By its’ nature, change is disruptive. Transformation is change and those who lead us to make transformation are, therefore, disruptive. Transformational leaders push us to shake up the status quo, expand our thinking, and redefine our purpose (PSU WC, 2020). While that focus may seem to be solely on the leader, that would be misguided thinking because transformation involves all parties and requisite to transformation is the followers’ ability or willingness to jump on the transformation train and set a new course with the leader (2020). In the wrong hands, however, transformation is more than disruptive, it can lead to questionable decision making and unethical behaviors if left unchecked.
Leaders who wish to make transformational change in their organization typically have a vision, strong rhetorical skills, the ability to build trust, and personalize their leadership to the followers (PSU WC, 2020). Those who support transformational leaders also need specific characteristics to include, identification with the leader and their vision, heightened emotions, willingness to support the leader, and are empowered (2020). For the leader and the follower to create an environment in which this can occur, one additional leadership quality is common, charisma (2020). Charisma allows leaders to exhibit confidence and dominance and followers to fully buy-in to their level of support for the leader (2020), but charisma can have a dark side which can, “lead to a reputation of self-absorption and self-promotion” (Nei and Nei, 2018).
Leaders high in charisma, a necessary component of transformational leadership, have to balance their confidence so as to not become overly confident and make unethical decisions. Price (2003) states humans behave unethically because of a tendency to be motivated, “by self-interest to do something other than what we morally ought to do” (p. 69), not because we don’t have the knowledge to know what is ethical. One such example is a CEO I am familiar with in my business network. He is a disrupter, a thinker, an ‘idea monkey’. His followers are excited he is leading the organization and relieved that they have been able to craft a powerful new vision, mission, and values statement with a strategic plan that is clear and aligns through all levels of the organization. Of course, he exhibits much charisma and his followers are willing and able to participate in this new way forward. However, his ideas have a tendency to get carried away.
A month after he took the leadership role, one of his ideas was to create a new pricing model for one of the business lines. Without a full research department he came up with the idea that the sales person could blindly call competitors to identify what they were doing. While many companies participate in such activities it was what the CEO and the sales person got carried away with that led to some unethical decision making. They went so far as to create fake profiles as a customer and misrepresent themselves, receiving several pieces of confidential information prepared for them as if they were a prospect. These practices happen often and can be debatable, but simply, it did not align to the new values, one of which included ‘honor’. What they did was not honorable.
The problem in this scenario was not that either person is a bad person, but they were unchecked. They allowed their ideas to spiral out of self-interest. No one at the organization had previously thought of the new pricing calculation and it seemed to be an outside the box idea in the beginning. Something that pushed boundaries, but it quickly went from evaluating cost and gross margin needs to acting in ways that were unethical and while it was the idea of the leader, the follower did not stop it. Neither did the division leader who had responsibility for the sales person. Everyone got wrapped up in the excitement and allowed the leader’s charisma to take hold of the room.
Luckily, for the organization and the leader’s sake, one person finally spoke up and they came up with a much better idea for their pricing calculations that were more ethical. More importantly, they now understand empowerment of the followers better. In the beginning, the CEO was trying to make transformation and while he spoke of empowerment, it was yet to be proven that this was genuine. Through time and experience, the team and the leader have been able to balance the willingness to be subordinate and the empowerment necessary for transformational leadership to be effective (PSU WC, 2020).
Nei, K. and Nei, D. (2018). Don’t Try to be the “Fun Boss” – and Other Lessons in Ethical Leadership. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2018/09/dont-try-to-be-the-fun-boss-and-other-lessons-in-ethical-leadership
Pennsylvania State University (2020). Lesson 10: Transformational Leadership. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2040131/modules/items/28001793
Price, T. L. (2003). The ethics of authentic transformational leadership. The leadership quarterly, 14(1), 67-81.