How Silo-thinking Spreads, Smothers Synergy and Suffocates Strategy
Meeting The Need For Transforming Leadership

Transformation or Reformation

Reformation 64815722_s Copyright_www_123rf_com_profile_iqoncepWhat’s the difference anyway?

That is the question I found myself asking. I was reading the Pulitzer Prize winning author, James MacGregor Burns’ book “Leadership” when I came across this statement; “… leadership of reform movements must be among the most exacting.”  (Interestingly, reform leadership would appear to be even more demanding than revolutionary leadership – but that is a whole different topic!) However, it was as I read on and came across the statement, “… reform leaders must deal with endless divisions within their own ranks” that my brain kicked into overdrive.

I instantly grasped the idea that it was this internal conflict that makes leadership so difficult. Simultaneously, I realised that any efforts to change your organizational culture, or to transform your business performance, or to improve your operating model, also generates internal conflict. In fact this internal conflict is what Change Managers call ‘resistance to change’ and see as an entirely natural phenomenon for all change initiatives.

Increasingly, possibly as the result of the disruptive force of smart technology and ever-improving Artificial Intelligence (AI), efforts to adapt and ensure an organization’s competitiveness and ability to survive are called transformation initiatives or transformation programmes. The word transformation is becoming ubiquitous, and so it seems likely that there must be a corresponding increase in demand for transformational leaders. Hence the question.

My trusty Webster’s Dictionary informs me that:

  • Transform means “To change of form of a) in outward shape or semblance; b) in structure or composition; c) in nature, disposition heart etc.; to convert.
  • Reform means “To forge again or anew: to make over. To change into a new and improved form or condition; to improve by change of form, removal of faults or abuses; to bring from bad to good; amend.

From this you could argue that the words are virtually synonymous. You might perhaps conclude that you cannot achieve transformation without going through reform. Indeed, familiar terms like restructuring, re-engineering and reorganising underscore that idea.  So, in the context of organizational change there is practically no difference: you could use the terms interchangeably.

This is significant because it suggests that transformation is, in effect, a “reform movement”. This has profound   leadership implications as it indicates that you cannot successfully transform your organization without reformative leadership. Indeed, Burns goes even further and states that, “Questions of strategy may be even more demanding of reform leaders.” When you think about it, that should not be surprising for most organizational change is inevitably the result of a new strategy, and certainly so when transformation is required. Yet, acknowledging this has potentially enormous consequences.

For starters, you need to ask whether your organization has “reform leaders”.  And you need to be ready for a negative response! The fact is that the high percentage of unsuccessful change initiatives, as well as failures to successfully introduce new strategies, indicates that it highly unlikely. Burns himself identified, “A crisis of leadership” and that was writing in 1978! Since then the pace and volume of change have exacerbated the problem.

Despite this, we continue to value what Burn identifies as “Transactional Leadership” and measure and reward leaders accordingly. Thus, we embed and perpetuate this approach, rather than seeking and developing the “Transformational Leadership” we really need. It doesn’t matter whether you call it transformation or reformation: If you really want to succeed, you have to change and replace your leaders with reform leaders or transformational leaders. Ultimately, you don’t have a choice.     


If you like what you have read contact me today to discuss how my ‘Every Individual Matters’ Model could help you value your people and provide the catalyst to help you create an organic culture where everyone cares and the business becomes our business, embedding continuous improvement that engenders ‘love at work’ and transforms – and sustains – organic business performance.


Bay Jordan

Bay is the founder and director of Zealise, and the creator of the ‘Every Individual Matters’ organizational culture model that helps transform organizational performance and bottom-line results. Bay is also the author of several books, including “Lean Organisations Need FAT People” and “The 7 Deadly Toxins of Employee Engagement” and, more recently, The Democracy Delusion: How to Restore True Democracy and Stop Being Duped.


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