The Unconventional Qualities of Inspirational Leadership

When considering the traits of a great leader, it's common to think of vision and boundless energy.
The Unconventional Qualities | Amwork

However, the path to true inspiration requires four distinct qualities that may not immediately come to mind. These attributes are not exclusive but rather attainable by those willing to delve deep into their authentic selves.

Editor's Note, January 21, 2021: We are deeply saddened by the untimely passing of Gareth Jones. Gareth, alongside co-author Rob Goffee, crafted this award-winning HBR article in 2000, which later led to a bestselling book of the same name. Their groundbreaking insights reshaped leadership philosophy and practice, highlighting the critical role of authenticity in leadership.

If you wish to render a room of executives speechless, try posing this question: “Why should anyone want to follow your leadership?” Over the past decade, we've posed this very question while consulting for numerous companies across Europe and the United States. The reaction is always the same — an abrupt, contemplative silence, punctuated only by the sound of nervous knees.

Executives have good reason to feel a sense of trepidation. In the realm of business, effective leadership hinges on the ability to rally followers, a challenge made more daunting in today's era of “empowered” individuals. Leaders must not only grasp the essentials of effective leadership but also find ways to connect with and galvanize their teams towards organizational objectives. However, the abundance of leadership advice can be overwhelming. In the last year alone, over 2,000 leadership books inundated the market, some even attempting to repackage the wisdom of historical figures like Moses and Shakespeare as leadership gospel.

What's missing from the plethora of leadership guidance is a comprehensive truth. It's a given that leaders require vision, authority, energy, and strategic direction, but our exploration has unveiled four unexpected qualities that inspirational leaders consistently embody:

  • Revealing Vulnerability: They exhibit vulnerability, showcasing their approachability and humanity.
  • Mastering Soft Data: They excel at collecting and interpreting qualitative information, guiding them in knowing when and how to take action.
  • Empathetic Engagement: Inspirational leaders passionately and realistically empathize with their teams, demonstrating a profound concern for the work their employees perform.
  • Embracing Uniqueness: They leverage their distinctive qualities to connect with others.

While these qualities may not be prerequisites for holding a top position, they are indispensable for those aspiring to lead effectively. It's worth noting that our theory on leadership essentials is not solely focused on outcomes. While many leaders we've studied have indeed delivered outstanding financial results, our research centers on those who excel in inspiring people — capturing their hearts, minds, and souls. While not the sole determinant of business success, any seasoned leader will attest to its undeniable value, perhaps even its indispensability.

Our journey into leadership research commenced a quarter-century ago, encompassing three key avenues. Firstly, as academics, we explored the prominent leadership theories of the past century, culminating in our own model of effective leadership. Second, as consultants, we rigorously tested our theory with thousands of executives in global workshops and through extensive client interactions. Lastly, as executives ourselves, we validated our theories within our own organizations.

The Power of Vulnerability in Leadership

When leaders choose to reveal their vulnerabilities, they provide a glimpse into their authentic selves, warts and all. This can involve acknowledging quirks like Monday morning irritability, occasional disorganization, or even shyness. Such admissions hold immense power as they demonstrate leaders' willingness to own their imperfections before rallying others for a shared mission. This act of revealing weaknesses builds trust and encourages participation, fostering an atmosphere of collaboration. In contrast, leaders who attempt to convey perfection in all aspects send a signal that they require no assistance, inadvertently deterring potential followers.

Moreover, baring one's vulnerabilities creates a sense of solidarity between leaders and their followers. Consider the case of a senior executive at a global management consultancy who bravely took the stage to deliver a major presentation despite severe physical shaking caused by a medical condition. The audience, typically critical, responded with a standing ovation, appreciating the courage displayed in embracing vulnerability. By doing so, the executive conveyed, “I am just like you—imperfect.” Sharing a flaw is impactful because it underscores the authenticity of a human being. Richard Branson, the iconic founder of Virgin Group, renowned for his business acumen and UK hero status, exemplifies this trait. Branson openly displays vulnerability during public interviews, demonstrating unease and frequent fumbles. While it may be considered a weakness, it's uniquely Richard Branson. Revealing a weakness serves the purpose of showing followers that leaders are genuine, approachable, human, and humane.

Furthermore, exposing a vulnerability provides leaders with a shield of protection. Human nature dictates that if leaders fail to disclose any weaknesses, observers may fabricate them. Celebrities and politicians have long understood this dynamic, often intentionally giving the public something to discuss. They recognize that if they don't, the media might concoct more damaging narratives. Princess Diana, for instance, openly discussed her eating disorder in public, but her reputation remained intact and even improved.

However, it's crucial for leaders to exercise caution when revealing vulnerabilities. They must selectively choose which weaknesses to disclose, and this is a finely tuned art. The cardinal rule is to avoid exposing weaknesses that could be perceived as fatal flaws—those jeopardizing critical aspects of their professional roles. For instance, a new finance director at a major corporation should not suddenly confess an inability to comprehend discounted cash flow. Instead, leaders should opt to reveal peripheral weaknesses, perhaps even multiple minor ones. Paradoxically, this admission can divert attention away from more substantial shortcomings.

Another well-established strategy in the realm of leadership is to select a weakness that, in some respects, can be reframed as a strength, such as being a workaholic. When leaders choose to unveil these controlled imperfections, they run the risk of revealing very little, and little harm befalls them. However, a crucial caveat exists: for the leader's vulnerability to resonate, it must be perceived as genuine. Authenticity is the linchpin, and without it, leaders risk inviting ridicule and contempt instead of support. Our research repeatedly uncovered scenarios where CEOs feigned absentmindedness to mask their inconsistencies or even dishonesty. This not only failed to gain followers' trust but also alienated them, as followers vividly recalled the true circumstances or statements.

Becoming a Master Sensor: The Art of Leadership Intuition

Inspirational leaders possess a unique skill: they are adept at sensing when to reveal vulnerabilities or differences. We refer to them as “good situation sensors.” These leaders excel at collecting and interpreting soft data, enabling them to detect the subtle signals and underlying currents in their environment without needing explicit explanations.

Take Franz Humer, the CEO of Roche, for instance. He is a prime example of a skilled sensor, finely tuned to shifts in climate, subtle cues, and unspoken opinions that often escape less perceptive individuals. Humer attributes the development of this skill to his time as a tour guide in his mid-twenties, managing groups of over a hundred people. He learned to anticipate group dynamics and predict outcomes with remarkable accuracy. Remarkably, great sensors possess the ability to discern unexpressed emotions and accurately assess the state of relationships—a complex process with impressive results.

Consider a human resources executive in a multinational entertainment company. Faced with a distribution issue in Italy that could impact global operations, he contemplated how to temporarily withhold the information from the Paris-based CEO while seeking a solution. However, the CEO beat him to it, calling and asking, “Tell me, Roberto, what's happening in Milan?” The CEO had already sensed something was amiss, relying on his network and an innate talent for picking up information not explicitly directed at him. He could read the silences and decipher nonverbal cues within the organization.

Notably, the most remarkable business leaders are often exceptionally refined sensors. Take Ray van Schaik, the chairman of Heineken in the early 1990s, as an example. Despite having different personalities and no direct working relationship, he possessed an uncanny ability to intuitively understand the wishes of Freddie Heineken, the third-generation family member and major shareholder. This skill was honed through years of collaboration on the Heineken board and extended beyond mere understanding.

However, the skill of sensing carries its own set of challenges. Leaders must tread carefully when making nuanced judgments, as overextending their boundaries can alienate their followers. The political landscape in Northern Ireland serves as a poignant illustration, with leaders like David Trimble, Gerry Adams, Tony Blair, and George Mitchell needing to gauge their actions to avoid losing public support during peace initiatives. In the business world, mergers and acquisitions also require leaders to convince followers promptly that such moves are beneficial; otherwise, value and goodwill can quickly dissipate, as seen in the sale and purchase of Orange by Vodafone and France Telecom.

Yet, there's a danger associated with sensing skills. Sensing inherently involves projection, where one attributes their own thoughts to others and situations. This projection can obscure the truth, akin to a radio picking up multiple weak and distorted signals. During situation sensing, heightened sensitivity can lead to misinterpretation. For instance, an employee witnessing a distracted boss might prematurely conclude that they are about to be fired. Leadership intuition must always be balanced with reality testing. Even the most gifted sensor may require validation from a trusted advisor or a member of their inner team to ensure their perceptions align with reality.

Mastering Leadership: Tough Empathy and Uniqueness

In today's leadership landscape, there is often a great deal of emphasis on leaders showing concern for their teams. However, true leaders don't need training programs to convince their employees of their care. Authentic leaders possess a unique quality known as “tough empathy.” It's not the soft and superficial kind of empathy found in management literature; rather, it's the ability to give people what they need, not necessarily what they want. Organizations like the Marine Corps and consulting firms are experts in tough empathy, pushing individuals to excel, with the motto of “grow or go.”

Tough empathy requires leaders to strike a balance between respecting the individual and focusing on the task at hand. This is especially challenging during times of crisis when leaders must selflessly support those around them while also knowing when to step back. Tough empathy can be demanding, as leaders must do things they may not want to do. Still, it's a vital component of effective leadership.

Furthermore, tough empathy often compels leaders to take calculated risks. When Greg Dyke assumed leadership at the BBC, he openly communicated the need for increased expenditures to compete in the digital world. His transparency and ability to secure employee buy-in allowed him to make necessary and challenging decisions while maintaining commitment.

Lastly, leaders who practice tough empathy are those who genuinely care about something or someone. This deep passion naturally fosters authenticity, a fundamental prerequisite for leadership. People seek leaders who are not just fulfilling their job obligations but who genuinely care about both the people and the work.

Another hallmark of inspirational leaders is their capacity to leverage what makes them unique. Using these differences to their advantage is a critical quality. Effective leaders consciously employ their distinctive qualities to maintain a certain social distance, signaling their separateness while drawing their followers closer.

Leaders can manifest their uniqueness in various ways, from their dress style to their physical appearance. However, qualities like imagination, loyalty, expertise, or even a distinctive handshake can also be employed to set leaders apart. While anything can be a difference, effectively communicating it is crucial. Unfortunately, many people hesitate to convey what sets them apart, which is a disadvantage in a world where networking and rapid team formation are paramount.

Some leaders are acutely aware of their unique traits and use them to their advantage. Sir John Harvey-Jones, the former CEO of ICI, artfully distinguished himself through qualities like adventure, entrepreneurship, and uniqueness. Others may not initially recognize their differences but learn to harness them effectively over time. These differences can be both apparent and subtle, with some leaders displaying a hard edge or using understated but powerful techniques to maintain their distinctiveness.

Ultimately, inspirational leaders utilize their separateness to motivate their teams to perform at their best. They understand that leadership is not a popularity contest and that a bit of aloofness can inspire followers to push themselves further.

Balancing Uniqueness: The Pitfalls of Overdifferentiation

While leveraging one's uniqueness is a vital leadership quality, executives must be cautious not to overdo it in their quest to emphasize their distinctiveness. Overdifferentiation can pose significant risks, with the potential to alienate leaders from their followers, leading to dire consequences.

One peril of overdifferentiation is the loss of contact with followers. When leaders create excessive distance between themselves and their teams, they compromise their ability to sense and care for their people effectively. A notable example of this phenomenon can be observed during Robert Horton's tenure as chairman and CEO of BP in the early 1990s. Horton's conspicuous display of his remarkable intelligence sometimes led others to perceive him as arrogant and self-centered. This excessive differentiation contributed to his eventual dismissal, just three years after assuming the position.

Leaders must strike a delicate balance between asserting their distinctiveness and maintaining a connection with their teams. It's imperative to avoid creating a chasm that hinders effective leadership, making it essential for leaders to recognize when they might be overdifferentiating and take steps to bridge the gap when necessary.

Leadership in Practice: Embracing Authenticity with Skill

All four qualities described here are essential for inspirational leadership, but they cannot be applied mechanically. They must be an inherent part of an executive's personality. This is why “recipe” business books that prescribe mimicking the leadership style of others often fall short. No one can simply replicate another leader. Therefore, the challenge facing aspiring leaders is to authentically be themselves but with greater skill. This can be achieved by becoming increasingly aware of the four leadership qualities outlined here and by adapting them to develop a personal leadership style that resonates with their unique traits. It's crucial to remember that there is no universal formula, and effective leadership will vary depending on the context. Moreover, the results of authentic leadership are often subtle, as illustrated by the following story about Sir Richard Sykes, the highly successful chairman and CEO of Glaxo Wellcome, a leading pharmaceutical company.

During his tenure running the R&D division at Glaxo, Sykes conducted a year-end review with the company's top scientists. Towards the end of the presentation, a researcher questioned him about one of the company's new compounds, sparking a brief but heated debate. This back-and-forth continued for another 20 minutes, with the researcher revisiting the topic. In a loud voice, the researcher declared, “Dr. Sykes, you have still failed to understand the structure of the new compound.” Sykes's temper flared visibly, and he stormed to the back of the room, displaying his anger before the entire intellectual brainpower of the company. He exclaimed, “All right, lad, let us have a look at your notes!”

This Sykes anecdote offers a valuable framework for discussing the four leadership qualities. To some, Sykes's irritability might appear as an inappropriate weakness. However, in this context, his display of temper underscored his deep commitment to discussing basic science, a core company value. In essence, his willingness to express anger enhanced his credibility as a leader. It also showcased his ability to be a keen sensor, as his anger was perceived as defending the company's values rather than stifling the debate. The story further illustrates Sykes's capacity to empathize and identify with his colleagues and their work. By conversing with the researcher as a fellow scientist, he forged an empathic bond with his audience, demonstrating that he genuinely cared, albeit with a touch of tough empathy. Lastly, the story highlights Sykes's willingness to exhibit his differences. Despite being one of the UK's most successful business figures, he retained his distinctive northern accent, didn't conform to the standard English demeanor, and radiated passion. Like other genuine leaders, he acted and communicated naturally. In sum, Sykes was being himself—with remarkable skill.

In the ever-evolving realm of business, we will continue to dissect the fundamental elements of authentic leadership. There will always be as many theories as there are questions. Nevertheless, among all the facets of leadership exploration, few are as challenging as grasping the development of leaders. The four leadership qualities presented here serve as an essential first step, collectively conveying the message to executives: “Be authentic.” The advice we offer to the executives we coach is simple yet challenging to implement: “Be yourselves—more—with skill.”

Matteo Bianchi

Matteo Bianchi


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