Its time to stop focusing on inspirational leaders - in praise of the ordinary leader


If you look through most lists of leadership qualities, you will undoubtedly come across a mention of inspiration. The idea is that a leader brings people together around an energising and unifying vision of the future. When asked to name leaders, you might suggest Winston Churchill or Barak Obama, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or Margaret Thatcher, Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandala. It all depends on where you're from and how old you are. In each case, these leaders are regarded as inspirational, having played transformative and inspiring roles in society, a country, and, in some cases, global events.


Yet, I find myself asking if focusing on these individuals is the best way to learn about leadership? I'm left wondering why we place such a premium on inspirational leaders? Why do leadership and management books highlight Steve Jobs and Jack Walsh as examples of transformational leaders? How many of us will ever be CEOs of these businesses? And, if we don't, do the leadership lessons we can learn from studying the lives of these leaders apply to us? What about ordinary leadership that happens daily and is necessary for the world to function and change to occur? To summarise, does effective leadership require 'inspirational' qualities? Is it time, at the very least, to re-calibrate what we mean by this misleading term?


Is it necessary for leadership to be inspirational to be effective? And, if not, is the alternative fear and intimidation? Is there a happy medium for all of us mere mortals in our world today who find ourselves in leadership roles and want to take on responsibility but lack the resounding oratory skills or magnetic personality to inspire great transformations? I believe there is a happy medium, and it begins with us letting go of the notion that all leaders must be inspirational or that this one trait alone makes someone a great leader.

My first clue that leadership did not include the ability to inspire came while reading Robert Caro's The Passage of Power. My overarching takeaway from this book was that, while JFK fit the inspirational leader model, it was LBJ's leadership that truly led to the key transformations in US political society. The passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These were exercises in leadership and the effective use of political power, but they lacked the hallmarks of inspiring leadership. I don't think you can read Caro's LBJ biographies and come away thinking LBJ was an inspirational leader. He certainly didn't fit my perception of transformation leadership. LBJ lacked charisma, was a bully, and was obsessed with power, yet he transformed US political society. Perhaps this ambition and desire to drive change is best summed up by this quote from Our Man: "But ambition is not a pretty thing up close. It's wild and crass and mortifying in the details. It brings a noticeable smell into the room. It's a man cajoling a bereaved widow to include him among her late husband's eulogists…."


What, if not inspiration? The example of LBJ may point to an exercise in coercive power, and I don't want to choose between transformational and coercive leadership. No, what I hope to demonstrate is that we place far too much emphasis on the characteristics of a person that may make them transformative—being charismatic, outgoing, and visionary. Yet, in a world that requires responsible leadership, which can draw on multiple perspectives, we might look for traits that focus on building consensus among stakeholders—a willingness to compromise and form alliances. Suppose we can broaden our view of what characteristics make a successful leader in the twenty-first century. In that case, we might ask how an individual's traits will come together to motivate a team to achieve its goals. This emphasis on motivation and the combination of characteristics distinguishes it from inspiration subtly but significantly.


Changing our minds about which leadership qualities to emphasise will be difficult. The concept of leadership is closely connected to inspiration. The term "leadership" first appeared in print in 1821. That is pretty amazing in and of itself. The modern form of the word evolved from Latin and Indo-European germanic, taking on many different meanings along the way, including providing direction, transforming, and facilitating, to name a few. When you consider this journey, you can see why inspiration is important in leadership thinking. With a growing recognition that leadership must facilitate and enable change rather than control it, the importance of inspiration becomes even more apparent. After all, the Cambridge Dictionary defines inspire as "to make someone feel as if they want to and can do something."


Unfortunately, the emphasis on creating inspiration overlooks the most important aspect of what a leader must do and their characteristics. Leadership is about how individuals come together to deliver an objective or a piece of work. Viewing leadership as a process of motivating individuals provides far more practical advice for a leader. The definition of motivation is to cause someone to behave in a certain way or to make them want to do something. A leader who focuses on motivation can use positive reinforcement and inducement to cause someone to act in a specific way. Or they can provide a hopeful outlook for the future and create a positive environment for success by encouraging and shaping the team environment. However, you can also motivate people by asking them to solve a specific problem by instilling conflict and a sense of challenge. The trick is to be aware and sensitive to the people in your team and organisation. There will be times when a big vision for change is needed, while certain circumstances will call for a more practical approach to problem-solving.


The term "leadership" is ambiguous. It can be both positive and negative. We tend to view leadership as positive when it is inspirational, yet that's not always possible. Inspiration won't get you very far if you're in charge of a massive company restructuring. The ability to maintain and sustain motivation, on the other hand, is critical. Motivation, in my opinion, is a completely different beast than inspiration. You can be motivated in a variety of ways. I was inspired after failing and being told I wasn't good enough to go to extraordinary lengths to prove that I was. I, too, have been motivated by praise. In short, by looking for motivational leaders, we mean leaders who exhibit various characteristics, ranging from the ability to inspire to a willingness to drive change, build consensus, and call out poor behaviour.


A second advantage of shifting our perspective is that the pool of potential leaders grows exponentially. We have changed the characteristics we are looking for by increasing the diversity of our pool of leaders and shifting our leadership expectations from inspirational to motivational leadership. Indeed, as the challenges confronting a business or organisation change, it should encourage organisations to build and refine leadership teams regularly. This shift liberates us from the idea of a celebrity leader or the central figure responsible for transforming an organisation, allowing us to look for leaders in unexpected places. Identifying new sources of leadership talent is especially important as society evolves. We need to bring in leaders whose characteristics and traits may differ from the transitional model adhered to by many boards and HR departments.


By focusing on what leaders do to motivate individuals rather than how leaders 'inspire' individuals, we have a better chance of bringing in different skills, backgrounds, and perspectives to leadership, enhancing the effectiveness of leadership teams. A leadership model that expects a leader to inspire and, as a result, to be an amazing communicator will necessarily hold back individuals perceived to be too introverted or poor communicators. Given what we already know about workplace bias against women, people of colour, and LBGTQ+ individuals, any changes we can make in what we expect from leaders will help to increase the opportunities and diversity of our leadership groups. Beyond a shift in the diversity of individual characteristics, increasing the diversity of approaches and ways of thinking in leadership roles is also important. Although the diversity of thought is important in helping organisations avoid crises, leadership teams frequently look and feel the same.


So, what does all of this mean in practice? It's not just semantics; it makes a real difference. I recall attempting to be inspirational from a personal standpoint in one of my first leadership roles. To rally the team around a shared vision of the future and what we could achieve. In reality, I doubt I made much of an impression, especially given my lacklustre oratory skills! It took a while, but I realised that I could have more success with the team by looking at the individual motivating factors and demonstrating how my plan, where I wanted to go, worked with their motivating factors. Sometimes they didn't, and a different, more assertive discussion was needed to motivate action, but for the most part, focusing on motivations gave me more flexibility in how I approached team leadership. Especially once I stopped trying to be a transformational, inspiring leader and started being myself.


We live in a world that is becoming increasingly complex by the day. Our focus on leadership outliers, such as Nelson Mandela or Jeff Bezos, has an undue influence on our understanding of what good leadership looks like daily. I will never be Jeff Bezos, but I can be a responsible, motivating leader in my community and my workplace. I'll have a better chance of accomplishing this if leadership thinking and training are more focused on developing the skills I'll need to motivate others, build effective teams, and accept responsibility for the decisions we make. There will always be a need for transformational and inspirational leadership. Still, there is an even greater need for ordinary day-to-day leadership that motivates, brings people together, and allows organisations and society to tackle our most difficult challenges.