In my professional life I have had the opportunity to be guided by a diverse spectrum of leaders, and have also been afforded the opportunity to lead groups, both formally and informally in the workplace. The experiences I have had have undoubtedly informed what I perceive to important leadership attributes. I recently participated in a team activity where as group, we ranked what we thought were important leadership attributes, and were then invited to explore literature related to the study of leadership. During my participation in this activity, and upon reflecting on the literature, I have been able to delineate the type of leadership approach that I respond to. I have also gained a vocabulary with which I can properly discuss it. I now understand how the attributes I instinctively prioritized over others in our team activity aligned with characteristics of adaptive leadership as opposed to characteristics of transactional leadership.
During my collective and varied work experience, I have come to realize that what drives me to succeed and perform well in an organization, is the feeling of being valued. So, when prompted to rank what I though were the most important attributes of a leader, I placed attributes that would nurture my need to feel valued higher on the list. I placed caring, co-operative, competent, fair-minded, and intelligent in the top third of my list of 20 attributes (Helfer, 2019). When I consider the sum of these particular attributes, I imagine a leader who is willing to hear me, consider my opinions, and willing to collaborate. I’m left with a feeling that my work is valued, and that I’m necessary to the success of my organization. Even in the absence of extrinsic motivators such as promotion or monetary compensation, the feeling of being a valued contributor in the workplace serves as sufficient motivation for me to continue working hard for the greater good of my organization. It wasn’t until I read Natalie Khan’s (2017) comparative paper of transactional and adaptive leadership styles, that I became aware that the leadership attributes I inherently respond to, are those characteristic of adaptive leaders.
Kahn compared and contrasted several characteristics of adaptive and transactional leadership styles in higher education. The point she made that really resonated with me was when she compared a transactional leadership approach to a traditional student-teacher relationship; in that it was more akin to a leader-follower dynamic (Kahn, 2017). She was able to highlight why a transactional leadership approach might be less motivating than it’s adaptive counterpart in professional settings. She explained how the extrinsic ‘rewards and punishment’ system inherent to transactional leadership could be limiting in terms of it’s ability to actually motivate individuals to contribute (Kahn, 2017). Similar to what I have personally experienced, she explained how the practice of assigning grades, for instance, might be effective at persuading someone to study hard enough to pass a test, but would do little to motivate them to learn or apply knowledge beyond the level required to pass the test. In a professional setting, the results would be the same. Fear of reprimand, or termination might motivate an employee to perform the necessary functions to avoid such repercussions, but would do little to motivate them to contribute beyond what is minimally required. In my experience, employers who have used this transactional approach have been able to elicit only a minimal level of effort from myself. On the other hand, I have recently experienced leadership on the exact opposite of this spectrum.
I had an opportunity to work with a new program chair at my current organization who I now realize emulated attributes which I had ranked higher in my group activity, and which were also in keeping with a adaptive leadership approach. I already respected their intelligence and competence based on their demonstrated performance and contribution within my organization previous to their chair role. During my experience working under them, they were able to make me feel genuinely valued, by demonstrating care, and a desire for collaboration. Ideas were heard (not just from me, but from all team members), and we were able to work together to affect positive change in a short amount of time for our department. During this experience, I worked longer hours and endured a greater than normal workload to ensure certain project goals were met. It wasn’t simple flattery that motivated me to contribute; rather it was the common goal we both shared to positively impact our organization, combined with their ability to contribute, and willingness to hear input from qualified subordinates who indeed might be better versed in certain areas.
Kahn (2017) described how adaptive leaders will collaborate, seek input, and strive to identify and achieve common goals with those that they lead. It is in these areas where I have recognized that those attributes which I inherently respond to are indeed aligned with those of adaptive leaders.
Helfer, L. (2020). [Characteristics of admired leaders worksheet]. Unpublished raw data.
Khan, N. (2017). Adaptive or Transactional Leadership in Current Higher Education: A Brief Comparison. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i3.3294