The Way We Think About Leadership Is All Wrong


In 2017, I found myself in the Mashvingo Provence of Zimbabwe, soaked to the bone, being laughed at by a group of seventh grade girls. If it helps you feel better about my predicament, I was laughing as well. It was a time of great joy! A community was being radically changed in front of my eyes and the life of these girls was about to take a dramatic turn for the better. 

Why you ask? In a word, water. The closest water source was five kilometers from the school and village. Water was gathered for the school twice a day and the task was handled exclusively by the girls, who had to miss class and therefore were falling further and further behind in their education.

As far as I know, their closest water had always been five kilometers away, and I suppose that the girls had always been tasked with the long walk to and from the “dam” (in reality a wide mud hole) to fetch water for the school twice a day. 

My contact on the ground, it seems, had been the first person in several generations who believed in the idea that things could be different. His name was Alex. He is my hero, and his leadership still inspires me today!

As we sat near the new bore hole, in the shade of an acacia tree, I asked my dear friend why I was there. He clearly didn’t need me to accomplish this ambitious goal, he was doing all the work, and I was supposed to be the leader. In his own unpretentious and soft-spoken way, he told me that I had to get the village leaders to understand the why before they could be ready for the how. He said, “You are here because you can help me help the community believe that things can be different.”

I was laboring within the “Transactional Model of Leadership.” Like most leaders, we see the need to make a change, so a decision is discussed amongst the highest levels of leadership. A roll out to the team is scheduled. Sometimes the affected team members are asked for feedback.

Carrot and stick strategies enforce that change. Everybody loses, because this kind of change effort will fail 67% of the time according to Harvard Business School. (Don’t blame me for this one!) I call this “How” or solutions-oriented thinking. This process will drain the life’s blood of your team.

Instead, consider implementing a transformational model of decision making. Who you are at your core starts to shift (we need to keep our girls in class), and you notice the need for change. 

You look for the people closest to the frontlines and ask them for input and creative ideas (dream with your team), then you make a plan. Change is initiated and benchmarked on key initiatives. Have your team celebrate milestones and adjust as necessary.

Fear is the biggest obstacle we need to overcome as leaders to make the leap to being transformational. It can be a scary thing to let your team know you don’t have all the answers. However, if you can leave the “Sage on the Stage” mentality behind, and employ the idea that none of us are smarter than all of us, the dividends are huge! Like my friend Alex, don't start with "HOW" instead use the formula w? + tm = h ™.

This is the secret to the formula: w? (why questions vs. how questions) + true motivation (a worthy goal) = how things get done! 

Because my friend Alex was transformed as a leader in his community, he led the effort to bring in my team to drill a well. But it was never about the well for Alex… It was about improving the opportunities for girls in his community. A worthy dream! 

As for the water, the girls thought it would be fun to take the 250 lb., 5’10” bearded guy from America to the dam to fetch water. We all carried five-gallon buckets, which my counterparts filled with 40 pounds of water and gracefully balanced on their heads as we trekked back to the village. I, on the other hand, managed to return wearing about 20 pounds of my water while providing a great deal of levity for the young ladies. 
Here are three steps you can use today to become a transformational leader who transforms communities:

  • Get Unvarnished Feedback
    Look for a mentor, a great teacher, or loved one who can give you an honest, perhaps even brutally honest, assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. If all else fails spend a couple of bucks and get a good personality inventory. I prefer the “Leading From Your Strengths Profile.”
  • Know Thy Self
    Start by taking some time to understand your life as a story (self-reflection). Ask, “Who am I?” and “Why am I like this?” This exercise will give you insight into your current self, as well as let you see how you approach your future.
  • Walk Through the Process
    At Rogue Leadership, we take people through the process of Core Change – Dream – Apply Effort – Transform Others. If you have made it this far you are already considering your core change. Next think through what worthy dream you can create for your leadership journey. Then apply effort to make that dream a reality!
Action steps you can take today
  • Go to and find a mentor; it is a free service and the mentors are very helpful.
  • Additional reading by the author: Ancient Wisdom for Gaining Clarity 
  • Book Recommendations: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell; The Third Door by Alex Banayan