Transformational Leadership

Transformational Leadership is about leaders who create a positive environment. Is that the end of the story? What if leaders arent actually people but emergent systems from a well organized hierarchy? This article aims to explore the concept.

Not a raise, Praise!

Bestselling author Bob Nelson has written that meaningful praise is one of the greatest motivators in his book “1001 ways to reward and recognize employees”. Praise has been measured, time and time again, to be shown to be more effective than increased salary, benefits, or environmental improvements in the workplace.

Even so, making praise effective can be challenging if the leadership is disconnected from the recipient. By being vague, untimely, or misguided, it can have a chilling effect, as the already dissatisfied employee may feel even worse with a comment about their success when they know it was the success of a colleague. Or a comment about something superficial like their appearance, or their punctuality. These things can often be the only thing a manager can find the time to talk about given their incredibly hectic schedule and even then, these words will only find opportunity to be spoken if the manager happens to find themselves alone with the staff member. Praise is certainly critical and more effective than any other means of motivating employees, but it absolutely has to be meaningful.

Flat organizations

To the extent an organization is “flat” IE has a high employee to manager ratio, the efficacy of the praise can be difficult if not impossible to measure, as it will be spotty, disorganized, or limited to scheduled functions.

Path of praise, return path of escalation

Inversely, by focusing solely on the leadership and ignoring organization wide structural change, the path of escalation is another significant consideration. This is where employees effectively return the favor to leadership by reporting issues, reinforcing positive policy or simply expressing personal productivity status.

This is critical for any organization as employees are more often than not the closest to the pain facing an organization – where the rubber meets the road, and their perspective is often the canary in the coal mine and needs to be heard sometimes at the highest levels, indicating a need for change. This escalation, however, simply gets confused in a cacophony of communication aimed at one overwhelmed leader, again to the extent the organization is flat.

Individuals are temporary, the Collective is eternal

Even in the case of a more effective leader, that leader is still subject to change, they can pass away, move to another company along with all the organizational competitive advantage, retire, or become scandalized. Any training or skill building the leader gains will be lost as all that skill building will be person based and not role based and need to suit a wide range of personality types. The conversational tactics will go undocumented, and thus do not scale.

Transformational leadership requires less of a focus on the leader, and more on the organizational hierarchy and training the “role” and not “the person”. In this way, the organization not only can experience transformational leadership, but it can also scale and grow as the organization waxes and wanes with demand.

Micro Hierarchy

Micro hierarchies are where employees divided into meta organizations where groups as few as 3 people can exist as a hierarchy. This provides the paths of praise and escalation.

The praise path is where after close observation by a nearly 2:1 employee manager ratio, the praise will always be precise, and come often. In a flat organization where a manager is the direct report of 10s or hundreds of people, praise is often general, vague, or completely inappropriate, and can actually have the opposite of the intended effect. The praise will be coming from a direct report that works daily with the subject and sees all their successes first hand. Given the authority, they can act as a source of encouragement with only one other employee to manage they will have time and opportunity to provide that daily affirmation of triumphs that is mindful and precise. They can also escalate praise to their manager, who again only manages one other manager, and so on, all the way up the chain of command.

The escalation path is the opposite but equally important, where an employee has a direct means to escalate issues they face to their manager, but they can also escalate to a succession of managers as the hierarchies remain small all the way up the chain of command. This empowers each employee to have a means to get through obstacles which, again, are generally blocked when management is overwhelmed with a flat organization. In this way escalation of issues is also vetted by a tight knit array of managers so any specific reported issue that actually does need to bubble to the top will have been significantly vetted by a web of micro hierarchical managers.

In his book “Jack” by Jack Welch, former GE CEO outlines this meta approach all the way to the top, where as CEO of a company with 10s of thousands of employees, no manager has more than 7 direct reports below them. He claims this is the “only” way to manage a large corporation. GE is the source of some of the most influential corporate management techniques including the renowned “Six Sigma” school of thought.


Tight organizational hierarchies can also make measurement far more precise, as performance reviews are happening nearly in real time and consistently organization wide across the entire corporate body. Pre and post testing of specifically defined objectives could be very specific to task, meaning the testing would be short, and have minimal impact on the time of the employees. The outcomes of the testing could be rapidly applied, and the next approach could be tested in ongoing iterative cycles.

This can, of course, be mimicked in a database or existing learning management system LMS, which will contain all the knowledge gained by managers individually as the hierarchy is digitally captured and measured in real time. Given the highly organized and well-defined objectives and roles, the managers could pinpoint the kind of external training they need and take it in micro-doses for just in time learning opportunities at the point of need.

Roles are wearable by anyone

Roles can be well defined inside this digital representation as well. Roles are where an employee or manager is not defined by their personal information, but rather the set of responsibilities and authority they are taking on to accomplish tasks. These responsibilities would be well defined and each member of a 3-person group would be familiar with them. In this way, managers within a small hierarchy could be interchangeable with their direct reports, so any one of the three in a single hierarchy could be swapped with another as they all have a clear understanding of each other’s roles, given the proximity. If you imagine those fidget spinners only many of them, very large, turning slowly, and people could jump from one to another of the three-pronged spinner, or they could jump to a different spinner up or down the hierarchy based on opportunity and motivation. All the while the roles themselves are constantly re-evaluated in the context of a new occupant, and the authority/responsibility matrix is tweaked with every change and digitally updated in the master database.

Roles are flexible

This provides an effective path of career advancement as individuals can bubble up to the top or cycle downward to find the best fit on an ongoing basis. Clear role definitions also enable lateral movement from across the organization as the technology can identify those with interest and talent and match them with a role they might be best suited for. Realtime updating of roles by micro hierarchies will keep this database current, so lateral movement can happen with surgical precision and rapidly to suit needs of a growing organization.

Final thoughts

To be transformational, leadership thus needs to come from the organization of the collective, not just by putting some executives into positive thinking training camps. The more we can fall back on well documented roles, best practices, and ultimately automation, leadership can be an organic, organizational policy and we can move away from the fallibility of an individual with too much authority and not enough responsibility and allow the organization to operate more like a collective neural network with connections between all the roles and the constant flow of talent to where it is needed most. Large chunks of the organization experiencing damage could be easily repaired and replaced.

Organizational knowledge and experience could be preserved in the well-defined roles and digitally recorded communication up and down the hierarchy. That data could all be mined for further best practices and opportunities for improvement currently unfathomable, and we could ultimately replace highly expensive CEO’s with a collectively managed organization that operates more like a natural organism.

This is how we can find truly Transformational leadership that does not die with the captain, but instead lives on forever in the collective as supported by the digital structure and data.

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