Notions of leadership and management have been discussed and employed in commercial enterprises and business schools for many years – there are very few postgraduate courses that do not cover the key associated issues. Most MBA programs provide significant focus – and many opt for two subjects – one on leadership and the other on management suggesting they are associated – but at the same time worthy of consideration independently. Of course, whilst management is generally considered to concern the routine administrative function of running an enterprise, leadership is most often seen as transformative relationship interactions between a leader and staff- essential to encouraging, developing, and negotiating organisational change (Maccoby, 2000). Consequently, most effective leaders also need to be effective managers – or at least be able to fully understand the importance of managerial functions.
Transformational leadership, though not a new concept (Burns, 1978 and later Bass, 1985), is emerging as the mode of leadership best suited to the new reality and to these hanging times. Kauppi (2022) and associate provide a useful history on the matter. The new reality – emerging from the ashes of COVID-19 – calls for a refreshed approach to leadership (and management for that matter) that understands the importance of involving staff in decision making and at the same time develops a bold, new approach to succession planning and leadership training. Transformational leadership is the term applied to this appropriate approach.
BUT WHAT IS TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP?
A solid definition of transformational leadership is – ‘a leadership approach that causes change in individuals and social systems. In its ideal form, it creates valuable and positive change in the followers with the end goal of developing followers into leaders.’ Essentially the followers become the leaders. The ideal approach to change management is using a leadership approach that assists the change to take place and equally important to ensure that those involved have a high level of ‘buy in’ and feel that they are part of that change – and despite perhaps being uncomfortable with all the elements of the change (perfectly understandable) – are able to embrace the ‘new reality’ with their self-esteem and ownership intact. A reasonably big ask, by the way. It becomes a challenge for the leader/leadership group and equally a challenge for employees who have been used to following – in some cases mindlessly – and are now asked to step up and take the lead. Simply put – ‘Transformational leadership is a model of leadership that relies on the encouragement of a team to realize overall success. By raising a team’s morale and self-confidence, the team can then align itself to an overall vision or common purpose’ (Ugochukwu, 2021).
ELEMENTS OF TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP
It is a commonly held view (Farnsworth et al 2020) that there are four elements of transformational leadership. They are – Idealized influence; Inspirational motivation; Intellectual stimulation; and Individual consideration.
Idealized influence refers to modelling of exemplary behaviours that in turn are aligned with the goals of the organisation. In order to achieve this leaders need to be aware of the goals; embrace these goals with high levels of enthusiasm and commitment; and encourage other staff to embrace the issues/ideals. Essentially, it is about providing e a high-level role model so that others can emulate it. If, for example, scholarship is deemed a high priority – the leader must be scholarship active at the highest level – share this information on a regular basis, and encourage others to do the same,
Inspirational motivation is the degree to which a leader articulates an appealing vision that inspires and motivates others to perform beyond expectations. Leaders who use inspirational motivation have high standards and high expectations of their followers. They are able to clearly articulate the goals/objectives so that followers not only understand them – but actively embrace them. If, for example, using technology is deemed essential to the survival of the organisation, the leader must be technology focussed and seen to be using the technology available in the best possible way – providing evidence and motivation for others to do the same.
Intellectual stimulation is best understood as encouraging innovation and creativity, as well as thinking critically and solving problems. Intellectual stimulation involves arousing the thoughts and imagination of followers, as well as stimulating their ability to identify and solve problems creatively. If, for example, the industry focus is higher education, the leader needs to be seen as informed in all matters and be actively involved in the key issues associated with that industry – as a ‘thought leader’ and activist.
Individual consideration is the extent to which a leader attends to each follower’s needs and is a mentor, coach, or guide to the follower. The leader listens to the concerns and needs of each follower, provides support, and is empathic of each situation and background. This is about knowing what the various needs of the employment group are – individualising it carefully – and wherever possible supporting those needs and aspirations. The demands on the leader (leadership group) are obvious. According to Nuthouse (2001) top end leaders – who have focus on the transformational approach - have a range of qualities (perhaps they could actually be called skills) that are needed in the new reality. These include the ability to: empower followers to do what is best for the organisation; be a strong role model with high values; to listen to all viewpoints in order to develop a spirit of cooperation; to create a vision, using people in the organization; be a change agent within the organisation by setting an example of how to initiate and implement change; and understand that the best way to help the organisation is by helping others contribute to it. Gans (2022) believes ‘transformational leadership is a leadership style that can inspire positive changes in those who follow. Transformational leaders are generally energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate. Not only are these leaders concerned and involved in the process, but they are also focused on helping every member of the group succeed’.
THE NEED FOR A CRISIS
Transformational leadership operates most effectively when an organisation clearly faces a crisis that threatens its ability to survive financially. Such scenarios are understood by employees – who are often amenable to helping resolve the crisis and attendant threats to their employment. COVID-19 has provided a threat scenario, as stated earlier, mandating the need for many organisations to evolve in order to remain competitive. None-the-less, organisational change isn’t a matter of employees blindly accepting that change is necessary. Resistance (of some nature) is always present. Robbins & Judge (2018, p. 545) define organisational resistance as fitting roughly the following (fairly self-explanatory) criteria:
Structural inertia- wherein the organisation comprises people who just don’t see the personal benefit in change and/or commonly may be close to retirement or already discontent with their working lives. This often includes middle managers who have lost confidence in the top leaders or see no future for themselves in the changed company. It may also entail people who are simply intimidated by the prospect of change.
Limited focus of change- whereby some employees are impacted and others are not, leading to questions about the overall value of the proposed changes and feelings of victimisation or resentment amongst those who are most affected. Some departments might be ‘downsized’ with others left untouched raising questions of – why me and not them?
Group Inertia- situations where entire divisions or working units aren’t motivated to support change initiatives. Change is often an unwelcome factor in peoples’ lives and particularly in their routine working lives. Where employees share and discuss similar insecurities or concerns around proposed workplace change initiatives collective inertia (or passive resistance) may become a factor.
Threat to (individual) expertise- where an individual’s workplace contributions and professional knowledge might be challenged or replaced by a new technology or require the employees to learn new skills employees might feel undervalued and slighted.
Threats to expertise, established power relationships, and established resource allocations. Essentially, situations where long-established employees perceive that they will have their status, power, and control reduced or altered. They may feel ‘demoted’ or ‘diminished’ in some way.
There may also be elements of what Kotter and Schlesinger (1979) describe as the presence of systemic low tolerance for change. Clearly, it can be highly emotionally challenging for workers to be faced with the need to learn new skills or having to change the ways in which they do things. Employees may even know and understand that change is needed but feel threatened by needing to prove themselves capable of working successfully in the changed environment.
Ultimately, managing change is not a simple matter and leading change is fraught with financial, organisational, logistical, and (most significantly) cultural and relationship complexities. Moreover, there are diverse cultural, legal, union, and contractual obligations and understandings that make transformational leadership even harder - or (sometimes) easier, given the context. Resistance of some degree is always likely and sometimes it is subject to the intervention of external bodies or caused by a lack of trust in the change proponents.
Workplace resistance to change in Western organisations often entails interventions by union organisations and industrial advocates. There is huge investment in negotiating, bargaining, and change management processes in some workplace environments, which can undo the changes (both positive and less so) made by the transformational leaders.
Trust in the authenticity of proposed changes is mandatory. Effecting organisational change has long been a ‘badge of honour’ for executive leaders. It can accelerate promotion and significantly enhance a leader’s career prospects – so much so that ‘change for the sake of change’ (or band wagon/non-authentic change) has become a recognised phenomenon in some government and administrative organisations. Romano (1994) looked at the frequency of executive’s change projects and employee resistance and hostility. The relatively high number of project-led change initiatives each executive undertook over a 5-year period raises obvious questions about the frequency, purpose, and value behind such projects. If, for example, you look at the consistent change management scenarios within Australian universities it is clear that the introduction of constant organisational and project change vehicles is an endemic factor. Moreover, executives achieving their KPIs and receiving bonuses for introducing and achieving change has, by the various unions, been questioned. So, are the changes proposed really about improving an organisation or are they more about the career ambitions of their proponents? Or is it both? Irrespective, if employees do not see value in the change proposition, then resistance is almost guaranteed.
Thus far we have concentrated on a Western concept of organisational resistance to change. In some cultures, and countries change is made even more unlikely where nationals are concerned. In the Western world the notion of ‘a job for life’ disappeared many years ago. However in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries it is not at all a simple matter when it comes to terminating the employment of a national of those states. Once engaged (particularly by a foreign company), dismissing an employee becomes an exceedingly difficult and costly procedure- far more onerous than in the Western world.
Similarly, in Malaysia, once employed, nationals have very pro-employee labour laws and procedures to be negotiated before their positions can be changed or terminated. Clearly, no sane leader wants to terminate any productive employee. But in the event of downsizing an organisation or refreshing its workplace culture, some foreign states still provide a level of legal protection for their citizens which makes transformational leadership organisational change an exceedingly difficult task.
AUTHORITY AND CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS
In Japan, for example, Dalton & Ong (2005) talk of the individual rights-based views of Western society in comparison to Asian values. “According to ‘Asian values’ proponents because of Confucian traditions, East Asian societies are paternalistic, accept hierarchic authority, and are community-oriented–characteristics that promote order and consensus. In contrast, Western societies are rights-based and individualistic, which is congruent with the competitive elements of democratic competition.” p2.
In sum, Asian values are seen as being ‘more compliant to leadership views and wishes’ and, as a consequence, managing change is less onerous in such contexts. However, Dalton and Ong do make the point that Confucian traditions are gradually being replaced or set aside in the light of economic and cultural competition from the West. But the importance of recognising cultural differences in workplace resistance is that the Western model of organisational change isn’t universally applicable. And no workplace is exactly the same as another. There is no one solution that will fit all organisational circumstances. Cultural competence in the workplace is integral to negotiating organisational change wherever it is required.
For aspiring transformational leaders, cultural competence and cultural intelligence represent another must have set of skills. They require self-awareness as well as deep understanding of others. Essentially, cultural competence is an awareness or level of sensitivity to inter-cultural differences. Furthermore, Hansen, Pepitone-Arreola-Rockwell, & Greene, 2000 describe it as an ability to adapt to other(s’) cultural environments. That is, possessing a cultural awareness and actively reflecting upon how your own culture impacts upon your behaviours and perceptions. Whilst Williams (2001) defined cultural competence as "the ability of individuals and systems to work or respond effectively across cultures in a way that acknowledges and respects the culture of the person or organisation being served" p1.
It all looks patently obvious – but it isn’t. Western culture has progressively developed along lines in which the tendencies of social tribalism and the dominance of family hierarchies have been much reduced. Religion too no longer plays the distinctive and guiding role it once held in bygone centuries and many Westerners live in small family groupings in which children no longer take responsibility for, or even live close by, their elders. In the West, individualism and independence are valued more highly than they are in many other cultures. The Western view isn’t the dominant view (numerically) in the world- though Western media and education scarcely recognise these factors.
We would argue that cultural competence begins with recognising that the Western business, education, and social models are not universal or all embracing. They are just one way of approaching cultural, financial, and social interactions. Those transformational leaders from non-Western backgrounds may already have greater levels of cultural competency than their Western counterparts – as presumably they have long been navigating organisational change in a transition from non-Western to Western contexts. We cannot emphasise enough the need for cultural competence to be a factor in all management and leadership interactions.
LEADERSHIP FOR THE NEW REALITY
So much has changed in the new normal as a consequence of COVID-19 and its impact on a world scale. Many are using the term – the new reality – which best sums up the times and the rapid changes seen in so many domains. In order to lead (or perhaps facilitate) the change that is required and to cope and thrive in this new reality, a special kind of leadership –transformational – is needed. White (2023) articulates – ‘Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their workforce without micromanaging — they trust trained employees to take authority over decisions in their assigned jobs. It’s a management style that’s designed to give employees more room to be creative, look to the future, and find new solutions to old problems. Employees on the leadership track will also be prepared to become transformational leaders themselves through mentorship and training’.
Ray (2023) argues – ‘It is incumbent on leaders to heighten their respective sensitivities in these circumstances. Every individual has his or her own unique set of personal challenges to manage, in addition to getting the job done. While the situation remains fluid and timetables for return to work remain unclear for many types of businesses, leaders must be cognizant of safety protocols as well as the personal preferences of their workforce. Employers and employees alike are navigating an unprecedented period in history. The acronym VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) is apropos when describing current times. With so many factors outside a leader’s control, one constant remains during a time of crisis: Individuals look to their leadership for reassurance, steadiness, compassion, and understanding. No matter the size of your enterprise, you can choose to adopt a considerate, thoughtful approach as a key priority.’
As we face the various challenges associated with Working from Anywhere (WFA), part-time work; diverse interests of the work force; the new challenges to various industries (including higher education); and the technological revolution that has emerged (largely inspired by the pandemic) leadership needs to reflect that diversity and embrace it head on. And it is here, in the consideration of diversity, that we need to add a further level of complexity and awareness to the rhetoric surrounding notions of organisational leadership. These complexities revolve around notions of authenticity and crisis.
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Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice President (Academic) at Group Colleges Australia (GCA). Formerly, he was Chair of the Academic Board at the Australian Institute of Music and Dean of the College at Western Sydney University. He has been keenly interested in alternative modes of delivering education since 2000 when he and Professor Bofinger founded ‘The Virtual Conservatorium’. Now, some 20 years later, he is deeply involved in the development of the virtual school.
Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is currently a Higher Education Advisor and Consultant, a Fellow of the UBSS Centre for Scholarship and Research, a member of the UBSS Academic Senate, and an author of gripping detective novels. Formerly, he was President and CEO of Curtin University’s Malaysia campus, Executive Director of Higher Education for Abu Dhabi Government, UAE, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Industry) at Victoria University, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Research) at Central Queensland University.