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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

Transcendence: The expansive view

  • Gerard Seijts
  • |
  • Dec 2, 2019
Transcendence: The expansive view

Character is an indispensable component of sustainable leadership performance. Ivey research has identified 11 dimensions of leader character: accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, judgment, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In this blog, I explore the leader character dimension of transcendence.  For many people, the first person who comes to mind as an embodiment of transcendence – inspired and purposive - is Oprah Winfrey. Life magazine named her the most influential woman of her generation. However, to many people, transcendence seems like a funny word.  What exactly do we mean by transcendence?

People with transcendence draw inspiration from excellence or have a deep appreciation of beauty in such areas as sports, music, arts, and design. Some businesses—including Chicago-based Metropolitan Capital Bank & Trust—deploy works of art in lobbies and other common areas to provide exactly that kind of inspiration to their employees. But, does a business leader really have to be an aesthete, drawing inspiration from sublime works of art or the wonders of nature? While it may not be an obvious criterion, such inspiration often underscores great leaps forward in business strategies or in the design of products. For example, Steve Jobs took a calligraphy course at Reed College; it had such a profound impact on him that he insisted that his revolutionary Macintosh computer include a large array of custom typefaces. These calligraphy classes were largely responsible for the seismic shift in computing typeface that the Mac has been responsible for. Jobs discussed dropping in on a calligraphy course at Reed College and how it influenced design at Apple in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech (see 01:56 – 05:17).

So, how do we cultivate a transcendent culture within our workplaces, especially if they aren’t readily infused with works of art or other such features? Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, suggests that simply feeling appreciated in the workplace lifts people up. As such, by showing appreciation to our colleagues, we help to foster a purposive and inspirational atmosphere that prevents people’s perspectives and attitudes from getting too bogged down in the day-to-day grind of the job.  

People with transcendence see possibility where others do not. For example, as explained in the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, Nelson Mandela understood that the game of rugby could be at the vanguard of reconciliation and of South Africa’s return to the international community. Furthermore, those high in transcendence have an expansive view and effortlessly integrate long-term and broad factors. At the same time, transcendent leaders possess a healthy level of optimism that maintains their hope for a better future and fuels their impetus to seek positive change. Optimism is especially important in challenging times; optimistic people believe that not only is change possible— but more importantly— that they are capable of creating it. Former President Barack Obama exemplified this by harnessing the power of optimism in his 2008 campaign. Specifically, after delivering an inspirational message of hope and change in his address to supporters after decisively winning the Iowa Democratic caucuses, a watershed moment in his campaign for the nomination, optimism for change seemed to become Obama’s core brand. In fact, years later, after having left the White House, Obama continued to espouse this same message in a speech he gave for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Goalkeepers” event: “Your response has to be to reject cynicism and reject pessimism and push forward, with a certain infectious and relentless optimism”.

And, finally, people with transcendence demonstrate a sense of purpose in life. You have a strong sense of personal mission or orientation in life. You derive meaning from your work.  This tends to foster optimism and release creativity. It is important for each of us to have a sense of purpose, but it is particularly essential for leaders. Not only do leaders need to feel personally purposive, but they must ensure that their followers or those within their organization commit to a shared purpose. According to author, motivational speaker and organizational consultant Simon Sinek, great and inspiring leaders and organizations are successful because they focus on what the vast majority of their competitors do not: the “why” instead of the “what.” They generate and communicate a strong sense of purpose and it is exactly that to which their followers, employees, customers, etc. connect. The Walt Disney Company is perhaps the ultimate example of an organization with a clear purpose. Disney’s key to creating magical guest interactions stems from its common purpose: “We create happiness by providing the best in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere.” Jeff James, Vice President and General Manager, Disney Institute, wrote that: When our Cast Members understand that their primary goal is to create happiness they become empowered to create, what we like to call, “magical moments.” From park greeters to attraction attendants to those in backstage support roles – every decision they make regarding a guest interaction is focused on, “creating happiness.” When an organization is clear about its purpose, and articulates that purpose clearly to its employees, individual, departmental, and corporate actions become focused and better performance results.

To some leaders however, transcendence and its elements—inspired, appreciative, purposive, optimistic, creative, future-oriented—may be scoffed at as fluffy or simply “feel-good” sentiments when they just want to get the job done. But a lack of transcendence does impact the job: productivity wanes, retention diminishes, an organization’s vision narrows and becomes myopic, and results decline. This high-octane clip from The Newsroom, an American television drama series, poignantly captures what happens when individuals, organizations or countries move into a lack of transcendence. In it, Jeff Daniels, staring as Atlantis Cable News anchor Will McAvoy, goes on a public tirade and asserts America is no longer the greatest country in the world. Ironically, the clip offers another leadership lesson, one inspired by a quote from author Catherine Aird: “If you can’t be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning.” Do you and / or the teams or organizations you lead ever move from the example to the warning?

So, does a business leader have to be an aesthete, drawing inspiration from the beauty they find around them? Yes … if they want to be successful. Do business leaders need to see possibility where others do not? Check. Do they need to be optimistic, and foster optimism? Absolutely. Do they need to be creative, and foster creativity in others? Sure do. Although some of the elements of transcendence may seem distant from business leadership, they are all, in fact, integral when the dimension comes into play. Given the importance of transcendence to leadership success, consider the following two questions and think on how they can help you to develop this dimension of character:

  1. What or who has ever made you think beyond what you thought was possible? How did they do that?
  2. What experiences could you give yourself and your employees that would inspire them to “think bigger and more broadly” about what could be done to move your organization to a new, higher trend-line?

Pat Horgan, MBA ’82, explains how transcendence applied to his leadership and time at IBM.

You can read more about transcendence in the book Developing Leadership Character written by Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts and Jeffrey Gandz (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).