Charley was devastated. He had lost both his wife and young son in a car crash when a drunk driver ran through an intersection. Charley was angry and despondent. That changed the day he met Maury, a young boy from the neighborhood. Maury’s family had very little money and could not afford to buy Maury a bicycle. When Maury saw a bicycle in Charley’s garage, he asked if he could ride it. Charley was reluctant at first, but let Maury “rent” the bicycle. The rent was an agreement that Maury would help Charley with some work around the house. Charley didn’t need the help, but he was lonely.
That simple encounter set off a chain of events that would change Charley’s life and the lives of other young children who came to Charley to rent bikes. In fact, Charley’s garage was filled with bikes donated by his friends. The rental agreement went from chores at Charley’s house to working for the entire neighborhood, especially the elderly. Charley taught a lot of the skills needed around the house. Many of the children eventually gained valuable trade skills and went on to good-paying jobs. Others went to college using the money they earned from their skills. No matter the path they chose, Charley’s kids devoted an hour a day to free labor for neighborhood families in need.
Charley became known for building a community of caring adults and children. But just as important, Charley was transformed from someone who had lost his way, to someone who found his purpose in life.
The term “transformational leadership” was first used by James Downton, a sociologist who studied charismatic leadership. Presidential historian James MacGregor Burns sharpened the concept when he said, “Leaders and followers make each other advance to a higher level of morality and motivation,” Clearly, Charley was being a transformational leader. He changed the lives of his kids, but they also changed his.
Sadly, most of our work with others today is transactional. We conduct our work as a process of exchange. Often we fail to engage at a deeper level of support for those we work with. In some cases, a transactional approach is appropriate. But there are many cases where we miss the opportunity to be transformational in our interactions with others.
You don’t have to be a leader to practice transformational change. But you do need to have a finely tuned sense of when to go beyond a normal transactional response.
Just imagine how we might become a society where we encourage the transition from transactions to transformations in our everyday lives. Just imagine how we can shift our focus from transactional scorecards of progress to transformational stories that provide a real sense of how things are going. Just imagine what our society might look like if our focus shifted from transactional to transformational leadership.
* * *
“Embrace each challenge in your life as an opportunity for self-transformation.” – Bernie Siegel (Author and surgeon who focuses on mind-body medicine)
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.