The Only Unteachable, Unlearnable Element of Transformative Leadership

Photo by  Marcos Luiz  on  Unsplash

Photo by Marcos Luiz on Unsplash

Earlier this week, I, like millions of other people, watched a video of Lt Gen Jay Silveria, Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy addressing the students at the academy about an incident involving racial slurs having been written on bulletin boards. His words could not have been clearer and his demeanor could not have conveyed more conviction to the message he was delivering. In 5 minutes, Lt Gen Silveria made it clear where he stood on the issue. “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect” he said, “then you need to get out!”

At a time when we have no shortage of so-called leaders who talk a lot whilst not saying anything substantive, and delivering ambiguous messages that leave people wondering where they stand on pivotal issues, Lt Gen Silveria’s words were a refreshing reminder of what Transformative Leaders do. His timely action to gather the entire student body and let them know, in no uncertain terms, where he stood was a reminder to me of a key ingredient of Transformative Leadership that quite frankly, I don’t think can be taught or learned — courage. What was done didn’t necessarily require a set of skills beyond what we all already have and are perfectly capable of practicing. What enables Lt Gen Silveria to deliver a powerful message was not a set of skills. It was courage. The courage to declare what you stand for without the need to make sure that everybody is happy with the message that you just delivered. The courage to declare that violations of the values and principles that the organization has chosen to live by are not acceptable, no matter who you are. The courage to speak for those who have been rendered voiceless in the absence of leadership from their previous leaders. The courage to speak the truth regardless of how it may be received by those whose support you may lose.

As I wrote my book, The Transformative Leader, and as I continue to design and deliver workshops and publish blog posts, etc. I always look for valuable nuggets from my own experience that helped me succeed, and I attempt to express them in terms of principles that can be applied in a variety of situations such that they make a difference for others. I must admit that watching this 5-minute video reminded me of so many times in my career when I was moved to strongly declare what I was and was not going to tolerate and the difference that clarity made throughout the organization. It was also a great reminder that I need to put even a greater level of emphasis on helping other leaders find their voice and develop the courage to take a stand when the situation calls for it.

My own experience with declaring my intentions and expectations as a leader, and following through with corresponding actions dates all the way back to when I was a young department manager, early in my career, and was sent in to “straighten out” a department that was known for being dysfunctional. The reason I am sure that this is not the sort of thing that one has to learn is because as a young leader who hadn’t read any leadership books and hadn’t had much leadership training, my commitment to creating a collaborative environment enabled me to lead my leadership team through an exercise that significantly changed how we worked together. I simply got up to the white board, drew a square, and got the team involved in identifying behaviors that would constitute a team member being on the playing field and behaviors that indicated the people were outside the playing field. The behaviors we identified and wrote down inside and outside the square mostly had to do with indicators of our values and guiding principles, not necessarily our skills or competence. We all agreed that as long as someone was behaving according to the values we’d agreed to, they could make mistakes and we would all still have their back and help them get back on track, but if they deliberately behaved in a way that was outside the agreed upon playing field, they would be on their own and we would not tolerate them continuing to behave that way. We then agreed to be guardians of the agreement we had made by reinforcing the positive behaviors and confronting the negative ones. I knew, however, for this to stick I had to be the one showing that I was willing and able to confront those who would test our commitment to our values. As such, I ended up having several tough conversations, mostly one-on-one and in small groups, but sometimes in front of the entire department with the similar intensity that I saw in the video. This approach worked for me then and on several occasions involving greater business and cultural challenges since.

In my blog post titled “Behold the Power of Always and Never,” I underscore the need to clearly define those things that one is always going to do and never going to do. The never and always zones are necessary for directing the path of your life based on your purpose, values, commitment, and perhaps your desire for long-term fulfillment and happiness. These are behaviors that are not up for debate. If you want to be and be known as a person of high moral character, you set these boundaries and abide by them and you do it in a way that makes it clear to everyone around you that you are not going to waiver. The same is true for organizations. If an organization chooses to unify its members and as such opts to not tolerate racist, sexist, and other form of discriminatory behavior, then it is up to the leader to be the one who makes it perfectly clear, in words and deeds, that these behaviors will not be tolerated, much like Lt Gen Silveria. Way before any organization reaches the tipping point where unacceptable behavior is organically and routinely confronted and corrected by its members on a regular basis, it is up to the leader to role model the courage to confront reality and send a strong signal.

So, the bottom line is that if the leader has the courage to talk straight and stand firm on key issues that matter to the organization, he or she will be effective at leading a transformation; and if not, there will be chaos and confusion as to what the organization stands for, and no progress will be made.

But if courage can’t be taught or learned, then what are we to do? How do we develop leaders to practice it? This is where transformative learning plays a key role. This is the type of learning that does not involve someone arming you with additional information or skills, but rather causing you to see what’s in the way of you showing up as the Transformative Leader that you already are. This type of learning experience makes up a good portion of my Transformative Leader workshop and other learning experiences that I facilitate.

I have learned that regardless of whether someone is an introvert or extrovert, or if they have a soft-spoken style of communication or if they are a hard charger, the difference in whether they are effective as a leader or not comes from them being in touch with the greater purpose they are out to serve. When people get in touch with their “why” and get to see the hidden saboteurs that have kept them from achieving what they are going for, they tend to become extremely focused and this calls forth the courage to take the necessary actions to create the desired culture and deliver the desired results.

The question I’d like you to ponder is whether you are clear enough in your communication for others to know what you stand for and what your values are, or do you come across like you are just trying to keep everybody happy. I’d encourage you to seek honest feedback from those who are willing to give it and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that you are not the kind of leader who, on paper, espouses to a certain set of values but behaves in a way that comes across as the opposite. 

As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at

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