Fans of the multiple Emmy award-winning television series The West Wing enjoy a deep and accurate insight into the dynamics and impact of different leadership styles. At one moment the fictitious President Bartlett will be building common ground and consensus with foreign or domestic leaders — the next moment he and his staff will be counting votes for or against proposed legislation, and he will instruct his staff to “make the calls” to convince elected officials to show their support.
The first behavior is a great example of relational leadership, where Bartlett is seeking to collaborate in achieving a common goal, building trust, soliciting feedback and broadening support for his initiatives.
Transactional leaders, as seen in the second example, jump quickly into action with minimal consultation, believe that the presenting situation is both real and urgent and requires swift resolution; and personally direct activity and drive for immediate results.
So the question arises, which style is best?
Political Expediency versus Fundamental Development
Roll back 80 years to February 1945, in the final months of World War II. Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill gather for what has since become known as the Yalta conference. Roosevelt, known for building bridges and developing sweeping visionary plans (The New Deal etc.) sits with Churchill whose nation has been all but destroyed by Nazi bombing; and Stalin whose Russia has barely repelled Nazi invasion. Both European leaders are facing a bottomless pit of issues — starvation, dilapidated infrastructure, and huge war debt. Fundamental economic and democratic development is clearly necessary.
At the heart of the discussion is the post-war geography of Europe. The three leaders agree to install democratically elected governments throughout occupied Europe, and especially in Poland, overseen by the Soviets. But by March, Stalin had annexed eastern Poland to the Soviet Union, joining other annexed states. On March 2, the US Ambassador cables Roosevelt: “we must come clearly to realize that the Soviet program is the establishment of totalitarianism, ending personal liberty and democracy as we know it.” Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt privately admits he was overly optimistic about Stalin. Simultaneously, when Soviet Foreign Minister worried that the Yalta Agreement’s wording might impede Stalin’s plans, Stalin responded “Never mind. We’ll do it our own way later.”
Roosevelt and Churchill were clearly demonstrating relational leadership — and Stalin transactional. Stalin’s transactional approach resulted in an imposed communist government in Poland, lasting 44 years until the Solidarity movement stimulated reform and a transition to democracy in 1989.
It’s hard to consider one style of leadership right and the other wrong — yet clearly both were pursuing different goals. So we need to ask the question differently.
When is it Most Appropriate to be Transactional vs Relational?
Appropriateness means linking the style to the desired result; and whether the desired result is individually or collectively determined.
- Listening skills
- Willingness to step out of comfort zone
- Willingness to sacrifice own goals for the greater good
- Openness to new possibilities
- Many alternatives considered pre-solution
- Extended consultation process
- Longer-term focus
- Fundamental re-thinking
- Building of broad commitment to implement
- Innovative new solutions
- Solving the underlying problem
- Determination and drive
- Desire to trade short-term progress for uncertain long-term outcome
- Validated urgency of situation
- Pre-developed solutions
- Few alternatives considered
- Immediate action
- Off-the-shelf solutions
- Short-term focus
- Small number consulted
- Alleviating the symptom
What Makes the Most Effective Leaders?
The truth is that neither a transactional nor a relational style is best in all situations. What really matters is:
- Agility — can the leader move between styles and demonstrate the behaviors of both styles equally well?
- Appropriateness — does the style chosen align with the goals of the activity, meet the needs of the community being served (be they the electorate or shareholders), and minimize downside risk?
As we approach the presidential elections, remember that we should not judge our political leaders — or organizational leaders — based solely on whether they prefer a transactional or a relational approach. We should study history, and understand that what makes an outstanding leader is one who — in response to the uniqueness of their challenges and opportunities — demonstrates the most appropriate style for the common good and the agility to flex that style as needed.
- How do you behave as a leader? Mainly relational? Mainly transactional?
- How well do you consciously align your style with the needs of your constituency?
- How easily can you move between the two?
Our leadership assessment and development can help you and your fellow leaders make choices that align with your goals, and increase your agility to move between styles as appropriate.