Transformational Change

Charley was devastated.  He had lost both his wife and young son in a car crash when a drunk driver ran through an intersection.  Charley was angry and despondent.  That changed the day he met Maury, a young boy from the neighborhood.  Maury’s family had very little money and could not afford to buy Maury a bicycle.  When Maury saw a bicycle in Charley’s garage, he asked if he could ride it.  Charley was reluctant at first, but let Maury “rent” the bicycle.  The rent was an agreement to help Charley with some work around the house.  Charley didn’t need the help, but he was lonely.

That simple encounter set off a chain of events that would change Charley’s life and the lives of other young children who came to Charley to rent bikes.  In fact, Charley’s garage was filled with bikes donated by his friends. The rental agreements went from work arrangements at Charley’s house, to working for the entire neighborhood, especially the elderly.  Charley became a teacher of all the skills needed around the house.  Many of the children became skilled tradesmen, and had good paying jobs.  Others went to college using the money they earned from their skills.  But Charley’s kids devoted one hour a day to free labor for families in need, no matter the career they chose.

Charley became known for building a community of caring adults and children.  But just as important, Charley was transformed from someone who lost his way, to someone who had found his purpose in life.

The term transformational leadership was first used by James Downton, a sociologist who studied charismatic leadership.  But it was presidential historian James MacGregor Burns who gave the concept a more tangible meaning when he said: “Leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of morality and motivation.”  Clearly, Charley was being a transformational leader.  He changed the lives of his kids, but they also changed his.

Sadly, most of our work with others today is transactional.  We conduct our work as a process.  We don’t engage at a deeper level of support for those we work with.  In some cases, transactions are appropriate.  But there are many cases where we miss the opportunity to be transformational in our dealings with others.  You may recall situations like these.

  • You were asked a question, but you had a sense that there were questions that went unasked.
  • You could sense that someone was really struggling.
  • You saw a person do something inappropriate.
  • The easy answer was to say no to a request.
  • You hadn’t heard from a friend in a long time.

You don’t have to be a leader to practice transformational change.  But you do need to have a finely tuned sense of when to go beyond a normal transactional response.

How might we encourage the transition from transactions to transformations in our every day lives?  How can we shift our focus from transactional scorecards of progress to transformational stories that provide a real sense of how things are going?  What might our society look like if our focus shifted from transactional to transformational leadership?

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 “Embrace each challenge in your life as an opportunity for self-transformation.”  -Bernie Siegel (Writer and surgeon who focuses on mind-body medicine)

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