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4 Traits of Successful Transformational Leaders

A generation ago, transformational leaders were rare, and as such, prized. Today, though, the ever-increasing frequency of paradigm shifts in the business environment means more are needed—especially at the very top of organizations.


Chief Executive | June 16, 2016


The Chief Executive published a bylined article written by Russell Reynolds Associates' Charles A. Tribbett, III titled, "4 Traits of Successful Transformational Leaders." The article is excerpted below.​

Digital transformation, regulatory constraints, requests for disclosure of the relationship of CEO pay to total shareholder return (TSR), increased M&A activity, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) issues, and new SEC clawback rules for accounting mistakes have significantly altered standard operating procedures at the top of many companies. In this tumultuous environment, transformational leaders are being sought out as never before.

These leaders bring about change that defies linear understanding—by embodying a diverse array of thinking styles and adjusting their actions in real time as complex business challenges require.

Though most organizations are aware that these qualities are desirable, they often shrink from selecting people who possess them for leadership roles, opting instead for someone in the traditional, risk-averse mold—which, ironically, may well be the choice that should give us pause.

While there is no magic formula for identifying a transformational leader, they do tend to have 4 key things in common.

1. They “fail well.” Think Steve Jobs being forced out of Apple only to lead it again years later. Home Depot founders Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcus started that company after being fired from Handy Dan under pressure from a corporate raider; similarly, Michael Bloomberg’s seed capital for his multibillion-dollar empire was his severance check from Salomon Brothers—he was forced out after the firm was acquired. In all of these cases, the CEOs in question took on phenomenal challenges after suffering what would be career-ending setbacks for most. This ability to embrace risk is central to the transformational profile. It is interesting to see what happens when interviewers probe for failure stories instead of success stories; much interesting information about the ability to transform can be gleaned

2. They lean toward the strategist side of the strategy/operations dichotomy. This can put companies in something of a bind, as they may feel that they are facing operational challenges and need to hire a strong operator. Often, however, a business transformation is needed, and a strategist is crucial to this shift. One well-wrought compromise is often to hire terrific operators to work for a keen strategist—certainly better than deploying strategists below a leader whose vision does not extend beyond operations. Perhaps as a result of this thinking, fewer companies are putting COOs into the CEO seat: recent Russell Reynolds research showed a drop in this particular move over the last three years.

 To read the full article, click here.

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4 Traits of Successful Transformational Leaders