What Makes A Leader A Transforming Leader?

Part One

To an extent leadership is a lot like beauty: It’s hard to define, but you know when you see it.
— Warren Bennis

He was 65 when he stepped into the national spotlight as Prime Minister. It was surprising that he was in leadership at all. Twenty-five years earlier Winston Churchill had led a disastrous military campaign with ghastly consequences: 250,000 causalities, including 45,000 deaths.

How would you feel knowing 45,000 soldiers (sons, husbands, fathers) went to their graves because you made a poor decision?

Churchill resigned his post. He stepped into the shadows. Many thought he would never lead again. But now Great Britain was engaged in a fierce conflict with Germany. It needed a battle-tested man to lead them through WWII. Winston Churchill was that leader.

The situation was bleak:

  • Germany was a superior force.
  • The British army was poorly equipped.
  • British allies were weak and losing the war.
  • Many in government doubted Churchill’s ability to lead.

Sir Edmund Ironside was one such doubter. On Friday, May 17, 1940 the head of the British Army was walking out of a meeting with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Ironside morosely opined to Eden:

This is the end of the British Empire.

Churchill saw things differently! Just the day before, Churchill was talking with his son, Randolph, while preparing for the day. Standing at the mirror shaving, Churchill wheeled around and said to his son: “I think I see my way through.” Randolph replied: “Do you mean that we can avoid defeat…or beat [them].” Without a pause, Churchill declared:

Of course I mean we can beat them.


What makes a . . .

What makes a leader a transforming leader?  Transforming leaders take the initiative to raise their people and their organization to a higher level. They refuse to accept the status quo. They are not satisfied to “keep the ship afloat”; they want to sail. They are not content to work within the existing organizational culture; they want to transform it.

Transforming leaders take initiative to raise people & their organizations to higher levels.

Like Nehemiah, transforming leaders set an example. They challenge the status quo. They give people a fresh vision. They empower them. They encourage them. 

The result: Walls are rebuilt. Detractors are silenced. Hope is renewed. Nations are reborn. Transformation!

If transformational leadership influences such all-encompassing change, how does a leader become transformational? It begins with releasing one's grip on four leadership myths. 


To understand transforming leaders we need to understand what leadership is — and is not. Here are four myths of leadership:

  1. Leadership is a rare skill.
    Actually, leadership is very common. As my friend Dr. Angie Ward is a fond of saying: "Leadership is a gift, a skill, and an art." It is complex, but it is not rare. You may be thinking, "I can't lead" or "I can't lead at that level." Think again.
  2. Leaders are born, not made.
    Yes, some seem “born to lead,” but the reality is that leadership can be learned. Leaders are made everyday in communities, on the athletic field, in businesses and in churches.
  3. Leaders are charismatic.
    Yes, some leaders are magnetic and mesmerizing. One thinks of Bill Hybels in the U.S., Jeremias Pereira in Brazil; Richard Coklin in the UK for example. But if you think one needs to be charismatic to be a leader, read Dedication and Leadership by Douglass Hyde. It will change your opinion forever. Or just read Acts 5:33-39. What what happened when a very level-headed leader by the name of Gamaliel took charge of a very volatile situation.
  4. Leaders exists only at the top of the organization.
    Not so. Leaders exist throughout the organization. Bryan writes that we need to distinguish between leaders “of” organizations and leaders “in” organizations. You may not be THE leader OF your church, but you can still be A leader IN your church. You may not be THE leader OF your team, but you can still be A leader IN your team.

Have you "bought in" to one of these leadership myths? If so, that mindset will hold you back from being all that God has made you to be. It will also keep you from seeing what some prospective leader could be. Transformational leadership begins when old mindsets end.


Take a moment to evaluate your attitude toward yourself and others. Have you been believing a myth? Have you refused to step up, tackle a challenge, or take on a project because you don't think you have what it takes to be a transformational leader? Or, has clinging to one of these leadership myths made you blind to the capabilities of prospective leaders around you. If so, let go of the myth. Reflect on these six words from Jesus and ask God's help to change.

With God all things are possible.
— Matthew 19:26

Part Two

Leadership is not tidy.
— John W. Gardner, On Leadership

Leadership, as a discipline, is a new kid on the academic block. Despite its infancy it has been readily championed, researched, discussed and debated. Some seek to bring clarity by reducing its complexity. John Maxwell is fond of declaring, "Leadership is influence, nothing more and nothing less."

While Maxwell captures the essence of leadership, taken in its entirety leadership is, as John W. Gardner notes, "not tidy." Leadership is as multifaceted as a diamond. At times it is as complicated as rocket science. For a moment, consider all the books, the definitions, the theories, and the programs that set for ideas about leadership.


There were more than 1300 book on leadership published In 2015. The online giant, Amazon, offered more than 57,000 leadership titles to peruse in 2016.

One would think with so many trees sacrificed to the cause, with so much ink spilled to enlighten our minds, we would have this thing called leadership figured out. Not so. Joseph Rost penned a scholarly work entitled, Leadership for the 21st Century. Rost examined more than 600 books on leadership. His conclusion:  

Rost also noted that many of the books written about leadership never define the concept. This is true. Next time you pick up a volume on leadership see if the author defined the term or simply assumed it. 


In their book, Leadership: Strategies for Taking Charge, Bennis and Nanus help us understand the kaleidoscopic nature of leadership:

Here is a brief sampling of attempts to define this mystery called leadership:

  • "Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader and his or her followers." John W. Gardner
  • "Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character." Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf
  • "Leaders provide a mental picture of a preferred future and then ask people to follow them there." Andy Stanley
  • "Leadership is mobilizing others toward a goal shared by the leader and followers." Garry Wills.
  • "Leadership is getting others to want to do something that you are convinced should be done." Vance Packard
  • "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • "Leadership is the influence of others in a productive, vision-driven direction and is done through the example, conviction, and character of the leader." Brady and Woodward

Despite a dizzying sample of definitions, more continue to be produced. Why? Because leadership is a constant effort in a changing context it looks similar and different every day.


Scholarly theories abound. This is due to the incredibly complex nature of leadership. Yes, "leadership is influence," but there are a variety of factors that summon it, a complex web of people who wield it, and a mountain of elements that have a bearing on it. Here is a sample of the various system of ideas offered to bring clarity to the subject of leadership.


I have read thousands of pages on leadership. I have studied it carefully. Like you, I have attended classes and conferences in an attempt to learn from brighter minds. The more I examine the subject, the more I can appreciate the conclusion of Bennis and Nanus:

Never have so many labored so long to say so little.
— Bennis & Nanus


MBA programs are ubiquitous on the college and university campus. The need for better leaders coupled with our increasing fascination with the subject of leadership has also led to a litany of leadership programs. Educational big dogs such as Harvard, Duke, Wharton, and Northwestern offer executive leadership development programs in addition to their degree and course plans.

Leadership development no longer starts nor stops at the university. GE claims the oldest corporate university in the United State. GE's Crotonville management training center has become a model for many companies. Agencies such as The Francis Hesselbein Leadership Institute are equipping leaders on various levels. Conferences abound and leadership development programs are becoming commonplace in high schools and churches.


When we consider the books, the definitions, the theories, and the programs, we might be tempted to say, “Why bother! It is too complicated,” but the fact is that we know leadership when we see it.  As Warren Bennis notes:

We do know leadership when we see it. We can agree with Rost that leadership is an influencing relationship between leaders and followers who intend real changes for their organization, whether that be a church, a business, a school, or a neighborhood. But not every leader looks the same. There are three kinds of leaders.



Laissez-Faire comes from the French, “to let the people do as they choose.” Laissez-Faire leaders don’t interfere. They let things take their own course. This is rarely a good plan. Consider Eli (1 Samuel 2:12-36). Eli and his sons were responsible to serve as priests for God. Though his sons were wayward and dishonored God greatly, Eli did not chastise them. He simply let things run their course with his sons and with the nation.

22 Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 23 And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. 24 No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. 25 If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death. 2 Samuel 2:22-25 ESV

Eli rebuked his sons, but he did not go far enough. He did not replace them. God asked incredulously, "Why did you honor your sons above me?" (2 Samuel 2:29). Eli let things run their course. The results were deadly. The nation suffered and God judged both Eli and his sons.

One has to question if a Laissez-Faire leader is really a leader at all. Leaders do interfere. They question. They challenge. They rally. They influence. They bring change.


Transactional leaders accept the existing structure. Their motto: "Don’t change it. Learn to operate in it" (Gardner, 122). Transactional leaders are fond of playing “let’s make a deal.” They are like King Rehoboam. Rehoboam said to his people, “You give me your devotion and in exchange for that I am going to give you just what you need to get by." His people wanted no part of that. They rebelled. His kingdom divided. The nation was never the same.

Transactional leaders trade money for service, kindness for obedience, and employment for a task. Transactional leaders give only what they have to and only when they get what they want from those they "serve."


Transformational leaders create a metamorphosis within the organization. They are like Nehemiah. Nehemiah set an example, challenged the status quo, gave vision, empowered and encouraged. He tackled the tough stuff, loved his people, and did not flinch when opposition arrived.

17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” 18 And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work. Nehemiah 2:17-18

What was the result of Nehemiah's leadership? Transformation! Hope was renewed. Walls were rebuilt. The nation was reborn.

What kind of leader are you?
  • Are you a Laissez-Faire Leader (Eli) — "Let's just let things run their course and see how it goes."
  • Are you a Transactional Leader (Rehoboam) — "You give me your devotion and then I will help you."
  • Are you a Transformational Leader (Nehemiah) — "I am here to serve you and together we are going to move things forward."

In reality, each of us is likely a mix of all three types. None of us always function at our leadership best. And no matter what type is predominant, each of us can become more “transformational.”

  • If you tend toward laissez-faire, you can begin to take charge.
  • If you find yourself making leadership trade-offs you can become more selfless.
  • If you are laboring to bring transformation you can get better.
The leader should lead with passion.
— Romans 12:8 CEB

Part Three

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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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!


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?


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.


Look back over this Third Part 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?


  1. "To an extent leadership is ..." from 4 Myths of Leadership from Warren Bennis & Burt Nanus.
  2. "This is the end of the British Empire" from Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945, by Max Hastings. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, page 26.
  3. "I think I see my way through . . ." from Winston's War, page 25.
  4. "Leadership is not tidy" from John W. Gardner, On Leadership. New York: The Free Press. 1990. Page 22.
  5. "Leadership is a lot like beauty . . ." from John Maxwell
  6. "Leadership is the process of persuasion ..." from Gardner, On Leadership, page 1.
  7. "Leadership is a potent combination of strategy ..." from Leadership Through The Ages, by Rudolph W. Giulani. New York: Miramax Books. 2003. Page 2.
  8. "Leaders provide a mental picture ... " from Launching A Leadership Revolution by Chris Brady and Orrin Woodward. Flint, MI: Obstacles Press, Inc. 2012. Page 5.
  9. "Leadership is mobilizing others ..." from Launching A Leadership Revolution, page 5.
  10. "Leadership is getting others to want to ..." from Launching A Leadership Revolution, page 5.
  11. "Leadership is the art of getting someone else ..." from Launching, page 6.
  12. "Leadership is the influence of others ..." from Launching, page 7.
  13. "Never have many labored so long ..." from Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus.
  14. "We, the people ..." from Leadership Through The Ages: A Collection Of Favorite Quotations. New York: Miramax Books. 2003. Page 28.
  15. "In the coming world . . ." from Let Your Life Speak, by Parker Palmer. Page 11.
  16. Bobby Baker from Master Of The Senate by Robert Caro. Page 392.
  17. "It is important to remember that what we do . . ." by Max De Pree
  18. "Leadership that is not well-grounded in followership ..." from Fuller Focus [Fall 2001], page 31.
  19. "You haven't lived long enough ..." (Key Life, “Hidden Agendas” May 16, 2016. www.keylife.org Accessed 8/29/2016).
  20. "Power is at once the most . . . " from Leadership, by Bennis & Nanus, page 316.
  21. "Power reveals . . ." from Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2002. Page xxi.