Bob Miano's Blog

An Executive journal

A Study in Transformative Leadership

For the past several months, I have been talking about transformative leadership: what it looks like, how it develops, how we measure it and what it can mean to those who experience it. My goal was to explore how leaders transform and lessons we can take from their experiences to implement in our own organizations. While my thoughts were perhaps more theoretical than practical, all of this was a prelude to coming face to face with the transformative leader slated to keynote the annual Harvey Nash Leadership Lecture, held March 4, 2014. That transformative leader was Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City.

HN Leadership Lecture

As many people would agree, and certainly those who heard him speak that day, Rudy Giuliani is a prime example of a transformative leader. He is visionary, focused and flexible. He has the rare talent of being able to read a situation, understand what needs to be done and then adjust his leadership style to ensure the best outcome. He is also incredibly energetic. Now nearly 70 years of age, Rudy was going strong after four intensive hours of interaction, even when most of the younger participants at the event were flagging.

From the damage he inflicted on organized crime and the justice he sought from inside traders to his impassioned efforts to transport the Big Apple from crime capital to safe haven, Rudy Giuliani clearly made a transformative impact. Truly tested on 9/11, his leadership was a beacon of hope for a devastated populace. Some would say this was his defining moment. While I don't disagree, I firmly believe his gift for leadership transcended that event. As much as I admire what he did for so many in the days following that nightmare, as a native New Yorker who had the opportunity to see Rudy in action long before he rose to prominence on the international stage, it did not take a defining moment to know that he was a transformative leader long before 2001.

Transformative leadership can take many forms: energizing a team to exceed all performance expectations, growing a business into new markets or industries, reforming government agencies, responding to world events and leading in times of crisis. Rudy's legacy reflects all of those achievements.
What are the lessons we can take from his life and that of other transformative leaders? What can we learn from the statesmanship of Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt? How about the way that people like Steve Ballmer, Carly Fiorina and Jack Welch changed the world of business? And Nelson Mandela's impact on human rights?

Brave, personal leadership is difficult. It can generate as many enemies as admirers. However, as we've seen Rudy and others demonstrate, staying true to your values, being forthright and leading by example are character traits that can inspire the people around you, spurring them to become the instruments of transformation. Rudy Giuliani has consistently acted as a catalyst for positive change throughout his distinguished career.

Transformative leadership abilities cannot be created in a vacuum. They grow through experience and the example and influence of other leaders and challenging events and situations over a lifetime. Transformative leaders learn to make their own choices and take advantage of their exposure to other change agents. Their early experiences can light a spark that fires a transformative drive in an individual, but it requires enormous tenacity to maintain that drive throughout a career. Tenacity can make them truly transformational leaders.

Leaders who are intent on pursuing transformational change establish a vision of what they want to achieve. Almost all will be challenged and experience failure, but only a few will have the tenacity to stay true to their vision during testing times.

That's why transformation is rarely a story of overnight success. As brilliant and inspiring as many of today's young leaders are, I believe it takes years of overcoming obstacles, learning from failures and building on successes to hone your ability as a transformational leader. Despite the ultimate example of what Jesus Christ accomplished as a young man whose "career" only lasted three years, few transformations are that rapid or far reaching in their ultimate impact. Digital disruption aside, transformation usually happens over time. Transformative leaders make a lifetime impact.

When I see Hollywood promos for yet another "lifetime" achievement award and realize the honoree is younger than me, I can't help wondering what that person will do with the rest of their life. I think I'd be pretty depressed if I had peaked at 40. I'm really not that old, and I have great expectations for what I can accomplish in the years ahead. Living in a time when technology can totally transform the way we do things in a flash, history more typically recognizes transformative leadership over the course of a life or career.

That's not to say you must wait seven decades to be transformative. Any one of us can look around and likely see transformative leaders. Whether in your family, your profession, your workplace or your community, there may be leaders whose sphere of influence may be compact today, but like a pebble tossed into a pond, their impact will be felt in far distant places or times. Maybe that leader is you... because one thing the example of a transformative leader like Rudy Giuliani makes very clear: few of us very deliberately set out to change the world. We share our vision, set a goal, define a plan to reach it and engage others in its pursuit... and sometimes our world actually changes.