Four Ways to be an Inspiring Leader

Four Ways to be an Inspiring Leader

inspiring leader

My colleague and friend Jim Kouzes has been studying leadership for three decades. Over that period of time he and his colleague Barry Posner have been asking people all over the world what factors make them want to follow a leader. Not surprisingly, being perceived as an inspiring leader is consistently near the top of the list.

Over the years, thousands of leaders have asked me: But what does it mean to be inspiring? Having worked with over 500 companies and thousands of leaders to create highly engaged workplaces, here is what I’ve learned about why leaders are seen as inspiring.

Inspiring Leaders Focus on Purpose

Inspiring leaders are focused on something bigger than just selling more or making the numbers. People want a vision of greatness that is about purpose.

Purpose can be having a unique relationship with customers as can be seen at places like Southwest Airlines and Westjet, where the purpose is to truly serve customers. The leaders who started both those airlines focused on the higher purpose more than the business purpose.

Steve Jobs was seen as an inspiring leader precisely because he was not focused so much on Apple’s profits as its cutting edge technology. Profits come from serving a need and inspiring leaders focus on the need more than the numbers.

Are you looking for inspiration on to keep your organization focused on social responsibility? Dr. John Izzo's keynotes can inspire your whole team.

Inspiring Leaders Share Their Own Purpose

Another critical factor is that the leader makes purpose personal. When Mike Eesley became CEO of Centegra Healthcare in Illinois, he had a vision to become a premier hospital through quality and compassionate service. He inspired people through a personal story about his own mother’s healthcare experience in a small community. Inspiring leaders share their own story.

For several years I gave keynote talks at a series of leadership events for Northrop Grumman. At each two-day session there was a leader in residence and on the first night they spoke about their own leadership story. Invariably, those leaders who shared their personal story of what inspired them were the most highly rated. Get personal.

Inspiring Leaders Make Other People the Hero

We tend to think of inspiring leaders as heroes, the ones who comes in to save the day. But it’s more important to make other people the hero. We are not inspired by people who tell us what a hero they are, we are inspired by leaders who bring the hero out in each of us.

Jimmy Blanchard, former CEO of Synovus Bank, loved to tell stories of people within the bank who inspired him. The best leaders focus on highlighting others making a difference.

Even more, help people see how they can inspire in their jobs. The role of the leader is to help every person see how their job and their opportunity to make a difference is even bigger than they know.

Stop trying to be Luke Skywalker, your job is to be Yoda!

Inspiring Leaders Think About Legacy

Finally, inspiring leaders are focused on the legacy they will leave behind not just what will happen during their tenure. Years ago an African tribal elder in Tanzania gave me the best definition of a leader I’d ever heard. He said a leader is “someone who worries about the future.”

Inspiring leaders show they are thinking about the future. That can involve corporate social responsibility, sustainability focus, or the impact your company might have on your industry.

Ray Andersen, former CEO of Interface, set out to change the standards around waste not only for his company but for the entire industry. He was worrying about the future and showed it!

Effective Leaders Do This

So here are four ways to be an inspiring leader:

  1. Have a purpose beyond profit and communicate it regularly
  2. Talk about your personal purpose and ground it in stories
  3. Make other people the hero, show them how they can inspire
  4. Focus on legacy beyond your tenure


Dr. John Izzo has spoken to over one million people, advised over 500 companies, authored nine best-selling books, and helped some of the world's most admired companies. He has been a pioneer in creating successful businesses and emerging work trends for over twenty-five years.

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