Transformational Leadership in the Smart Machine Age

I was excited to see an email from my alma mater, Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology, inviting me for a thought leadership summit. I knew I wanted to go, but I also knew I needed preparation. 

This complimentary, invitation-only VIP partner event that is hosted by Dr. Saby Mitra, who was our faculty director when I finished my MBA in 2012. He is being joined Dr. Ed Hess, professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. 

The topic has been set: Transformational Leadership in the Smart Machine Age for Next-Gen Executives. The topic promises to cover four elements:  

  • Leadership
  • Transformational Leadership
  • Smart Machine Age
  • So how can next-generation executives be transformational?  


We all know what leadership is. Leadership is the ability to inspire people so they get inspired step up and do something that none of their peers or people in their level has done to the betterment of the organization or the community or the whole organizational set up. These activities further inspire other people to step up and do something similar, which eventually spreads contagiously throughout the organization and the whole organization is transformed. The overall results prove that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Leaders help team members in a variety of ways, including:

  • Training the team member in new areas & disciplines
  • Providing feedback that encourages correct behavior and reprimands wrong behavior
  • Helping each team member understand his or her strengths and weaknesses,  and helps them leverage that knowledge to execute day to day tasks
  • Helping team members get a mentor, who will help strengthen areas of weakness
  • Serving team members in an altruistic fashion, to help each contribute fully

We often get confused between management and leadership. Management is making things work in an optimal fashion, irrespective of whether it involves machines or humans. It is about bean counting and getting the most return on investment (ROI, productivity and efficiency. It is relatively easy to measure the efficacy of a machine or a group of machines or a system or a process, whether that involves humans or not. Managers optimize purely based on math, science and logic.

Leadership understands that humans have emotions, aspirations, unique qualities, characteristics, wishes, wants, desires, and needs. Leaders emotionally connect with people and help and inspire them step up in ways that help the organization and let them grow. Being a leader is often more giving than taking, often it is also called as being a servant leader, being a servant to the people you serve, so you help them accomplish their goals by removing impediments along their way, make it easy for them to do their job.

However, this doesn’t mean management is not essential. Leadership without management isn’t useful. Leadership must be backed by a powerful and fully capable management system that clearly defines objectives as well proper processes and systems. Good systems measure and reward the right behavior and the right metrics. Really, management and leadership are the two eyes of the organization.

Transformational Leadership

Having explained leadership, what is transformational leadership? The people that come to my mind right away include:  

  • Barrack Obama
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Elon Musk

  Barrack Obama is a transformational leader because he inspired many people, including African Americans and immigrants like myself. He created hope that with hard work and vision, anybody can become president of the United States. This is a country where the truly smart  and good people can do anything. This created a major impact, because for anything transformational to happen, it always starts with the human mind. What the human mind can conceive is what gets done, so Barack Obama with his actions, transformed the limited minds of many people into unlimited.

Mahatma Gandhi is a transformational leader because he fought the war in a unique way through non-violence, which annoyed the heck out of his opponents. He initiated the Salt March as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India to produce salt from the seawater in the coastal village of Dandi]. The 24-day march was a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly, and it gained worldwide attention which gave impetus to the Indian independence movement and started the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement. Had Gandhi taken to fighting war against the British with weapons and army, India would have become another Afghanistan. 

Elon Musk is a transformational leader because of his daring, outrageous, gigantic vision. He leads by example and through his own drive toward excellence. Musk is one who just rolls ups his sleeves and gets it done, whether it is buying ICBM rockets from Russia or building the world’s biggest factory ever. People are drawn to his companies by his incredible vision, dedication, and perseverance.  Musk typically works over one hundred hours a week, which lead to expression at SpaceX, “No matter how hard you work, someone else is working harder,”  and that someone is Musk.  As a result, employees of SpaceX and Tesla Motors are known to take initiative, work extremely hard, be productive, and most importantly, innovate. In all his ventures, Musk sets the bar for the rest of the industry, whether on earth or in space. Musk is a visionary and a genius, but perhaps his most outstanding qualities are his belief in his own vision, his drive, and his persistence.

From these three we can pick out some common threads:

  • Leadership in a gargantuan scale, and  a willingness to do things that have never been done.
  • Making huge goals come true
  • Executing consistently over a long period of time and creating giant economies of scale that results in new capabilities and products
  • Being willing to imagine audatiously. 

Smart Machine Age

We are definitely at a defining moment of our civilization, the tectonic plates of what we thought are the rules to live by, conduct business, to frame economic policies, facilitate global commerce etc, are shifting big time. We are at the cusp of a major change to everything. The pace of the change is only getting accelerated.

In the supply chain world, and even in my own business, I can put my finger on a few of them:

  • Consumers would rather buy online using mobile devices or computers than going to a store
  • Every organization and market sector has the potential to be disrupted  
  • People are becoming much more technology savvy, technology dependent, and more introverted
  • Every object is becoming smart and getting connected to the internet
  • The world is becoming a global village
  • The workplace is becoming multi cultural and multi ethnic. Diversity is good, but it also creates challentes.  
  • Automation is coming in a major way and that will change how jobs are done.

How can the Next Gen Executives be Transformational?

Tranformational leaders need to set audatious goals and have a grand vision. Maybe someone will end hunger or double the human lifespan. Whenever something big happens, it’s because someone was willing to start with a big idea.  Transformational leaders too will tackle and solve problems that have the potential to have a huge impact. It will take a transformational leader to solve the huge need for water in various parts of the world or tp eliminate our dpendencyon fossil fuel. These are problems that transformational leaders will tackle.

This was my prep before the summit. So what type of transformational leadership you have seen in your organization?How has that impacted you as an individual? How has that inspired you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.  

1 comment on “Transformational Leadership in the Smart Machine Age

  1. MrPhen375
    May 17, 2017

    We have gone through many leadership training. With such acquired knowledge and skills, coupled with a great product that works, we are now the leading market player.

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