What separates the "Good" from the "Great" Transformational Leaders?

“He saw me and changed course.”  

A friend and fellow executive leadership coach, Will,* shared a story that was more than 25 years old. This memory of a moment has shaped him as an individual and a coach. It was an interaction between him and a transformational leader.
He was stationed in the Middle East when then General Norman Schwarzkopf made an unannounced visit to the base. Will was standing by pallets of rations when the General, his entourage in tow, happened to pass by and catch sight of Will. Despite being a general, despite being surrounded by several highly-ranked individuals, the General stopped. He left the scripted schedule and all those “important” people, approached Will and began having a conversation with him. They had never met. He saw Will and changed his course.

One of the most influential ‘tools’ leaders have in their arsenal is their attention. What they pay attention to, whom they pay attention to, immediately demonstrates to others what is deemed most important.
The small moment in time with Schwarzkopf stuck with Will. It informed us as we were discussing what separates great leaders from merely good. Will’s moment highlights a core principle we arrived at: transformational leaders lead individuals, not organizations. They lead one individual at a time.
General Schwarzkopf was not expected to veer off and engage in a one-on-one conversation with a solitary lieutenant. He was no doubt on a tight timeline with people escorting him through his itinerary. Will was just a lieutenant doing his duty. Yet, General Schwarzkopf gave Will what was most valuable – a few minutes of his time. Schwarzkopf didn’t see Will as only a lieutenant. He saw Will as a person, changed his course, and met my friend standing next to a pile of rations in the desert. The impact of that single small gesture lasted.
The lieutenant was valued because he was a human being under the General’s command. The General believed that he led people, not some faceless organization. For those reasons, Will was worthy of the time and the deviation from a pre-ordained schedule.  To his entourage and anyone else who was watching, and everyone is always watching, he showed them what was most important by what he paid attention to — one lieutenant guarding rations. Transformational leaders know that there no “just a…” kind of people.
A potent frame-shift occurs within a leader when they believe that they lead individuals and not an organization. These leaders:

  • Pay closer to the relationship.
  • Are fully present in their interactions.
  • Show high respect for the other.
  • Listen with reverent curiosity to learn and understand.
  • With humility, they pay close attention to humanity in themselves and others.

When a leader shows up in those ways, it translates into a level of authenticity that is not only seen but felt.  They have adopted a crucial component of Transformational Leadership: Individual Consideration.  Individual consideration is caring about different personal motivations, needs, socio-cultural contexts, and desires.  Moreover, leaders with individual consideration mentor, coach, and create opportunities. They invest themselves in others. They connect with us, and we feel them.

Michael Hein
About the author

Michael Hein, MD has over 20 years of healthcare leadership experience in multi-specialty practice, large integrated health systems, academic medicine, and start-up companies. He has extensive clinical leadership experience and deep knowledge in transformational change.
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