What is transformative leadership?

The art of initiating and sustaining organizational change

Transformative Leadership is the best way to deal with uncertainty and execute the desired change. Over the last decades, the understanding of both practitioners and scholars of what modern leadership is has changed a lot. Traditional approaches to leadership do not meet the needs of potential change makers. Nor do they fit into forward-oriented organizations.

But what can we expect from the future of leadership?  It is necessary to look at what has been changing in the way organizations organize power and decision making. Basically, all traditional approaches primarily turn to two aspects:

  1. How much authority should the manager possess or give away?
  2. How much autonomy should be granted to subordinates?

Leadership models are not about how much control they grant to others. This does not mirror the complexity of modern, globalized organizations. Even the most well-indented empowerment initiatives will result in failure if we don’t question the underlying power mechanisms.

The Classic Models do not work anymore

It is counterproductive to incrementally improve classical leadership approaches.  At best, this will result in a New Work Make-Up to meet the demands of the corporate zeitgeist. However, this has very little to do with real agilization of processes. Holistic change requires to question the reigning leadership paradigm.

Underneath those initiatives, the Taylorian view often prevails: Thinking is done at the top and execution is done at the bottom. More often than not, it’s just a matter of shifting the sliders a bit from left to right depending who is in charge.

If you really want to rethink leadership, you can no longer assume that leadership is limited to one charismatic person on top. The world has become far too complex to be controlled by a few powerful leaders who will ultimately make all the decisions. In particular, today’s leaders need to adapt to situations and problems that often emerge over time. There is no clear course of action.

In the future, it is quite likely that this condition will become even stronger. The recent pandemic has shown us that many situations get far too complex too quickly for single decision makers to handle. We have to accept the fact that we are moving at full speed from VUCA to Super-VUCA. And now that we are facing an increasing number of complex problems, we must distribute decisions among many more roles.


In all frankness, this shift involves an open discussion about the exercise and distribution of power in the first place. If we are not willing to name the effects of the status games, nothing will change. But that alone will not be enough, of course. Instead of focusing on the skills of individuals we need to shift to the capabilities, relationships, behaviors, and practices of an entire team.

Thus, collaboration does not come without clearly defined responsibility, accountability, and the willingness to make tough decisions. The widespread assumption that agile organizational structures need less leadership is false. In fact, the opposite is true. Agile organizations need much more leadership. But it must be distributed and shared among many.

This is what makes Transformative Leadership different from other types of leadership. To address the challenges we will face in the future, we need to shift beyond a focus on the individual,  toward a collective approach to leadership.

The basic premise of Transformative Leadership is that – once an atmosphere of creative discourse, accountability and candid feedback is established – everyone has the responsibility to take the lead in their respective role. Organizations which adopt a Transformative Leadership philosophy aim to make parts of their workforce agents to effective change and many more co-creators of the environment they work and live in.

Transformative Leadership invites every part of an organization to ask what kind of future world they want to create through their attitude and behavior. At its core, Transformative Leadership is a participatory process of creative collaboration towards a sustainable transformation for the benefit of all stakeholders.

The groundwork for transformative leadership

Even if Transformative Leadership is a relatively new model, many ideas can also be found in the modern leadership literature. In recent decades, many contributions to leadership theory helped lay the groundwork for Transformative Leadership, but it wasn’t until the late 2000s that scholars and practitioners focussed fully on the idea of shared leadership in organizations. To illustrate this change in perspective, here are just three of the most influential works in recent years:

In Reinventing Organizations Frederic Laloux points out the notion of organizational evolution with the Teal Organization as the most distinguished level of development. His metaphor for this kind of organization is that of a living system with key practices in three areas: wholeness, self-management, and evolutionary purpose.

This new way of looking at holistic organizational development can be seen as a breakthrough from earlier levels of consciousness. Although Frederic Laloux does not use the term Transformative Leadership, his ideas aim at exactly this transformatory process with Teal Organizations being operated from a collective leadership model.

Another important example from social science shows that self-organized teams can be more effective than classical hierarchical models. Author Daniel Pink has popularized research on the intrinsic motivators of Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy as being way more powerful than the common extrinsic carrot-and-stick approaches.

This means that team members are most motivated when they feel trusted to take responsibility, when they feel connected to the purpose of what they are doing, and when they work on challenging projects that enable them to grow and develop. Giving people the opportunity to develop mastery, sense purpose, and feel autonomy results in increased team performance.

Leading with a good cause

Last but not least, leadership expert Simon Sinek built on the work of James Carse to establish a more sustainable perspective on the purpose of organizations – stating that companies must necessarily adopt an Infinite Mindset in order to grow sustainably and future-proof themselves by contributing to solving the grand challenges that lie ahead in the upcoming era.


The Transformative Leadership model is a collective approach of leadership. It is important to look beyond immediate self-interest of individuals. This way you can identify the needed change, create a narrative to guide the change through inspiration, and execute the desired change collectively together with committed members of a group.

Transformative Leadership is the ability to convincingly lead by example. True role-models thereby earn trust, respect, appreciation and loyalty. The overall goal is to develop teams that are intrinsically motivated. The goal is to inspire people to transform their behavior through their willingness to learn and perform at the same time.

Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.”

Seth Godin

In traditional leadership textbooks, one often finds the related term of transformational leadership. Even though both terms mean similar things, we emphasize the small but subtle semantic difference:

transformational [adj] is relating to, characterized by, or concerned with transformation

transformative [adj] means being able to cause an important and lasting transformation in someone or something.

One term merely describes the process of transforming, while the other implies the goal of lasting change. And it is precisely the latter that matters to us. That is why we speak of Transformative Leadership. The change from self to collective interest should not only elevate the organization’s maturity and ideals, but should also include the  achievement of those ideals.


In order to address global challenges, our paradigm of leadership must transform. It should no longer focus on the capacity of the individual only. It needs to become the capacity of a collective. A capacity of leaders who join forces to become catalysts for change. Complexity as well as uncertainty require collective action, dialogue among stakeholders, and co-operation to find the best possible solutions.

Leadership is not

  • a place in a hierarchy but a contribution to the common good.
  • something you are entitled to but a collective responsibility.
  • directing output but the delivery of goals through inspiring followers.
  • a function but describes a behavior by which people come together to pursue change.

Leadership is a collective endeavor

A collective approach to leadership thus consists of a group of people working together toward a shared goal in a network structure. No big deal: Just an idea of what the world should be. Plus the desire to make sense of experiences and interactions among stakeholders. Plus the willingness to shape the decisions and actions to produce the desired results.

It is a relational process that produces leadership in a system by organizing individual talents in a community of change-makers who collaboratively address complex challenges.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Transformative Leadership is about turning role-modelling attitudes into guiding principles to shape cultural change in an organization. This state-of-the art approach to leadership is a fundamental 21st century skill. It can be found in a framework that consists of five patterns used in the English acronym SHAPE:


[the autonomous leadership by positive example by stepping out into unknown territory first]


[the expansion of perception and  possibility by formulating a compelling narrative of a future that might be attained]


[the strong desire to achieve the best possible outcome through open experimentation]


[the ability to adapt to changing conditions while simultaneously withstanding forces of inertia]


[the representation of concrete and perceptible qualities to create openness and trust]


In Transformative Leadership, there is a structured process of decision making. This process combines shared responsibility and accountability. All members of a team participate in the collective alignment.  This involves jointly working towards a vision as well as the commitment to do everything to achieve that vision. Transformative Leadership only works on the assumption that everybody is authentically engaged and takes responsibility for their respective role.

Therefore, it requires specific success requirements to be looked after:

  • trust building
  • distribution of power
  • transparent communication
  • mutual accountability
  • shared learning
  • and effective alignment of interests.

However, this model also comes with a cost. Organizations need to recognize that sustainable change is hard to achieve without the unique talents and diverse perspectives of every team member. Every transformation involves creativity that is only unleashed in constructive and trustful discourse – the open competition for the best possible outcome.

There are five key steps involved in setting up Transformative Leadership


What are the key conditions for driving a successful transformation process?

  • Exemplary Ownership – the craft of taking responsibility and holding others accountable at the same time
  • Entrepreneurial Acumen – the ability to decide and act under conditions of extreme uncertainty
  • Autonomous Innovation – the art of daring greatly despite ambiguity

How can we provide guidance and direction for sustainable transformation?

  • Predictive Re-Creation – the ability of detecting trends and imagining possible future scenarios
  • Directive Purpose – the craft of shaping legacy, ideas and business into a meaningful whole
  • Expressive Leadership – the art of forming unity by means of storytelling

How can we achieve the best possible outcome through open experimentation?

  • Inquisitive Thinking – the ability to challenge the status quo, reduce complexity, and look for inconsistencies in reasoning
  • Creative Alchemy – the art of playfully combining interdisciplinary methods with curiosity and serendipity
  • Investigative Discovery – the craft to design and conduct descriptive experiments to drive rapid learning

How can we adapt to changing conditions while simultaneously withstanding forces of inertia?

  • Adaptive Judgement – the craft to question beliefs, overcome cognitive biases and adapt opinions accordingly
  • Reflective Awareness – the ability of gaining conscious understanding of the self
  • Social Sensemaking – the art of gaining clarity by empathic interaction with a group

How can we lead by example and embody the change we seek?

  • Open Discourse – the ability to compete for the best solution driven by deviating opinions
  • Collaborative Communication – the art of expressing vulnerability and gratitude
  • Habitual Improvement – the craft to learn quickly from experience and to persistently grow better over time


Transformative Leadership integrates the best elements of a top-down creative leadership approach while simultaneously embracing open participatory ways of collaboration. The SHAPE approach makes it possible to realize a concrete vision collectively without losing sight of individual roles and responsibilities. The model recognizes the creative potency of individual personalities. It allows leaders to react flexibly in complex situations without compromising and becoming ambiguous.

Before dealing with specific change projects, the goal is to increase the overall probability of success for innovation. The foundation is to create a healthy team culture that takes on the character of an initiative. The SHAPE process helps define the boundaries and the scope of the endeavor while maintaining the integrity of each stakeholder involved.

Once implemented fully, Transformative Leadership embodies the following specific benefits:

  • Better decision-making through effective communication, feedback and iterative ideation cycles
  • Increased internal motivation through a holistic direction that leads to individual growth and development while removing resistance to change
  • Shared responsibility through distributing commitment and accountability equally according to the roles and capabilities
  • Realizing potential through helping people to grow and develop new skills and talents
  • Increased engagement through a shared sense of ownership in the participatory innovation process
  • Self-sustaining improvement through transparency and shared knowledge which leads to a reduction of decision bottlenecks and increase of speed, quality, and learning .


However, Transformative Leadership must not be confused with transactional leadership. In some aspects, transactional leadership represents the exact opposite. A key feature of transactional leadership is leading with agreed goals. In this goal setting process, the manager takes corrective action when his or her employees fail to meet goals and expectations or make mistakes. In addition, the employee can expect some kind of reward for the expected behavior (“contingent reward”).

The best-known form of transactional leadership is the concept of Management by Objectives, introduced by Peter Drucker. To this day, many managers see the basic principle of “leading with objectives” as a fundamental management task. Despite its ever-increasing criticism, this model of leadership is the prevalent leadership paradigm in many organizations. However, MbO is often more poor than good. The main reason is that it is very hard to implement in practice.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Lao Tzu

The reasons for this are manifold. But it is obvious that a model that spends a lot of time on planning goals and monitoring their fulfillment no longer fits well into an era in which everything is constantly changing.

Today, being innovative, curious and experimental are among the most important skills, and a leadership approach that is based on individual target agreements produces the opposite effect: If everyone only looks out for themselves, there is less willingness to cooperate and creativity does not emerge.


Leading teams successfully is an experiential learning process. It involves the challenge to experiment with new patterns as well as the discovery of new skills that need to be constantly iterated.

It’s okay to admit what you don’t know. It’s okay to ask for help. And it’s more than okay to listen to the people you lead – in fact, it’s essential.”

Mary Barra

The new skill- and mindset of Transformative Leaders involves the following aspects:

  • the ability to adapt existing strategies to meet uncertain conditions
  • the understanding of the key drivers of transformation and their interrelationship
  • the skill to formulate concrete roadmaps for transformation
  • the ability to define the key elements for success for highly risky and uncertain endeavors
  • the reliable application of methods to rapidly prototype, test hypotheses, and iterate key elements of product strategies
  • the development of a self-leading mindset by working and committing on transformative attitudes
  • the knowledge how to define and create a purpose-driven culture
  • the ability to building a collaborative experience among all stakeholders and responding to future challenges by tapping into the wisdom of peers

A flexible framework

This content comes from the SHIFTSHAPE Framework, a transformative leadership approach to meet the personal and organizational challenges of the 21st century. The framework is the essence of real-world research and didactic experimentation, matched with the latest research in innovation and leadership research, psychology and neuroscience.

If you are interested in more information about the SHIFTSHAPE Framework click here.