5 Lessons Learned from a Transformational Leader

Federal employees retire every day. According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, over 45 percent of full-time, permanent federal employees are age 50 and older. Many of these employees will likely retire within the next decade.

I am thankful for the service of career public servants who stick around long enough to retire. Often, this represents several decades of dedication to public service. Each individual contributes to the noble mission in different ways. Some are leaders, and some are followers. It’s not every day, though, that the retirement of a public servant attracts my attention to the extent that I spend time analyzing their legacy.

A transformational leader can be described as a vision-focused leader who inspires positive changes in followers. In the words of John D. Rockefeller, “Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.” Transformational leaders are among us in government, though they are less common in bureaucracies than in the corporate world.

One such transformational leader retired this past week with my utmost admiration after many years of public service. She was smart. She was fierce. She was one of the bravest people I have ever met, facing each new challenge with a smile and a plan of action. Upon hearing that she was retiring, I felt compelled to send her a quick note expressing my appreciation for her many years of dedicated public service and the personal impact she made on me as a transformational leader in government.

What legacy did she leave behind with regard to leadership? Here are five lessons to be learned from a transformational leader:

Be Inspirational.

Develop a vision that inspires others. Know what you believe in, and be passionate about it. Share your vision with others with excitement. Own it. Live it. In the words of leadership expert John C. Maxwell, “Good leaders must communicate vision clearly, creatively and continually. However, the vision doesn’t come alive until the leader models it.”

Be influential, yet humble.

Influence increases with trust and respect. Earn the trust and respect of your employees and they will follow your example. According to philosopher Albert Schweitzer, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” Practice humility. Give credit where credit is due. Be open to constructive criticism. Let others know that you are only human. Everyone makes mistakes. Admit when you make mistakes, and try to make amends.

Be courageous, yet vulnerable.

Have the courage to stand up for your beliefs. Take risks to achieve your vision. Stick to your guns. It’s not a time to be wimpy. Don’t let fear paralyze you. Let yourself be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is not a weakness. Rather, it is being genuine. Connect with others on a personal level by revealing something about yourself. Admit your true weaknesses to others.

Be willing to make sacrifices.

There are times when a leader must assume the possibility of risk for the sake of the employees or even for the sake of the organization. These risks may result in personal or professional sacrifices and loss. Calculate the risks you take to minimize exposure, but recognize that not all risk can be mitigated. According to philosopher William James, “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.”

Build others up.

Show employees that you appreciate them by thanking them for their contributions and providing positive feedback. Give praise. Listen empathetically to their concerns. Share knowledge. Dismantle the age-old practice of hoarding institutional knowledge. Instead, share what you know with others around you so that creativity and innovation can flourish. Forgive mistakes. Develop the full potential of those around you. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “When you make it to the top, turn and reach for the person behind you.” Ask employees where they want to be in their careers in five years. Then do what it takes to help them get there.

Final Thoughts

Leadership is a journey. Thank you to all the leaders who have come and gone and have set the example of transformational leadership in government. You’ve served as a role model and inspiration to me.


Related Reading
Socrates: The World’s First Transformational Leader?

Sherrie P. Mitchell is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.


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Joyce tabb

I studied transformational leaders in one of my classes and wondered why it was not practiced in the government. Great article. I hope managers are reading this and taking notes.

Sherrie P. Mitchell

Thanks Joyce. I think it may be more difficult to practice transformational leadership in government, but it’s doable. As stated below though by Steph, any leader can work to pick up these habits.

Avatar photo Blake Martin

This was a really inspiring piece! I think transformational leadership comes down to leading by example, whether its through your actions, emotions, behaviors-what have you!

Avatar photo Spencer Grady-Pawl

It’s interesting that you say transformational leaders are less common in bureaucracy than in the corporate world–I wonder what incentives or structures would need to be changed in order to increase the number present in the public sector?