Acing Transformational Leadership

Stephen T. Messenger

January 7, 2021

Roger Federer and Andre Agassi are two of the most successful tennis players of all time.  With over 2,000 match wins between them, they ruled the courts of their day and demolished their competition.  Interestingly enough, one loves the game while the other hates it.  Federer found his motivation through the joy of the playing while Agassi found himself frustratingly going through the motions.  Ultimately, this is a tale of two tennis titans and the difference between transformational and transactional leadership.

A transactional style of leadership is accomplished by leveraging rewards or punishments to encourage action.  Parents do this when they give an allowance to their kids for mowing the grass.  Businesses issue paychecks for performance.  Managers establish achievable goals and employees meet the standard; but that does not mean they are living up to their full potential.  A recent Gallup Poll found 54% of all American employees are “not engaged” at work.[i]  They put in the hours to meet the minimum expectation but simply do not have the desire to support organizational goals.  Even scarier, 14% are “actively disengaged” at work, meaning they spread their frustrations to peers. 

Andre Agassi was a transactional employee.   From an early age, he played tennis to please his father.[ii]  As a professional athlete, every match brought with it a desperate fear of losing.  His motivation was to avoid punishment (failure) and play for other people, not himself.  Think of your employee base.  They have standards to meet and a job to do.  How many are driven by fear, performance anxiety, not being fired, or the desire to just meet the minimum and go home?  How many are going through the motions, perhaps performing well but becoming dissatisfied with career and life?  This type of employee may seem fine on the outside or even may be doing well at work, just like Agassi, but also may suffer from depression or worse, just like Agassi.

Transformational leaders help others transcend individual interests for the good of the group. This leadership makes employees aware of the importance of their jobs and performance to the organization along with providing a sense of purpose and joy.  They provide opportunities to develop followers’ personal growth, motivating them to work to meet organizational goals.  Employees are not working solely for a paycheck (albeit important) or to avoid being fired (also important), but for the goals of the company through their personal contribution to the organization.  They feel a special bond with their group and connect with the mission, values, and importance of their job.

Roger Federer was a transformational employee.  He loved the game from the beginning and maintained his joy throughout his career.  He played with passion and, win or lose, maintained his work ethic.  He simply loves tennis.  He’ll play at home smiling with family and friends for the joy of the sport, not for winning or pleasing someone else.  In his interviews, you can hear the love affair he has with the tennis profession[iii].  He’s not out to set records but to love the game.

Not every employee can be a Federer.  However, great leaders can help employees move from a transactional towards a transformational mindset.  They do this by:

Communicating the Importance.  Stress the value of each worker’s task to meet organizational goals.  Every person in important.  T-Mobile states that employees are their #1 priority and the customer is the why.  Followers must know their job makes a difference.  Thank them for that.

Developing the Team.  Create opportunities for their team to grow and evolve.  This could be providing formal or informal education, leveraging individuals on unique projects, giving them a challenge, or simply sharing information with them.  Help them think broader and catch the vision.

Motivating Employees.  Be a charismatic leader, excited and enthusiastic about organizational goals.  If you aren’t excited, they won’t be either.  Demonstrate your confidence in their abilities to maximize potential.       

Making It Fun.  Work does not have to be boring.  In fact, it’s a leader’s responsibility to help people enjoy what they’re doing—acknowledging sometimes this is impossible based on task and personality.  Find ways to meet organizational goals while enjoying what you do.  This could be through organizing friendly competition, fun communications, and office games. 

Connect with People.  Know your employees.  Ask them about their past and future goals.  Find out what motivates them.  Care about their families.  Call when they are sick.  Lead with passion.

Realistically, no one is going to change overnight from transactional to transformational.  Leaders must see this as a journey fostered through deliberate planning.  Every interaction must be focused on building a transformational mindset and developing broader vision.  While challenging, this slow evolution will completely change how your organization acts, thinks, and performs.

Andre Agassi was a hall of fame tennis player with an amazing career and eight Grand Slam Titles.  However, his journey of playing for the wrong reasons led him down a dark path of depression and drug abuse along with a hatred of his profession.  In contrast, Roger Federer loves the game, has a peace at home, and is tied for winning the most Grand Slam Titles at 20.  Great leaders help followers find that purpose and passion in their work to move towards a transformational mindset.

By the way, Federer beat Agassi over 70% of the matches they played.

[i] Jim Harter, Historic drop in employee engagement follows record rise,, July 2, 2020.

[ii] Stuart Jefferies. Why did Andre Agassi hate tennis? The Guardian, October 28, 2009.

[iii] Roger Federer, Roger reflects: Federer for the love of the game, YouTube, September 10, 2016.

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