Born to Lead


Why is highly effective transformational leadership—dubbed blacksheep leadership by author Jeffrey Matthews—so rare in organizations today, and transactional leadership, both good and bad varieties, so common? In this excerpt from Blacksheep Leadership: A Story About a Leadership Challenge and the Nature of Transformational Leadership, Matthews offers an answer.


Imagine if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs had been born into impoverished East European families in the 1950s and, as young boys, had been placed into a Moldavian orphanage after being abandoned by their parents. What was the likelihood of their creating and leading phenomenal global enterprises like Microsoft and Apple?

Answer that as you like, but the point not to be missed is that leadership ability depends on more than just factors determined at birth. Notably, one of the monumental barriers to effective leadership development is close-mindedness—many people choose to believe that one’s leadership ability cannot be changed in fundamental ways. Those with fixed mindsets believe a person’s effectiveness in leading others is largely predetermined, like one’s eye color or height.

Such thinking is not only misinformed but also detrimental because it unnecessarily constrains personal growth and one’s motivation to develop the latent abilities of others. Leadership can be learned, and acknowledging this is a key step to arriving there. Moreover, to achieve the most effective leadership, there needs to be a willingness to stray from the norm, the comfortable, and the self-interested path of leadership. This highly effective leadership I call blacksheep leadership.

Blacksheep leadership, or transformational leadership, is exceptional because it produces extraordinary performance in individuals, teams, departments and organizations. Blacksheep leadership builds upon the practical benefits of traditional transactional leadership—the most widespread means of influence in which followers and leaders enter into a bargain for the primary purpose of satisfying each other’s distinctive wants and needs. This might involve the exchange of a paycheck, or praise and reward for work that boosts profits or raises the leader’s standing.

In contrast to this, blacksheep leadership is an undertaking wherein leaders and followers are dedicated to reaching their full potential while pursuing meaningful, shared visions and objectives. Transformational leaders and followers develop positive, caring and nurturing relationships, which build trust, loyalty and commitment.

Followers are especially driven to work for leaders who envision and articulate substantive, exciting futures and model excellent behaviors. Blacksheep leaders shoulder the responsibility for crafting and communicating a worthy and inspirational vision of the future. They accord followers as much autonomy as feasible in setting personal work goals and in their execution of assigned tasks. And they engage the intellects of their followers and demonstrate a sincere respect and appreciation for each person’s individuality.

Whereas the self-interested transactional leadership process is so dependent on extrinsic rewards and coercive power, transformational leaders and followers are more activated by intrinsic motivators, working vigorously toward a worthy common cause because their activities are deeply fulfilling.

But if transformational leadership routinely delivers extraordinary satisfaction and organizational performance, why is its practice so rare? Because becoming a highly effective, genuinely satisfied transformational leader or follower requires a considerable investment of thought and effort. First, a leader or follower must invest time to understand what transformational leadership is all about; and then comes the greater challenge of trying to become a transformational person.

This circles back to the original point: One must accept that leadership ability can be changed in fundamental ways. There is no doubt that people benefit from genetic inheritances. But the whole of one’s persona and intellect are not determined at birth. Even if someone is endowed with genes that contribute to an attractive, engaging personality or a superbly analytical mind, there is no predictive guarantee that she would become an effective leader of others.

In leading the fight for civil rights legislation, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke persuasively about the powerful influence of environments to either accelerate or impede a person’s development. At Howard University, he proclaimed that a paramount goal for the United States was to provide all Americans with opportunities “to learn and grow, to work and share in society, to develop their abilities—physical, mental, and spiritual, and to pursue their individual happiness. … Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family you live with, and the neighborhood you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the infant, the child and the man.”

To think that leaders are not developed during their lifetimes is to proffer pitiful justification for avoiding the development of people’s capacities for leadership. The truth is, effective leaders are products of their genes and their experiences and circumstances. The abilities of good and bad leaders are partly born, but mostly made.

Beyond developing a positive, open mindset, there are other major factors in becoming a transformational leader or follower. For example, people must have the time, will and discipline to engage in a thoughtful leadership development program. They must develop a systematic means for learning from personal experience and the experience of others. And, they must possess a sincere appreciation for a diverse, balanced, lifelong education.


JEFFREY J. MATTHEWS is the former risk manager for Wells Fargo Bank of Nevada and the current director of the Business Leadership Program at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

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