Are You Ready to Adopt the Four Traits of an Inspirational Leader?

Are You Ready to Adopt the Four Traits of an Inspirational Leader?A new year creates the right conditions for experimenting with change and can be a great time to put new practices in place that will help you become a more powerful leader. But you need to know how to invest your motivation and energy to turn that vision into reality.

Two academics turned consultants conducted a comprehensive review of the most influential leadership theories over more than two decades to discover what they call four “unexpected qualities” that inspirational leaders possess. Then, they tested them with thousands of executives through consulting relationships and implemented the same theories in their own organizations. While effective leaders will also need vision, business acumen and strategic direction, these four qualities, they argue, are what enable leaders to capture hearts, minds and souls. In other words, to get people to actually want to follow you.

Looking for inspiration

“The ability (to inspire people) is not everything in business,” write the authors of Why should anyone be led by you? Robert Goffee, founding partner of Creative Management Associates and Gareth Jones, former visiting professor at the IE Business School in Madrid. “But any experienced leader will tell you it is worth quite a lot. Indeed, great results may be impossible without it.” These are the surprising traits they found in inspirational leaders.

  1. They reveal their weaknesses. Being honest with others about your own limitations and challenges, as well as that you don’t have all the answers all the time, helps create a culture of trust and collaboration. If instead you signal to others that you know everything and can do everything on your own, they are more likely to let you do just that. Of course, there is a caveat here. You must be authentic in the weaknesses you reveal but you also don’t want to be seen as hand-wringing or incompetent. “The golden rule is never to expose a weakness that will be seen as a fatal flaw – by which we mean a flaw that jeopardizes central aspects of your professional role,” the authors write. Sharing more tangential flaws, such as difficulty putting names to faces or needing someone to proofread carefully for you can show vulnerability without making people question if you are fit to lead.
  2. They know how to read “soft” data. You have likely witnessed the opposite of this with people who just “don’t get it.” They can’t read the room, don’t realize when they’ve offended someone and don’t pick up on another’s distress or need for help. Leaders who people want to follow are highly perceptive and keep their eyes and ears open to help them understand the mood of those above and below them on the org chart. There’s a caveat here too. Sensing a mood or “reading” what your boss needs from you involves a certain degree of projection, and that is colored by your own internal workings. “Even the most gifted sensor may need to validate his perceptions with a trusted adviser or a member of her inner team,” Goffee and Jones write.
  3. They empathize. The authors quickly dismiss fake shows of caring and empathy but place real value on leaders who genuinely care about the people they lead and the work those people do. They advocate “tough empathy” that involves pushing people to do their best and giving them what they need to succeed rather than exactly what they ask for. “At its best, tough empathy balances respect for the individual and for the task at hand,” the authors advise. That can be easier said than done because tough empathy puts you in a similar spot to a good parent; needing to provide candid feedback and hold people accountable to rise to their abilities.
  4. They capitalize on their uniqueness. Especially on our way up the ladder, as we strive to incorporate so many leadership learnings into our personal toolkit, it can be daunting to display the attributes that make you unique. But ultimately those are likely to drive your greatest successes. Inspirational leaders lean in to their unique attributes and find a way to make them work for them, even those that are sometimes a bit quirky. Goffee and Jones even found that inspiring leaders sometimes use such traits to set themselves apart a bit, making clear that they are not your average manager.

One concern they raised about a lot of how-to leadership books is that inspirational qualities – those that truly make others want to follow you – are specific to each of us as individuals. With awareness of these four qualities, you can focus on how to make them your own and consider the advice Goffee and Jones offer to the senior executives they counsel: “Be yourself, with more skill.”