From the Inside Out: Becoming a Transformational Leader

Posted in: PSA Partnership

When Joe Ehrmann, who played eight seasons as a defensive lineman with the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s, looked back over his years of experience playing football, he realized he’d had two distinct types of coaches: transactional and transformational. “You either transact with people for your own personal needs, or you invest in the lives of people to help elevate them,” he explained.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Ehrmann played football and lacrosse at Syracuse before being drafted by the Colts in 1973. He went on to be an All Pro and, a member of the Colts’ famous “Sack Pack,” which chalked up 162 sacks in three seasons through the mid-1970s. He is a co-founder of the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House, Building Men and Women for Others, and Coach for America. His book, “InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives,” came out in 2011.

Ehrmann spoke recently at the PSA Partnership seminar series, bringing his powerful message about leadership and how it can be applied to business. After all, he noted, business is all about relationships.

“Relationship development is probably the single most critical element of leadership,” Ehrmann said. Building and maintaining those relationships, whether they are with your employees or with customers, is all about “your capacity to connect,” he added.

In Ehrmann’s experience, all transformational leaders must first look inward. “Leadership isn’t about some kind of external strategy,” Ehrmann said. “Leadership comes from within us. It’s always from the inside out. An InSideOut coach is one who has done the arduous interior work to answer such critical questions as, ‘Why do I coach? Why do I coach the way I do? What does it feel like to be coached by me? How do I define and measure success?’”

Translated to business, that framework looks like this:

  • Why do you lead? Is it about you or is it about those you are leading?
  • Why do you lead the way you do? Are you using best practices, or are you just imitating the way you were led?
  • What does it feel like to be led by you? All transformational leaders, Ehrmann says, have some kind of empathic connection to the people that they’re leading.
  • How do you define success? What is the measurement you use to evaluate it?

Ehrmann developed this perspective and framework after reflecting on the abuse he suffered as a child. “For 40 years, I would get up every morning and plug into the shame of what happened to me,” he explained. Only after his football career did Ehrmann realize the full extent of what he’d been through and how he could use it to help others.

“Much of this is built around something called attachment research,” he explained. “Attachment is about the capacity to build and maintain relationships.”

Ehrmann explained that forty years ago, a psychoanalyst in Great Britain studied what we then called juvenile delinquents. He started to make the connection between the way these children were parented and their outcomes in life. He asked the question, ‘Why is it that some parents have the ability to allow their children to attach to them in a way that optimizes their intellectual, social, and emotional development? Why do some parents have that capacity and others don’t?’

Thirty years of research indicated that the most significant predictor of a parent’s ability to optimize their children’s potential is when the parent had looked inside him- or herself and integrated and processed the good, bad, and ugly of his or her own life.

“What the research showed was that it didn’t matter how suboptimal or abusive your own childhood might have been — you weren’t destined to repeat that in the lives of others once you made sense out of your own life,” Ehrmann said. “The integration of our life experiences leads to coherence, and coherence is foundational to healthy relationships. It allows you to honestly and openly connect with other human beings.”

How does that connect to leadership? Ehrmann explained, “We took that research and said if that’s true in a parent, then it’s got to be true in a leader, and it’s got to be true in a coach or manager as well.”

Anyone, Ehrmann explained, can look inside themselves and become a better leader, regardless of age or station in life. “Social neuroscience can now prove that our brains are relational organs,” he said. “Relationships can change the form and function of the human brain, and it can happen at any time, any age. We all have this neuroplasticity, and all of us have the capacity to bring about our own personal transformation.”

And experiencing that personal transformation is what enables you to transform the minds of the people you lead, Ehrmann explained.

As he looked back over his own life and experiences, Ehrmann assigned grades to every coach he’d had from age 10 to age 37. He only found three that, in his opinion, qualified as “transformational” rather than “transactional.” Those transformational leaders, “understood the power, the platform, and the position they had to speak into the life of someone who was following them,” he said.

To learn more about Joe Ehrmann, visit him on the web at Coach for America, read his book InSideOut Coaching, or watch his TED Talk. And don’t forget to join us for the next PSA Partnership event — on the topic of “Bogus Balance” with author Deirdre Maloney — which will be held January 31, 2017.