Truly transformational leadership is about incremental change

Dean Royles, strategic workforce advisor at Skills for Health and co-author of ‘An Introduction to Human Resource Management,’ argues that truly transformational leaders must posses a certain quality: patience.  

They say that patience is a virtue, but judging by today’s rapidly changing, on demand, instant gratification world, it is a virtue that is under-appreciated. Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated qualities of leadership is patience. It may come as a surprise then that someone so keen on the digital revolution has written about patience.

The good thing about writing a blog about patience is that it is a win-win for the reader. Honestly! Either I will get my post across skilfully, in which case you will have learned something about patience, or you will read it to the end feeling uninspired, in which case… you will have learned something about patience! You’re very welcome.

If you study the history of leadership, you will see a broadly chronological story, starting with Trait Theory and Contingency Theory, moving into Servant Leadership (now making something of a resurgence) and more recently, Transformational and Authentic Leadership Theories. There is a paradox that although the death bells of the heroic individual leader have been sounded, we still strive for rapid and transformational leadership and change. I question whether we see that sort of transformation in the way we work, in the workplace and the workforce. Transformation has often been explained using the metaphor of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly – but I have rarely seen this in practice at work.

All too often, transformation interventions don’t manifest themselves in overnight changes. Take, for example, the development of the internet, perhaps one of the biggest transformations we have ever seen. Many will recall the initial excitement, followed by dialling in, blocking phone lines and lots of buffering! It is only years later, through a process of incremental improvement of broadband, high speed internet and wireless access, that we have come to see and (mostly!) appreciate the benefit in the workplace. It has, and still does, require patience. The same can be said for mobile phones and electric cars.

If we are to judge leaders on visible, transformational leadership in the true sense of the word, we will be disappointed. To truly transform patient care, we need people and teams with a shared vision and the communication skills to articulate a new future. But truly transformational leaders have the stamina and patience to see through the glamourous accolades, to have confidence in the vision and to appreciate the value of sustaining small improvements; building an incremental change that over time, not overnight, is able to deliver services to patients. Perhaps our guiding motto should be “patience for patients.”

For more on transformational leadership and consultancy that makes a difference, see here. 


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