy Dorton from South Dakota.

Transformational Change Leaders.

Who are the TCLs in your life — a boss, a relative, a neighbor, a coach, a role model? I’ll bet these folks are people you WANT to be like when you grow up. Me too.


For more information about TCLs, read my related blog: “The 7 Core Beliefs of a Transformational Change Leader.”

For more information about how to ENSURE change will fail, read my blog on the “Top 10 Ways to Ensure Epic Organizational Change Failures.”

  • Bruce Oyler
    Posted at 22:00h, 01 May Reply

    Bob, more great insight into becoming a better person and a leader who is respectfully followed. People who exhibit these traits should rise to the top of their organizations, unless current management is afraid of them. Thank you again for a thoughtful, inspiring piece.

    • teamtiptonadmin
      Posted at 13:32h, 02 May Reply

      Thank you, Bruce! Ultimately, it’s all about doing “what’s right” for our organizations, and for society in general. Hope to see you soon!

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