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The Transformational Leader

Originally published: 03.01.14 by Greg McAfee

busy, on-the-go businessman stopped for a shoeshine in the Chicago airport, but no one was at the shoeshine chair when he arrived. After a few minutes, he heard a voice coming down the corridor: “Just take a seat! I’ll be right there.”

So, the weary traveler climbed up into the high chair. Expecting just another boring, quiet shoeshine with no interesting or meaningful conversation, he patiently waited. Much to his surprise, however, that routine moment in his life turned out to be quite a lifechanging experience. As the shoe-shiner proceeded to gloss his shoes, the man said, “Please make me look professional, from the bottom up.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s your responsibility,” the shoe-shiner quipped.

“What do you mean by that?” asked the man.

“Well, it’s your job to look professional. My only job is to make your shoes look great.”

“Hmm. I guess that’s true.”

“Being truly professional is from the neck up, not the feet,” the surprisingly wise shoe-shiner said.

“From the neck up?” the confused man asked.

“Yes. You must first transform your mind. If you think of yourself as a professional, a professional is what you will be. Are you confident?”

“I think I am,” said the man as the shiner buffed his shoes to a glossy black sheen.

“Well, see, that’s the difference between you and me. You

only think you are, but I know I am.” 

“How do you know?” 

“I just do. I take pride in my work, not only in giving the best shoeshine around, but I also work very hard in the few minutes I have with each customer. I strive to change the hearts and minds of men. Being professional starts in the mind. You must be willing to give your customers the most you can and know that you have a lot to give.” 

“Hmm. That’s pretty deep, but I can see that for sure,” said the man. “You have given me much to think on. I guess I’ve got a lot to work on, for the benefit of my business and my family…and now I’ve also got the best-looking shoes around!” 

Sometimes in life, an unexpected someone shows up just in time to lift us out of our fog, challenge us, and even modify our thinking. The business traveler had just such an unexpected epiphany while going through the routine task of having his shoes shined. Even in his humble profession, the shoe-shiner had something called transformational leadership skills, and he used those skills to improve the lives of his clients. But what is transformational leadership? According to Wikipedia, it’s “leadership that enhances the motivation, morale, and performance of followers through a variety of mechanisms. These include connecting the follower’s sense of identity and self to the project and the collective identity of the organization; being a role model for followers [who] inspires them and keeps them interested; challenging followers to take greater ownership for their work; and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of followers so the leader can align followers with tasks that enhance their performance.” That’s a good definition from Wiki, but for the sake of this article, I’d like to put it in layman’s terms: “where a leader seeks to influence (or transform) followers beyond their own selfinterest for the good of the group, which improves the performance of the entire team.

In Brian Tracy’s The 100 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws of Business Success, he noted two basic types of leadership, transactional and transformational. Transactional leadership is the ability to direct people, manage resources, and get the job done. Transformational leadership, however, is the most important form of leadership, for it consists of the unique ability to motivate, inspire, and bring people together to work toward higher levels of performance.

James MacGregor Burns popularized transformational leadership in 1978 and believed it should be seen as the counter to transformational leadership. The chart below shows some distinct differences between the two.

Notorious Transformational Leaders

Sam Walton, the founder and CEO of Wal-Mart, asked that his employees start their day with a cheer: “Give me a W, give me an A, give me an L, give me a squiggly, give me an M, give me an A, give me an R, give me a T! What’s that spell? Wal-Mart! Whose Wal-Mart is it? My Wal-Mart! Who’s number one? The customer is always!” This transformational leader acted with inspiration, motivation, and enthusiasm, and so did his team. When Sam opened the first Wal-Mart store in 1962, not only did he have to borrow a large sum of money from others, but he also had to mortgage his own home. He had an idea, he influenced in a positive way, and he was willing to sacrifice. Sam even set up his own version of the Ten Commandments. Of these, some place him directly in the class of transformational leaders:

• Share profits with your associates and treat them like your partners;

• Energize colleagues;

• Communicate with, appreciate, and listen to your associates/partners.

Walt Disney set a culture of excellence, right down to the way the sidewalks were cleaned at his namesake amusement parks. He created a culture of caring for customers, ensuring that visitors to Disneyland and Disneyworld had a great time in the Magic Kingdom. Walt also set the expectation of staying in character, regardless of what happens in the park. He was a man of vision, well exceeding that of most leaders.

Michael Jordan, an athlete of phenomenal physical gifts, also harbors an inner will to drive himself and his teammates to incredible levels of performance. His team, the Chicago Bulls, won an amazing six NBA championships with Jordan leading the way, and they may very well have won more if he hadn’t taken a break to try baseball. It is no wonder that so many wanted to “be like Mike,” for he inspired others. Like all transformational leaders, watch him play and lead his team. He was an outside-the-box thinker, and his words say it all: “If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them. Everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it”. he was simply infectious. We loved to 

Three Ways to Become a Transformational Leader

1. Influence your team in a positive way and be the role model who builds confidence and trust. What they see you do, they should be able to copy. At McAfee, I often say, “I won’t make you do anything I wouldn’t do. Whether it’s working in a cockroach-infested house or a hot attic midday, if I wouldn’t do it, you don’t have to either.” A transformational leader shows people what’s possible and motivates them to make those possibilities a reality. My influence energizes my team and takes them to another level of possibility.

2. Motivate your team and be consistent about it. During company meetings, I show our team where we’ve been, where we are, and where I want to go. We then show them how they can be part of the future and ask them not only to understand my goals, but also to create their own for the next one, three and five years. We encourage business and personal goals, because if I can help them build a strong family life, this will help them achieve balance that will make them feel better at work. This is another reason why, in many situations, we interview the applicant and the spouse together, to bring both of them in on the expectations we have and what the future looks like here.

3. Stimulate your team to think. We have a Dream Room in our main office, open to anyone who wishes to think and dream about a new project, idea, or possibility that is relevant to our business. During company and group meetings, I challenge my team to see things differently. One team member recently stated something that was already quite obvious: “It’s an all-about-me mentality.” When I challenged him to think about helping people to be more comfortable or assisting a child who suffers from respiratory problems in breathing easier, he eventually realized that his job is not all about him; it is more about helping others than it is about him simply drawing a paycheck.


This test, developed by Ronald E. Riggio, PhD, will help you find out. How many of these attributes can you say truly apply to you?

1. I would never require a follower to do something I wouldn’t do myself.

2. I have clear goals for my team.

3. It comes naturally for me to inspire others.

4. I celebrate the talents and successes of my followers.

5. I am attentive when it comes to the personal needs of my followers.

6. I challenge my followers to step out of their comfort zones.

7. I believe teamwork is the way to success.

8. I encourage my followers to question their most basic ways of thinking. 

As you continue to work on your leadership skills, remember that people are more prone to follow you if you inspire and motivate them. A person with vision and passion can achieve great things. One way to get things done quicker, smoother, and more efficiently is by injecting enthusiasm and energy into your team…and remember that it starts from the neck up and trickles down. 

Greg McAfee is owner and founder of McAfee Heating and Air Conditioning Co., Dayton, OH. Greg is also an author, HVAC business consultant and coach.


About Greg McAfee

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