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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Designing Transformative Experiences: A New View of Leadership

Special Reports

Designing Transformative Experiences: A New View of Leadership

Brad McLain
  • What are we doing?
  • Why and how are we doing it?
  • Who are we becoming while we do it?

I begin my leadership workshops with these three questions.  The first two are necessary and normal questions.  But the last one is a deeper gut-check that takes us into the realm of transformative leadership.  It opens the possibility of intentionally designing the kind of change experiences that our employees, employers, and the world at large is demanding from us today.  I call this “Experience Design Leadership.”  Its holy grail is the ability to design transformative experiences.  

Transformative leaders have always stood out as our very best CEOs, managers, teachers, and coaches.  They seem to have an innate ability to create experiences that motivate, inspire, touch our hearts, provoke our minds, and stretch us beyond ourselves.  Transformative leaders change lives.  What if we could unveil this mysterious ability and understand how transformative experiences really work? What if we could intentionally design “the transformative” into our lives and the lives of others? And what if we could harness this for leadership? Imagine the possibilities for leading the way to more meaningful work and a more inspiring world.

Over twenty years in my research as a social scientist, I’ve been exploring transformative experiences. I have been privileged to work with exceptional leaders —contributing to NASA and the Space Shuttle Program, collaborating with Jane Goodall on her world conservation efforts, working on leadership psychology with some of the largest and most influential companies in the world.  It has culminated in a new view of leadership outlined in my book, Designing Transformative Experiences, where I lay out the basics of Experience Design Leadership and the secrets to changing lives in powerful ways.  It all begins with a recognition that the nature of work has dramatically changed since COVID.

Behind the staggering statistics of increased talent attrition, epic shifts towards hybrid-flex work, and recruiting challenges for new-hires who want to work remotely, there is a craving for something more.  I can’t tell you the number of leaders and employees I’ve spoken with who are desiring more self-determination, fulfillment, and whole-heartedness in their work.  How can we become the kind of leaders who “get it, ” who can adapt to it, and use it to create work worthy of top talent and of our own precious time and energy?

Experience Design Leadership invites leaders to recast themselves as experience designers. When we do this, we see our teams and colleagues as more than groups of people working together.  We see our teams as experiences and we see ourselves as the lead designers of those experiences.  This view instantly changes who leaders are and what leaders do.  It opens up a new psychological toolkit for empowering those we lead with the fire of self-propelled identity growth.  Here’s a preview of how it works.

In my research, I define transformative experiences as learning experiences that have an identity impact, changing our sense of self in important ways – who you believe yourself to be or who you aspire to become.  For Experience Design Leaders, this begins with a 3-step framework: 

Invite your people to their personal discomfort zones: stretch assignments, challenging tasks, promotions, and other risk/growth opportunities. How to create effective risk invitations, mitigate risk biases, and fail forward when needed are all in the toolbox of a transformative leader.     

Help teams narrate their work: We all convert our experiences into narratives, something we are hardwired to do.  Transformative leaders harness this to frame and shape work into personal meaning-making.  “Storifying” strategies for individuals and teams are essential tools in your transformative toolkit.   

Empower identity growth: When our experiences and resulting narratives are important enough, they become part of our identity narratives – the living stories that inform who we are, what we can do (and what we cannot do), and who we want to become. When an experience alters our sense-of-self, it becomes a transformative experience, and it has the power to change our lives, the lives of others, and the world beyond – the stuff of legendary leaders.  

Finally, Experience Design Leaders also recognize a profound truth at the center of transformation:

Transformative experiences do not happen to us, they are created by us . . .
whether we realize it or not.

This means the source of change is ultimately found within us, not externally.  Therefore, transformations must be co-created between mentor and protégé through shared experience.  For transformative leaders, this is an opportunity to move beyond merely leading organizations, projects, and processes to more clearly see the people in our spheres for who they are. And this is an opportunity to reexamine who a leader is supposed to be.  So, ask yourself in your own leadership role, ‘who am I becoming while I do the work that I do?’  And begin to answer that question with a new view of transformative leadership.  


Written by Brad McLain.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Designing Transformative Experiences: A New View of Leadership
Brad McLain
Brad McLain, Ph.D., DESIGNING TRANSFORMATIVE EXPERIENCES: A Toolkit For Leaders, Trainers, Teachers, And Other Experience Designers is the founder of Designing Transformative Experiences LLC, with over twenty years of experience working with organizations and leaders of all stripes. McLain is on the faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder and serves as the Director of the Center for STEM Learning and Director of Corporate Research at the National Center for Women in Information Technology. He routinely works closely with companies including Apple, Google, Morgan Stanley and dozens of others on the subject of identity, inclusive culture construction, and change leadership.


Brad McLain is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.