Transactional vs.Transformational Leadership

Later in the morning of Day Two at the Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg we explored the concept of Transactional vs. Transformational leadership, using the battle of the Left Flank at Little Round Top as a framework. According to Dr. Jared Peatman, who facilitated this vignette, Transactional leadership encompasses a set of behaviors that produce order and consistency such as planning, budgeting, organizing, coordinating, controlling, correcting, rule making & enforcement – in other words, the Management 101 stuff we do every day. In contrast, Transformational leadership behaviors produce change and movement – visioning, role modeling, strategizing, enabling, confidence building and, most importantly, communicating. In other words, the fun (but hard) stuff.

You may recall that, on the morning of Day Two of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union forces held the high ground south of town, a position which afforded significant strategic advantage. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plan that day was relatively simple in concept: attack the Union line on both its right and left flanks. If either or both attacks were successful, the Union army would be effectively surrounded and would likely have to quit the field.

As a result, on the extreme left flank, the 20th infantry regiment from Maine, commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, was ordered to hold its position at all costs. In the battle that followed, the 20th Maine repulsed numerous attacks from the Confederates, to the point where they had exhausted their supply of ammunition. Finally, in desperation, Col. Chamberlain ordered a sweeping, go-for-broke bayonet charge, which successfully ended the battle.

Monument to the 20th Maine on Little Round Top

According to Steven Wiley, surveys have shown that over 70% of employees in the U.S. say they’re either not engaged or, worse yet, actively disengaged, costing an estimated $1 trillion per year in productivity. Why? Our employees don’t think we care about them.  In contrast, good leaders co-create the future with their teammates. This means being flexible in our styles and approaches to problem solving, with the notable exception of our core values, where we must be rigid. Strategic decision-making in this regard enables the Team’s success which, in our dynamic, stressful environments, is a slight but important nuance from the stereotypical notion of “empowerment.”  Empowering is transactional, enabling is transformational.

When he received his orders on Little Round Top, Col. Chamberlain faced a big leadership challenge: how do you inform your soldiers that they are to defend their territory to the death without them running away? In today’s context, how do you communicate to a business unit that a regulatory change has cut your demand in half, necessitating layoffs, and find a way to keep your best employees from jumping ship?

On Little Round Top, Col. Chamberlain worked with his subordinates to develop a defensive plan – a V-shaped line that made the best use of the strategic advantages afforded by the topography – and he personally helped them place the troops on the line. As the bullets began to fly, Col. Chamberlain stood with his men, inspiring confidence through his personal display of courage. As a result, the natural fears of his men were transformed, and the line held.

Right side of the V-shaped line of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top

One of the most interesting aspects of the Transactional/ Transformational leadership dichotomy is that they are really categories of behaviors, and most leaders no doubt show some of each on a daily basis. Furthermore, because they are behavioral, they can be switched on and off. Great leaders, I suspect, know when it’s precisely the right time to make the switch from being Transformational to Transactional and vice versa. Furthermore, for a great leader, the effects of these behaviors are cumulative: because their subordinates know their leader excels at being Transformational, when he or she becomes Transactional in response to a contingency, they perceive the need for those behaviors as highly credible which, of course, enhances the Team’s effectiveness in response.

When the battle reached a strategic inflection point – running out of bullets – Colonel Chamberlain devised a bold strategy of charging down the hill with bayonets. The charge would be conducted in a sweeping motion, to effectively herd the opposition on one flank while simultaneously engaging it directly on the front. This strategy, a brilliant solution developed under the most extreme circumstances, was nevertheless terrifyingly risky. Knowing that he had no choice and determined to fulfill his orders, Chamberlain switched into Transactional mode, taking command of his men and leading them down the hill into the fight.

Standing on the Left Flank, I could feel the fear Chamberlain’s men must have experienced when they were told to affix bayonets and prepare to charge. Since they were out of ammunition, it would be hard to argue with the logic of the order; however, given their individual prospects in hand-to-hand combat against a hard-charging enemy, it would have also been very tempting for them to cut and run.

Thankfully, the subject of bayonets doesn’t come up in our daily lives, so the metaphor has its limits. Nevertheless, anyone in a leadership position has or will be put in a position where they must give bad news to a Team (a key client was lost, project funding was cut, a business unit must be shut down, etc.), lay out a tactical response (a reduction in force,  leadership changes, maybe a bankruptcy filing), and then lead them through a tough implementation of the plan.

Chamberlain’s men responded because they trusted him and his decision-making process – over and over again, Chamberlain had provided them a vivid, living personal example of his core values.  Developing this trust level takes incremental discipline and time, but it pays off when it counts. So, where do you begin? Maybe instead of toeing the party line in Town Hall Meetings, you show transformational leadership behaviors by discussing the bad with the good, by listening, by co-creating a better future, and by setting the right example by sticking to your values. Then, when you must take control of the transaction, they’ll fight for you, too.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding and tweeting. Take care.

About Denis

Business Leader, Consultant & Social Entrepreneur. Proven senior executive leader with deep experience guiding companies throughout various lifecycle phases including start-up, rapid growth and maturity. Principal of YellowPark Garden, providing executive leadership expertise and assistance in economic and societal development initiatives.
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2 Responses to Transactional vs.Transformational Leadership

  1. Pingback: The Trouble With Success | YellowPark Garden

  2. Pingback: The Trouble With Success

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