Transformational Leadership: Paradigm Shift or Incremental Change?

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Courtesy of Behavioral Science Technology, Inc. (BST)

In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn triggered a landmark re-assessment of the history, sociology and philosophy of scientific knowledge. At that time, progress in 'normal science' was viewed as the development of knowledge by incremental steps. Kuhn challenged the traditional view by arguing for a model in which periods of continuity in normal science were interrupted by periods of revolutionary science, the discovery or development of 'anomalies.' These anomalies in science lead to new paradigms, or ways of thinking about and perceiving a problem. It was Kuhn who popularized the term 'paradigm' in our lexicon. Revolutionary advances are completely new ways of perceiving a problem; they provide a new playbook, new rules. Examples of paradigm shifts in science include Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the breaking of the atom, the discovery of penicillin – all of these radically changed the way science was perceived.

However, the simple act of discovery does not by itself change the world. The new knowledge must be communicated, taught, and accepted before it can take effect. This can take a lot of time (consider many still believe the earth is flat and have a society to support them!). In times of enormous need, the acceptance process and application of the new knowledge base can be accelerated, such as the application of Einstein's theory to the successful development and operationalization of the atomic bomb, or the deployment of the Salk vaccine to combat polio in the 1950s. In other cases, it takes longer.

A look at safety leadership

In many organizations, making the change in leadership style from a traditional, top-down, compliance-based transactional set of practices and behaviors to ones focused on leadership engagement and interaction, inspiration, influence, communication and collaboration, is revolutionary – a paradigm shift. Transformational leadership was first espoused by Professor (historian) James McGregor Burns in his 1978 seminal work Leadership. The application was academic, but the concept was subsequently extended by Bernard Bass to organizational settings. Transformational leadership is almost the traditional model turned upside down: the leader does not feel compelled to give orders but rather guides, provides a clear and compelling vision for a desired future state, generates enthusiasm and optimism for achieving that state; the leader is credible and trustworthy, thus generates respect. He challenges appropriately, and engages with all levels of the organization.

A shift from a transactional to a transformational form of leadership in many organizations is revolutionary. It is a paradigm shift, and therefore is best initiated at the senior executive levels, ideally by the senior-most executive. This, because the role of the senior leadership is by nature more strategic than tactical, and the elements which comprise transformational leadership are overarching and therefore tend to lend themselves to a strategic approach.

With the decision to engage in such a shift, the leadership must be prepared for resistance in all forms of pushback from lower levels. Thus, it is critical that an aligned message be consistently communicated, that appropriate training and development be provided, and that the leadership live the message and expect the same as the concept is cascaded into the organization.

Change is difficult.

Our human brains are wired to resist it. We prefer normalcy and stasis, little deviation from the way we have always behaved. The change will be most difficult for the middle and front-line managers, who traditionally have been pressed by their superiors to meet production, quality and safety targets, and have been expected to achieve them as they saw fit. In a traditional setting this is accomplished through a traditional management approach, which is to say, one which is hierarchical, directive, often authoritarian. Accountability measures, which are necessary for any organization to function, are often used in negative, directive, threatening or even punitive ways. The change to a transformational style will require these characteristics to change, to be turned around, to be flipped upside down. This is enormously challenging for leaders who have traditionally been rewarded for their (moderate) successes. They have no visibility over the world they are expected to enter nor do they know or understand the competencies they will now be expected to exercise. The change to a transformational leadership style implies great risk.

Paradigm changes, if they if fact deliver what they promise, can be taught, accepted, and finally embraced. It takes great effort, however. A decision to make a change to a transformational leadership style will require communication, training, and coaching. It will require leaders to spend more time engaging with their reports, openly collaborating. It will also require the great effort to live and be true to the new reality.

Implications: the benefits of a transformational approach to safety are increasingly accepted. With the change, companies report increased productivity, quality, innovation, collaboration and internal communication, commitment to the business, happier employees – and the list goes on. Specifically regarding safety, employees actively take ownership of safety; compliance is increased but workers go beyond the rule if it is the right thing to do. Workers, managers and supervisors increasingly cooperate on safety related matters, finding new and better ways to identify and mitigate exposures. Punitive measures around safety tend to disappear. Injury reporting improves and the recognition of the importance of near miss reporting and analysis increases.

The result: improved safety performance.

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