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Leadership: the key ingredient for transformation success

In last week’s article I drew a compelling connection between better leadership and team member engagement. Without question, truly engaged employees that result from more effective leadership produce significant benefits for everyone.

Although one of the very real challenges many leaders have in engaging employees right now is the increasingly unpredictable and challenging circumstances they are experiencing. Change is accelerating and disruption and discontinuity challenges are affecting teams, companies and communities alike. The rate at which we are having to innovate, adapt and transform is much higher than it was say a decade ago, and will most likely accelerate even more.

Yet the rate of success for organisational and institutional transformation is depressingly low. An often-cited statistic from McKinsey Consultants states that more than 70% of transformation efforts fail to achieve their stated objectives. John Kotter, the grandfather of change management echoed this view when sharing his own observation of transformation efforts:

"A few of these corporate change efforts have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale."


As a result, the role that leadership can play in significantly skewing the odds in favour of a successful transformation shouldn't be overlooked. In fact, leading change and transformation is one of the most critical ways in how leaders influence organisational effectiveness and success.

Bill Torbert, a highly respected academic from Yale University and Boston College (now retired) along with his colleague David Rooke studied the impact of leadership on transformation success. The core of their research involved studying a large number of CEOs who had led organisational transformations. They grouped them into two categories depending on how they thought, behaved and lead. One group demonstrated more common and typical patterns, the second more extraordinary and atypical. Each leaders’ business records were then examined, along with historical performance of the companies they had led. Torbert and Rooke were specifically interested in counting the number of successful organisational transformations or company turnarounds that each CEO had led.

The findings

When the researchers tallied the results, the outcome was striking. Of the leaders who demonstrated the more extraordinary leadership behaviours, each had led on average three successful organisational transformations. And how many successful transformations had the more ordinary, typical leadership group led? Exactly zero.

These finding explain why leadership is important and helps us realise when leadership is needed most – which happens to be right now! If our teams, organisations and institutions are to adapt, innovate and transform successfully at the rate we need them to, we will simply need more extraordinary leaders who are capable of galvanising, orchestrating and mobilising our efforts. Not just at the helms, but all the way through to the engine rooms.

In fact, in my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership, I go beyond the work of Torbert, Rooke and others to reveal even more about the connection between leadership and transformation success, showing how and why the successful transformation strategies at Australian companies like ANZ Bank, Treasury Wine Estates and Coles focused on developing leadership at all levels as a key priority.

The bottom line is that ordinary, average, ho-hum garden-variety leadership may indeed be tolerable when the going is good, conditions are benign, and the status quo may seem perfectly acceptable. However, when our teams, organisations and institutions are challenged by change and disruption, we need something better, something more extraordinary. A more remarkable version of leadership.


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