Transformational Leadership: Parallels with Strength Training

Transformational leaders wield the power of change by actively engaging the wants, needs, and aspirations of others, through mutually shared visions or outcomes. Becoming a transformational leader is a consequence of one’s qualities as a leader, the transparency of their person, values, and goals, and stewardship of the relationship that exists between them and those they lead. Many of these intrinsic qualities are things that we build and bolster with barbell training.

Qualities of Leadership: Parallels with Strength Training

What makes someone a leader? Is it mere circumstance, as Shakespeare suggested (tongue-in-cheek) when he wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em”?[1] Or does it lie in the acquisition of power over others? In which case, we should be at pains to distinguish good leaders from bad ones. Or is leadership backward-looking, leaders being judged by the great turnings of history’s wheel only after-the-fact? The question is an important one since almost everyone will find themselves in positions of authority or power at some point in their lives. It behooves us to think about how the roles of leadership affect those around us and how we can be more effective in those roles.

According to James MacGregor Burns, author of the seminal work Leadership (1978), leaders are neither born nor made. One who is born to leadership wields the power of position or inheritance, giving no distinguishment to whether the person will be a good leader or a tyrant. A made leader presumes a grant of authority. The person may be a fine leader, but there is nothing inherent in bestowing authority on another that makes them a leader, let alone a good leader. Burns sets a threshold for leadership as one who engages followers. It is relationship, he says, conditioned precedent on power but not defined by power alone. “We must analyze power in a context of human motives and physical constraints. If we can come to grips with these aspects of power, we can hope to comprehend the true nature of leadership—a venture far more intellectually daunting that the study of naked power.” [2]

Leadership requires much more than emulation (what makes so-and-so a great leader? Let’s do that?). As a field of study, it is driven by theoretical, moral, and philosophical questions. Leadership theorists ask questions such as, What about the human condition makes leadership both necessary and possible?[3] in an effort to pin down what Burns called “one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” Burns describes leadership in terms of necessary conditions—competition or conflict—and the relationship between leaders and followers:

“Leadership is the reciprocal process of mobilizing, by persons with certain motives and values, various economic, political, and other resources, in a context of competition and conflict, in order to realize goals independently or mutually held by both leaders and followers.” (Burns p. 425)

He highlights not just the hierarchal relationship that as the root of leadership but the mutual motivations, distinguishing leaders from power wielders and from governmental or corporate entities, using history as an “immense reservoir of data” to fuel his arguments.

Leaders require power, but power can also be wielded by tyrants and despots. Leaders require followers, but followers can be coerced or conscripted into service.

Burns instead looks at the qualities of the power a leader wields with respect to followers, breaking down leadership into two basic categories: transactional and transformational. Transactional leadership promotes compliance through both rewards and punishments. The nature of the power being wielded is an agreed-upon quid pro quo, mutual but superficial. In this model of leadership, the collective goals of the leader and followers come through mostly extrinsic motivations. Followers want to avoid punishments and receive rewards and, therefore, do the tasks they are assigned. The tasks help the leader achieve some desired outcome. This method of leadership may seem bland, but it is common in the managerial setting, in which a manager has to work within established bounds of an organization.

Transformational leaders wield the power of change by actively engaging the wants, needs, and aspirations of others, through mutually shared visions or outcomes. “A transformational leader is a person who stimulates and inspires (transform) followers to achieve extraordinary outcomes.”[4] Beyond the carrot-and-stick approach to transactional leadership, the transformational leader seeks to enhance the motivation, morale, and performance of others, often acting as a beacon themselves for the culture or values of the group. There is a lifecycle to the transformational leader-follower relationship, Burns says, in which the leader turns the followers into leaders themselves and is eventually subject to their leadership.[5] Becoming a transformational leader is a consequence of one’s character—a willingness to lead by example and stewardship of the values and goals of those they lead. Many of these intrinsic qualities are things that we build and bolster with barbell training.

Common Transformational Traits

Transactional and transformational leaders are not mutually exclusive. Most structures of leadership have some transactional aspect to them. In business organizations, school settings, military chains of command, and even parenting transactions make up the glue that holds the power structure together, creating the basic conditions of leadership. Many scholars have studied the interplay between transactional and transformational leadership qualities and found transformational leadership to be an augmentation of the traditional quid pro quo structures that give rise to leadership in the first place. Transactional power does not preclude someone from being a transformational leader.

Transformational leadership comes down more to active or passive engagement with others and the secondary goals of one’s leadership. We might look at the effects of transformational leadership as not only accomplishing the goal within the transactional structure, but doing so with the least diminishment of morale, the fewest negative motivations required, and the most positive transactions available.

If an effective transformational leader is someone who inspires others, then here, finally, we can see parallels between transformational leadership and strength training. Leaders must learn their own limitations and have the confidence to make decisions. Trying and failing and building in ways that allow you to try and succeed are important qualities in leadership. This takes a healthy dose of confidence and mirrors the process of training. A transformational leader fills a role not because of circumstance, but because you have accepted the role of leader, its consequences and its responsibilities. Unless you choose to confine yourself and your team to mediocrity, you have to find the systemic progression that makes you all better. This is training expanded to leadership.

Sharing Strength

Consistent actions create structure, build habits, and influence others. Consider how showing up on time affects other aspects of your day. You wake up at a specific time, follow a particular morning routine, exercising control over that part of your day as a prerequisite to your commitment to timeliness. Consistency of one habit creates other habits.

Strength training, done properly, is a big transformational habit. An hour or so out of your day, a few times a week, tends to affect the other 165 hours of your week. To make the most of your training, you eat differently, sleep differently, and engage in other physical activists differently when you treat strength training as an important habit. It takes commitment and consistency, and it builds both those things in other areas of your life.

Certain decisions you make are like stones on a path. You set out a stone, and it requires that other stones lead to it and lead away from it, giving structure and purpose to the path. A transformational leader sets those stones as examples to others of what the leader values. If done correctly, those values will be reflected in those you lead. We see this most readily with parents who take up strength training. A parent who values strength for health and fitness will very often find their young children trying to lift barbells, flex muscles, and show off their own strength. They become miniature reflections of the parent’s values, shown through their habits.

There are other benefits of strength training that can directly affect leadership: doing hard things, building confidence, embodying the ideal that hard work pays off. Strength training reaches into so many aspects of our lives because it is transformational.

If there is a takeaway here, it is not that strength is your ticket to greatness. Rather it is to share our own belief in the transformational power of strength, in its value, and what we have seen as the results of something so very simple. For many of us, barbell training is not just a stone in our path, but a landmark, with family, careers, health, and wellness extending toward and away from it. Strength may not make you great, it may not improve your leadership skills—it certainly will not hurt—but then again, it may be that thing you can set down in your day that becomes something much more than just getting a little bit stronger. And if it can inspire you to more, it will continue to inspire and transform others who are under your leadership, and maybe it will be worth sharing again.


References

[1] This quote is often repeated and meant to be taken at face value, but the context from Shakepere’s Twelfth Night undermines its nominal meaning. A servant, Malvolio, is being duped via a forged letter into thinking his mistress has fallen in love with him. The letter contains the quote, suggesting that Malvolio seize the opportunity for greatness by reciprocating and showing that he loves her back (through things like wearing yellow socks and treating the other servants of the household poorly). The situation gives a dual, salacious meaning to having greatness “thrust” upon him.

[2] James MacGregor Burns, “Leadership” (1978)

[3] Georgia Sorenson, George R. Goethals, and Paige Haber, “The Enduring and Elusive Quest for a General Theory of Leadership: Initial Efforts and New Horizons” in The SAGE Handbook of Leadership (2011)

[4] Odumeru, James A, Ifeanyi George Ogbonna, “Transformational vs Transactional Leadership Theories: Evidence in Literature,” Int. Rev. of Manag. & Bus. Research, Vol. 2 No. 2 (June 2013).

[5] James MacGregor Buns Oral History Interview, Tobias Leadership Center (available at: https://tobiascenter.iu.edu/research/oral-history/audio-transcripts/macgregor-burns-james.html)

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