The Apple iPhone. Microsoft Office. Entertainment streaming and the automobile. All of these goods and services have transformed society in the industrial age, but there is something else that they have in common, too; they were all developed under the purview of transformational leaders.
Indeed, whether it's a small mobile device that has changed the way we communicate, or a website that has forever altered how we shop, transformational leadership is undoubtedly conducive to the disruptor model. But what is it? And why does it create such an innovative and transformative effect?
A recognised management theory that fosters communication, integrity, emotional intelligence, and collaboration, transformational leadership is about striking a balance between short-term vision and long-term goals. There are several chief characteristics of this approach, including:
While, of course, there are numerous pros and cons to this approach (as there are to its natural opposite – transactional leadership), it can best be illustrated by the use of real-life applications.
Examples of Transformational Leadership
With this in mind, we have compiled a list of some of the most successful transformational leaders, as well as how this management approach has helped these leaders grow their respective organisations, regardless of their environment.
1. Jeff Bezos (Amazon)
As a recently rediscovered 1999 interview with the Amazon founder proves, Jeff Bezos has always understood that a successful business is about focusing on the customer. Indeed, despite pushback by the reporter in the clip, Bezos offers a daring vision of what the world's largest online retailer would eventually become – and how he would deliver it.
In many ways, Amazon is the perfect model of transformational leadership, and shows that by building on a series of short-term goals (the company started as a bookseller, after all), it is possible to achieve things on a grander scale.
2. Billy Beane (Major League Baseball)
In terms of transforming long-held beliefs about structures and processes, Billy Beane, the executive vice president of the Oakland Athletics baseball franchise, is undoubtedly a pioneer.
By applying advanced analytics techniques to the Athletics' recruitment strategy – a now-legendary method known as 'Moneyball' – Beane and his fellow coaches were able to identify potential signings that had been overlooked or underappreciated by their rivals. Credited with changing attitudes in the professional sports industry and revolutionising the application of data analytics, Beane's techniques also offer potential uses in the business world, too.
3. John D Rockefeller (Standard Oil)
As one of the most important and influential industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries, John D Rockefeller was undoubtedly a transformational leader. His investments in kerosene ended the country's reliance on whaling, while he consolidated and transformed the US' fledgeling oil and gas industry.
Although regularly termed a robber baron, Rockefeller was an undoubtedly successful employer, too, with his philanthropy an early example of corporate social responsibility in action.
4. Ross Perot (Electric Data Systems)
A success in both the public and private sectors, Ross Perot made his initial mark in 1962 by establishing Electric Data Systems (EDS), a repair company for computer systems.
Utilising the hardware knowledge gained from his time as an IBM salesman, Perot placed immense trust in his employees, extending them sufficient autonomy to make smart decisions that satisfied his customers – a revolutionary approach at the time. By proving that in a technical market, the top-down approach to business might be insufficient, the company became a huge success; Perot sold EDS to General Motors for $2.6m in 1984.
5. Reed Hastings (Netflix)
Although it started as a mail-order DVD service to rival the then-market leader, Blockbuster, Netflix is now a multi-billion-dollar subscription-based entertainment service. In addition to leasing previously produced content, it creates its own original productions – an impressive feat given Hastings' background as a software engineer.
Yet while Hastings' foresight may have revolutionised the viewing habits of millions of people around the world, perhaps his greatest achievement is his management style. For instance, Netflix employees are given unlimited vacation time – on the condition that they deliver results. Rather than micromanaging and having warm bodies in uncomfortable seats, the company instead focuses on total autonomy for workers, allowing them unprecedented independence in exchange for a market-leading and generation-defining product.
6. Bill Gates (Microsoft)
Bill Gates revolutionised the world thanks to his Windows operating system and his amalgamation of software – such as the Microsoft Office suite – with personal computers. Yet it wasn't always thus; Gates had to overcome initial battles with the US Government over anti-trust concerns, with the company's software now a cornerstone of more efficient business practices and increasing opportunities.
While he is no longer at the helm of Microsoft, the company continues to make significant strides in his absence, particularly in the realm of cloud computing. But it was his leadership and intellect that made Microsoft – and, in many cases, the world – into what it is today.
7. Steve Jobs (Apple)
Gates' one-time rival, Steve Jobs, also embraced the transformational leadership model in order to overhaul his organisation. While the Apple computer was in itself a modest success, Jobs' transformation of the company – and the introduction of its now trademark product, the iPhone – completely changed the game, both for Apple and the rest of the world.
Despite autocratic tendencies that saw him forced out during his first stint in charge, Jobs employed a more transformational approach upon his return. This involved making critical appointments in Apple's marketing, design and product teams, and bringing everyone together under the banner of Jobs' charismatic and visionary guidance.
8. Henry Ford (Ford Motors)
Operating on the business philosophy that "to do more for the world than the world does for you" is a definition of success, Ford was able to cement his reputation as one of the all-time great transformational leaders.
By inventing and commercialising the automobile – a process Ford envisioned when observing the moving assembly line of a meat-packing plant – Ford changed the world in a way which even he was unlikely to have foreseen.
9. Jeff Boyd and Glenn Fogel (Priceline)
Whether you are familiar with their names or not, two men have been more responsible for the demise of the travel agent than perhaps any other factor: Jeff Boyd and Glenn Fogel.
Their company, Priceline, has helped make travelling easier and more affordable by charging lower commission fees on reservations; they have also concentrated on smaller niche markets, such as bed and breakfast establishments, inns and apartments, rather than traditional hotels and resorts. Although many other firms have since adopted this model, Priceline were the pioneers of what is now a multi-billion-dollar industry.
It's no coincidence that these – and other leading S&P 500 and Global 500 companies – all share such common characteristics, strategies and leadership styles. While their stories are headline-grabbing, genuine transformational leadership is rare.
Of course, not every business is conducive to the same leadership style; every entrepreneur, executive or manager has his or her preferred method. But in today's fast-paced global economy, it is more imperative than ever to break away from complacency and smash the status quo. By exploring alternatives to the way things are supposed to be done, encouraging self-development, empowering teams and embracing original and creative thinking, you can also ensure that your business is at the forefront of ingenuity, innovation and inspiration.
Which of these transformational leadership examples inspires you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!