- IMD Business School

Organizational transformation begins with the leader

It’s no secret that transformation is a critical factor for organizational survival today. But when we hear or think “transformation”, do we think it’s organizations that need to transform, or people? And if we think its people who need to transform, do we think it’s other people, or do we look inward?
5 min.
November 2022

While there are some excellent toolkits on how to transform organizations, some aspects of organizational transformation often begin with the transformation of leaders themselves.

I often ask executives to reflect and describe what aspects of themselves they have transformed in the past year, and what triggered or helped the transformation. I have collected hundreds of responses to these questions. The answers are often unique, and yet some familiar themes emerge.

Self -transformation seems to begin with awareness of one’s self, then leaning into some of the paradoxes that represent the hard truths of leadership. For example:

  • I used to be confident publicly, but privately I felt I was a fraud or imposter, and there was always this fear that I would be found out. The fraud in me stopped me from speaking up, or having my voice heard.
  • As I gained more experience, I found I was getting more and more self-righteous in my opinions, and my team was always looking to me for answers. Eventually I said, “Enough, figure it out for yourself.” I realized how seduced I was by the feeling they needed me. I realized I need to express more doubt if they were really going to take responsibility.
  • I often found it difficult to influence my peers on any particular topic. I would take a consultative approach, and to my surprise, one person told me they found my consultations manipulative. They didn’t trust me. I realized that there was some truth to that. I just wanted their buy-in. Being called out on that was a defining moment for me.

The second theme that ran though the responses was diving into the complexity of specific leadership situations. Some leaders learnt how to transform themselves by exploring some of their most painful team and organizational experiences.

  • I could feel that I was being judged negatively by so many people. They were putting the blame on me, and I knew it was a situation that I could not win. I was labelled a betrayer by some, and some board members stopped talking to me or avoided me. Yet if I had chosen a different path, other people would have felt betrayed. In the end I did not know what I thought, I just wanted to stop feeling so bad. Understanding that this is what organizations do, as well as the concepts of negative capability and containment, helped me let go of some of the pain. I am not the first to experience this, and I won’t be the last. While it still took time, I think I started to act differently as I let go of the pain, and understood that I was carrying the pain for others.
  • I was always so surprised when people would not tell the truth. They would pretend they were not hurt when I knew they were, they would tell me that they didn’t mean X, when I knew they did mean X, and then they might accuse me of being too sensitive. I realized and came to accept that organizations are not set up for authenticity. No matter how much we all seek the truth and no matter how well intended people are, working with other ambitious and talented people will produce passive aggression, gaslighting, unfounded fears, and projections. Truth is hard work. Learning how to use those responses to turn around situations was my key transformational experience.

The third theme that emerged was how transformation was triggered by recognizing scripts, routines, and beliefs that have become institutionalized across life. The transformation was more about letting go of things – whether they are scripts or spreadsheets, processes or roles. We all get attached to things as we travel through life, and the second half of life is a time when we know which things to let go of.

  • I thought I was a fairly resilient person, relentlessly pushing and challenging people around me to go harder. At some point, after a failed promotion attempt, I had to stop and ask why – why wasn’t I promoted, why could they not see how capable I was? In the end, my transformation was about letting go of some deeply held scripts about needing to win and achieve. Those scripts had served me well until mid career, but now a different side of me has emerged. It’s still very challenging. I’m realizing that resilience is not just about pushing things back onto others and being the tough guy – it’s about seeing the larger purpose, holding, containing, and letting go.

Many people use the metaphor of a caterpillar and the butterfly to represent personal transformation. But this metaphor defines a natural transformation that is programmed to occur at a particular life stage. A transformational leader is a person who dives in as a means to enact their own transformation. They make choices about what they want to explore, make sense of, and let go of.

Growth is inevitable. Transformation is a choice. It’s always harder to change other people than it is to change yourself.


Research Information & Knowledge Hub for additional information on IMD publications

Discover our latest research
IMD's faculty and research teams publish articles, case studies, books and reports on a wide range of topics