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From Transformational to Transcendent Leadership

  Jul 1, 2013

By Dr. George Njenga – Dean, Strathmore Business School

The most popular leadership theories currently being discussed by researchers include charismatic, transactional, transformational and servant leadership. Many friends of the pen have agreed that charismatic leadership is based on extraordinary characteristics of a leader who inspires and directs followers by building their commitment to a shared vision and values. Transactional leaders are those who inspire – if such a word can be applied to these bandits – through material ‘benevolence’ – read money or physical threats. To them man is only inspired by the stick and carrot. It is a purely economic partnership. On the other hand, some friends of mine called Cardona and Lombardi suggested to me that there is an even higher leadership capability, that of the transcendent leaders. Cardona (a good professor, now in china) explained to me that he recognizes three types of leadership: transactional, transformational, and transcendental leadership. To this intellectual, transcendent leadership has to do with the influence and relationship that the leader has on the values and actions of the collaborator. But there is more!

A great transcendental leader, such as Mahatma Gandhi, leads by example. “When governance has the texture of service it calls for a like response from those governed. Transcendental leaders have a great competence and that is their capacity for integrity and ability to sacrifice themselves at the service of their collaborators, even at the expense of their own interests. Nevertheless, they do not create a cloud 99 where they live happily ever after; they are also competent in their capacity to negotiate and control transactions and their capacity to create and communicate a vision. Jesus, Mahatma, our very own Madiba Mandela, and several others such as even the late Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom sacrifice the possibility of a happy comfortable and money-full life, to stick to wise principles that would possibly cost them their prestige or even life. Funny therefore that we praise and write about them after the sacrificial life! But while they are at it, it is incredible to find just how many nay-sayers they find around them. The crazy thing is that such a leader has constantly in mind, and one in which they have to generate all the capacity of will power and humility in their gut, is that good always wins regardless of the negative democratic conditions! Democracy can go against reason depending on the vices of the most popular people patronizing it.

The transcendental leader loves results and aligns and motivates staff towards the organisational vision. But let us dwell on this point a little. More than half of my leadership students have no idea where their organisation is going. Amazingly, very few leaders, if we may call them so, have a clear vision where their organisations are going. They have drafted a good strategy, which includes a vision and a mission. These people tend to love printing the vision and mission all over the building where their offices reside. In fact the idea is to get most staff members to read and believe in the vision, mission and strategy of the organisation that they have crafted behind closed doors. I have no problem with this way of engendering adherence to an organisational vision or mission. The problem comes where the leader does not envision any of the strategies in their daily lives at the office. They look like mercenaries at best. They do not embody the organisational vision with their daily actions. Where is the problem? The leader does not know and probably has no passion for the end result except the bottom line, which he or she will have to answer for in a meeting the following day. Let me remind leaders of business organisations that they have been given the mandate of operating by the society through its political and administrative institutions. Your license can be rescinded by society if you do not serve the common good of that society. It is not just about democracy or purpose. It is about democracy directed towards the common good. The leader must be democratic, but just like freedom; there is no such thing as limitless freedom. There are laws that guide our freedom in order to perfect it. Let me put it in a ridiculous way. I cannot change the lungs of my body to use fuel and not oxygen. So my freedom and leadership depend on whether I breathe-in adequate oxygen. One mistake about this physical law is that there is no freedom; neither will there be any vision and mission to talk about.

The concept of oxygen in the example above is analogically, the license (limit) given to a business organisation to operate in the service of a common good. True therefore, that the organsiation has to create wealth. But that is not all; the organisation has to create wealth for the common good – that is the good of the people it serves.

The renowned social thinker Friedrich Augustus von Hayek wrote that the ‘common purpose’ for which society is to be organised is usually vaguely described as the ‘common good’, the ‘general welfare’ or the ‘general interest’. To him, the common good does not have a definite meaning to determine a particular course of action. So Jojo my philosopher economist friend proposed that the difficulty in accepting the common good could be traced to an individualistic view of the human person. Adam smith may have been prior to Von Hayek when he proposed that in any hypothetical “state of nature”, an individual naturally lacks an intrinsic social dimension and only acquires it accidentally when, motivated by self-interest. I propose to all great business leaders that, “while it is satisfactory to acquire and preserve the good, even for an individual, it is finer and more divine to preserve it for the people”. In other words the good of the people is far higher than the good of an individual whether it be a person or a particular organisation. So I really love Aristotle for opening up this idea for leaders of the world!! It is only in this context that leaders are servants of the people and universal society.

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