What Makes A Leader A Transforming Leader? (Part 3)


This is the final post in a three-part series about transformational leadership. Every leader can become more transformational by identifying and implementing the five practices discussed in today's post.

We, the people, elect leaders not to rule but to serve.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower

There is no denying that leadership and power are inextricably entwined, but the most powerful leaders are those who harness that influence to serve others. Such leaders are transformational. They apply who they are to the position they hold to raise their people and their organization to higher levels. Transformational leaders share five practices in common.

As you examine these practices, engage in a little "High-Low" self-assessment. Pick your strength (because all great leaders build on their strengths). Then focus on a practice that is not as strong and think about what you can do to make it more consistent in your life.

1. Transformational Leaders Are First And Foremost Themselves.

In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer relays a delightful tale about Rabbi Zusya. As Palmer notes, the story "reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, 

In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”

If transformational leaders have learned one thing it is this:

Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself.

This is Paul's admonition in Romans: “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3). Consider what the narrative of the Scriptures reveal about the uniqueness which God assigned you:

  • God had his eyes on you before the world began. Ephesians 1:4
  • He formed you in your mother’s womb. Psalm 139:13
  • He determined the time and place you would live. Acts 17:26
  • He gave you unique gifts and the ability to exercise them. Romans 12:6
  • He made you, YOU! Why would you settle for less. Romans 12:3

Lyndon Johnson was our 36th President. Bobby Baker was one of his key aids. Baker idolized Johnson. He began to walk the way he walked and to talk the way he talked. Baker tried to copy the way Johnson stood; he even named two of his children after Johnson. Did he work too hard to be like the man he so admired?

We miss out on the adventure of being who God made us to be when we try to be someone else. The point is not to become a certain kind of leader, say a Tim Keller, Thabiti Anyabwile, or Andy Stanley cutout. The point is to become yourself so completely that all your skills, all your gifts, all your energies are flowing toward who God made you to be.

We hear this as Paul admonishes Archippus, one on the leaders of the early church.

See to it that YOU complete the ministry that YOU received in the Lord.
— Colossians 4:17 ESV

Listen to others, learn from others, but be yourself.  Soren Kierkegaard’s words must be our prayer:

Now with God’s help I shall become myself.

2. Transformational Leaders Are Always Being Transformed.

Max De Pree was the longtime CEO of the Herman Miller Company, one of the most profitable Fortune 500 companies. Max was a great businessman who was also very intentional about living as a Christ-follower on the job. His books Leadership Is An Art and Leadership Jazz are must reads. At this writing, Max De Pree is 92. His voice is time-tested wisdom:

It is important to remember that what we do will always be a consequence of who we become.

Max might ask, "Who are you becoming?"

  • Luke describes the man our Lord was becoming: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Luke 2:52
  • Peter says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3:18
  • Paul exhorted Timothy: “Be diligent . . . so that everyone may see your progress.” 1 Timothy 4:15

Leaders transform others. Yes. But they also are being transformed. Here are three ways God does this in the leader's life:

(1) Leaders are transformed by being followers.

Eugene Peterson says “Leadership that is not well-grounded in followership — following Jesus — is dangerous both to the church and the world.”  Remember what Jesus said, "Apart from me you can do . . . NOTHING" (John 15:5). Not 50%. Not even 10%. Nothing. If we want to "lead like Jesus" we must follow Jesus.

(2) Leaders are transformed by preaching the gospel to themselves.

In Psalm 42:5, the Psalmist asks himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul . . .  why so disturbed” And then, as if he grabs himself by the shirt collar, he says--to himself, “Put your hope in God!”

The Psalmist was preaching to himself. This is the work of every leader.

  • "Jesus defines me, not my title."
  • "My worth is based on my relationship to Christ, not my Twitter followers."
  • "I don't need fame, I need faithfulness."
  • "I have value because God thinks about me even if no one else gives a rip about me."
  • "Why are you bummed out today? Put your hope in God."

What message are you preaching to yourself today? Take a cue from the Psalmist and remind yourself -- preach to yourself -- to anchor your worth, hope, and future in God.

(3) Leaders are transformed by becoming learners.

Transformational leaders are great learners. Great learners are great listeners. Great listeners ask questions more than they give opinions. Younger leaders often forget this. I suspect that is why Steve Brown says to young leaders: 

“You haven’t lived long enough or sinned big enough to even have an opinion on that.”

Point made. Transformational leaders learn. This was Nehemiah's approach. Before casting vision, before challenging the status quo, before empowering others, before encouraging them, Nehemiah said,

“Lord, forgive me! Lord, help me! Lord, transform me!

Transformed leaders are always being transformed. Where is God transforming you? Don't hurry past that question. Dwell on it. Transformational leaders transform people and their organization because they themselves are being transformed.

3. Transformational leaders take the long view.

Transformational leaders know that change takes time. Consequently, they take the long view. This point is often missed. A leader attends a conference, thinks he or she has the secret sauce and will change a policy, a plan, or a culture in a week.

That is probably not going to happen. Nehemiah’s wall took 52 days to complete, but he had the entire nation — and God — working with him. The Berlin Wall didn’t come down for 28 years.

You may have a wall to build or a wall to demolish. Both will take time. Remember . . .

  • Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison as part of his journey to transform South Africa.
  • William Wilberforce spent 53 years (his entire adult lifetime) to eradicate slavery in Great Britain. That transformation took his entire life.
  • Frederick Douglass in the 19th century and Martin Luther King, Jr in the 20th century labored long years to bring about social reforms.
  • The giants of the faith in Hebrews 11 never received what was promised, though they were commended for their faith (Hebrews 11:39)

Transformational leaders take the long view. They are, like Nehemiah, willing to wait patiently for the right time to act.

So . . . if it is not going well where you serve, if things are taking longer than you thought, if this leadership post is much harder than you thought, this is not a sign of God’s absence. Transformation takes time.

Mushrooms grow overnight. Oak trees grow over years. Don’t be a mushroom! Be an oak tree!

4. Transformational leaders wield power selflessly.

Power is the inescapable conundrum of leadership. Power is the ability to influence and control. As an influencing force it is wielded in contexts ranging from political, to ecclesiastical, to familial, to governmental. Power is conferred and earned. It comes with position, but even better with character and respect.  As Bennis and Nanus note:

Power is at once the most necessary and
most distrusted element [essential] to human progress.

Robert Caro, two-time Pulitzer-Prize winning author writes, that Power corrupts . . . but power also reveals.”

  • Power revealed Saul’s heart when he picked up a spear to pin David to the wall.
  • Power revealed the Pharisees heart when they undermined Jesus to promote themselves.
  • Power revealed Pilates heart when he traded Jesus (the truth) for Barabbas (a lie) in order to save his office.
  • Power revealed Jesus’ heart when he gave up his power that we might live.

Because Christian leaders are “servant leaders” many don’t like to use the word “power.” The word sounds too "secular," too avaricious, too selfish. But leadership is all about handling power. It is all in how a leader stewards the power entrusted to him or her. Watch Nehemiah: First, he came under power, then he used power.

  • First, he humbled himself before God. 1:4 — “O LORD, let your ear be attentive
  • Then he humbled himself before the Persian king. 2:5 — “If it pleases the king …”
  • Then he was given authority and power he used both to transform. 2:17 — “Come, let us build the wall.

While power is not the same as authority, the two seem inextricably linked. Consequently, how a leader manages authority can be a good gauge as to how a leader will wield power. Leaders are always in authority and under authority. Until a person is willing to come "under authority" that individual has no business being "in authority."  But transformational leaders know that once they are “in power” they leverage their power to serve others and to bring about the change God wants. 

What are you doing with power? Are you using it to serve yourself or to serve others?

5. Transformational leaders view their leadership as stewardship.

Whitney Houston had an angelic voice and a broken life. One of her most famous songs was titled, “One Moment In Time.” There is a line from that song that could be every leader's prayer:

Give me one moment in time when I’m more than I thought I could be . . .

That lyric is a thought in tune with God's Word. Life is short. It is just a moment, just a breath (James 4:14). Yet in that moment we can, by God’s grace, become more than we thought we could be. Great leaders grasp their moment in time.

  • Churchill had his moment in time — and he used it well.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr had his moment in time — and he used it well.
  • Nehemiah had his moment in time — and he used it well.
  • Esther had her moment in time — and she used it well.

Remember the words of Mordecai to Esther:

Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.

Those are God’s word to you. Who knows whether you have come [here] for such a time as this.” The greats of the past are just that -- past. Their time has come and gone.

  • The Apostle Paul is not here anymore.
  • José Manuel da Conceição is not here anymore.
  • William Wilberforce is not here anymore.
  • Corrie Ten Boom is not here anymore.  
  • Winston Churchill is not here anymore.
  • Frederick Douglass is not here anymore.
  • Nehemiah is not here anymore.

But you are! God has given you this moment in time. What will you do with it?

May God himself make you a transformational leader for His glory.

Take It Another Step

Look back over this post and engage in a little "High-Low" self-assessment. Pick your strength, because all great leaders build on their strengths. Then focus on a practice that is not as strong and think about what you can do to make it more consistent in your life. What practical step will you take today to improve as a transformational leader?

In Case You Missed It:

  • Part 1 -- To understand and develop transformational leadership one must dispel four leadership myths. Click here for the post.  
  • Part 2 -- Transformational leaders know there are three types of leaders and only one of these can be a transformational leader. Click here for the post.

You can also read the three parts in full here.


  1. "We, the people ..." from Leadership Through The Ages: A Collection Of Favorite Quotations. New York: Miramax Books. 2003. Page 28.
  2. "In the coming world . . ." from Let Your Life Speak, by Parker Palmer. Page 11.
  3. Bobby Baker from Master Of The Senate by Robert Caro. Page 392.
  4. "It is important to remember that what we do . . ." by Max De Pree
  5. "Leadership that is not well-grounded in followership ..." from Fuller Focus [Fall 2001], page 31.
  6. "You haven't lived long enough ..." (Key Life, “Hidden Agendas” May 16, 2016. www.keylife.org Accessed 8/29/2016).
  7. "Power is at once the most . . . " from Leadership, by Bennis & Nanus, page 316.
  8. "Power reveals . . ." from Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. Page xxi.