Who is it that Inspires the Leaders?

“Leaders inspire” is often an assumption and sometimes a plea, but I wondered who inspires them?

Whilst interviewing business leaders and managers for my book ‘Motivating People’, most sat quietly for some time before answering. Many said they didn’t have people who inspired them, but had some whom they respected. These appeared to be in three groups – Thought Leaders, International Icons and Corporate Leaders.inspiring leader

When I challenged them to consider anyone outside of work, again there was silence. Many then replied “I didn’t think about people outside of business who could be an inspiration.” More managers than leaders talked about an individual from a sport or a hobby they enjoyed and most named a global icon such as Nelson Mandela.


Is this it?

Another point I was pondering was this: if others did not inspire them, what helped them to be an inspiration? When I asked leaders this question – most responded that the answer was in their drive, enigmatic charm and ability to sell the positive. So is this what inspiration is?

In the business world, we often hear the term inspirational leader yet don’t adequately define it. Helping a team to be effective and happy perhaps? Some leaders and HR professionals I’ve met say it is difficult to inspire people to follow you, especially if you don’t have direct authority over them.

Yet many organisations rely on project teams and project leaders to work well. More often than not, project leaders who are in matrix management structures do not have ‘line management’ responsibility over those involved in the project, but they are expected to get the best from their project team.

So influencing, let alone inspiring, is difficult for business leaders plus those such as project leaders in a matrix structure. What can be done to help them? Below are some reflections I have drawn from working in elite sport and succeeding in corporate life.


Motivation quote | "Everybody needs inspiration"Inspirational behaviour

A common attribute of inspiration is a sense of positive energy to try new things and think beyond current boundaries. It is through this sense of creativity and believability that leaders find others will follow them. Perhaps leaders who are not naturally inspiring should consider how they can influence more and worry less about levels of control.

Fun is also a characteristic that that eases the wheels of change, and it will not be the same for everyone. As a leader it is important to be curious and understand what constitutes fun for others, because introducing a sense of fun can help to build a spirit of trust within a team. As Edward Deci said “Motivation is the energy for action”. Since motivation comes from within, then for a leader to inspire they need to influence the motivation of others.

Here are three ways that a leader can be inspiring to others:


  1. Challenge yourself to really listen

It takes courage to stand up to and challenge your own experiences, knowledge, ideas. Marshall Goldsmith in his book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’ writes about “listening with respect”. This means not daydreaming or composing your answer whilst others are speaking. By practising the skill of actively listening, other people will read from your body language that you are genuinely interested and connected.


  1. Wait, wait and wait some more before speaking

Goldsmith also describes a key challenge for leaders is to ask “Is It Worth It?“ when you are about to speak, because it is important to consider the reaction of those around you and the likely impact your question or comment will have.

The best leaders make it a point to not have their opinions heard right off the bat, but rather sit back and truly listen to what their teams have to say, maybe occasionally asking a question or two. You can get some amazing insights and inspire some great ideas just by sitting there and not contradicting (or agreeing, for that matter) with the opinions of others.


  1. Fully embrace diversity

Finally, inspiring leaders who develop great teams are often exceptional in going outside of their comfort zones to recruit people who will bring alternative thinking and expertise to the business. They believe that their contribution will advance the business forwards, and so bring confidence to others in terms of the viability of the business strategy.

These leaders intentionally seek diversity of opinions, and don’t recruit in their likeness – they don’t want to build an army of “yes” men and women. Rather they seek to innovate and evolve the organisation to reach new levels of performance that will benefit all.

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