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Transformational Leadership in Action

Transformational Leadership in Action
By Shamillah  Wilson

The essence of transformational leadership is that it completely changes the relationship between leaders and followers. (Owen et al, 2007)

I have to be honest and say that I have often looked at leadership styles in a take what you can fashion without really committing to any one particular style.  While I completely understood and consumed with avid interest theories on leadership, intuitively, my practice was based on the premise that there is no one “right” leadership approach. To a great extent we develop our own style according to our own beliefs, motivations, traits, skills, values, role models and heroes.  It is true that the nature and style of leadership required by a group or an organisation can change dependent on, for example, team and/or organisational needs and culture, the business environment and the maturity of the team or organisation (it’s stage of evolution and development).  An “adaptive” style of leadership is often more helpful than a “one style fits all” approach.  In reality, the world generally is a much more volatile and changing place where the emphasis is not on building up but on transforming – on radical change.  Thus a leadership style that is transformation and creates a radical change often seems to be the way to go.

Anyway, I could certainly continue to impress you with my knowledge of leadership styles, yet I feel that what you would find even more useful is my own experience of transformational leadership.  What started out for me initially as a project on weekends to develop youth leadership around HIV & AIDS, was destined to become the most enduring leadership lesson of all.  In 2002, I became the leader of the Learners’ Network.  A network of young learners from across the Western Cape focused on developing leadership skills among young people.  The model of leadership (although at the time I did not realise it) was transformational leadership.  Basically, for the entire year we taught young learners leadership skills.  Following this, they would then embark on a process of what we called teach-backs which required them to teach us what they had taken in over the year.  The idea was to equip and transfer skills such that these young people could run the programme in their own communities.  After being part of the Network (as we started calling it) for over a year, members started participating in meetings and participated in shaping the direction of the Network.  Each year, we trained over 150 young people.  The commitment to the process required by participants was enormous and all that was required from us as leaders was to continue nurturing those who kept on coming for more.  Over the last few years, there were many moments that I was despondent.  Where I felt the members (our core team) were not as committed as life and its challenges kept on dividing their loyalties.  Each time I was ready to throw in the towel, one or more of these phenomenal young leaders would urge me to NOT give up on them.  It was in those moments where I myself was completely bogged down by my ever-increasing responsibilities and changing life – and felt that this work was just not achieving the results I had envisage.  So, we continued –and in hindsight I realise that it was in these moments when I was follower to their leadership.

I have just returned from a week long camp culminating in National Youth Day.  It was during this camp that I saw the fruits of transformational leadership in its shining glory.  For the first time, I was an observer as I watched and marvelled at the leadership of 6 of the leaders who had endured the last five years of development.  I watched as they handled really challenging group dynamics, was able to deal with complex issues and basically just shone as strong independent as well as interdependent leaders.  I was deeply humbled to witness this and extremely proud to have been part of shaping 6 future leaders who are now more committed than ever (even though all of them have finished school and are either studying or working).    On a personal note, while I may be very proud of the leadership of my young colleagues, I cannot honestly take all the credit for the outcomes achieved.  The most amazing reward is having 6 other co-leaders and peers.

As I reflect on the last few years, I can extract the following lessons. 
° Inspiration – very key to ensuring the commitment of members was to inspire them through a shared vision (which later each of them were part of shaping), and also through the fact that I set high standards for my own and their leadership. 
° Intellectual stimulation – the ability of members to facilitate diverse groups around complex issues is a result of a commitment to continuously build their knowledge around relevant issues and also to support them in using that knowledge in diverse and creative ways.
° Individualised consideration – very early on I realised that by knowing the name of each individual and understanding each person’s weaknesses and challenging them to be and do better – created a sense of appreciation and acknowledgement that many of these learners were not getting in over-crowded classrooms.

Personally, I learnt to let go and allowed others to express their leadership in their own unique way.  While at many moments in the first two years I may have been a transactional leader to ensure accountability and integrity among young leaders, at other times I was also an empowering leader.  However, I suppose the most important aspect of this approach was being willing to forego short-term rewards for the longer term benefits. Lastly, I suppose is the willingness to learn from mistakes and failure, and to always keep learning and trying.   

Ultimately, leadership is a long-term endeavour.  It requires commitment of time, energy and resources from the top to the bottom of any organisation and is an iterative process of reflection and application of values to organisational culture and structure in achieving the outcomes envisioned.

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