How inspiring leaders work

JFK, leadership Catarina's World

Successful leaders have the power to inspire, motivate, and positively influence people. Well practiced leadership contributes to job satisfaction, motivation and productivity. JFK knew how to do it. Watch Stacey Bredhoff explain how he thought and communicated: 

John F. Kennedy was an inspiring leader who, as shown in the video, knew how to communicate. Men went out of their way to please him and women fell in love with him. Forgetting about the falling in love aspect, what is special about him and other inspiring leaders? 

What characterize a great leader?

  • A strong set of values and openness, trust and true respect for others
  • Genuine humility and not afraid to show vulnerability
  • Regularly reflect and have an unquenchable thirst for learning
  • Bend rules, take calculated risks and sometimes guided by gut-feelings and tolerate this in other people
  • A certain amount of flexibility to adapt to circumstances and make real strides forward
  • Accessible and informal which is a very powerful motivator for their colleagues
  • Not only skills and training are valued but focus is heavily on attitude, because, without the right attitude and motivation, nothing worth while will be achieved

So why do these traits produce results?

Simply because pay is only one component of job satisfaction. Other equally important factors are respect and prestige and making staff feel good about themselves, their jobs and the company they work for. In other words inspiring leadership produces results by contributing directly to fulfilling many of people’s emotional needs. Consequently it’s also fundamental for a leader to have people skills and emotional intelligence.

Passion to inspire

Unless you are passionate and inspired about something you can not inspire others. But even that’s not enough if you don’t manage to create and convey a memorable vision that people identify with and want to be part of. A good way to make your vision memorable is to tell stories to illustrate it.

It’s not about you – it’s about them

Your colleagues are asking themselves what’s in it for me? Answer them and don’t make them guess, because if you do there could be misunderstandings. People should feel they own your vision and understand where and how they fit in.

Bring everybody into the process

Employees, customers and investors should all be part of the process of reaching the vision outlined. It’s your job to solicit input, listen to feedback and incorporating what you hear into your vision. That way you make people feel important and that they are doing something meaningful.

Convey optimism and hope

Everybody wants a better future. Churchill gave people hope during the darkest days of World War II. Optimism has a ripple effect throughout an organisation so you have to use positive and optimistic language.

Encourage and praise people

Praised people flourish just as when you criticize staff they shrivel up. By encouraging you connect with them. Genuine praise diminish doubts and spirits soar. And that’s exactly the kind of people you want to surround yourself with. Happy, optimistic and ready to go the extra mile to make your vision come true.

An interesting fact is that by inspiring your people you become the kind of person they want to be around. Customers will want to do business with you, employees work with you and investors back you. And it all starts with learning how to inspire and motivate. You want a company full of positive energy and buzz where people cooperate and encourage innovation and growth because they identify with what you are trying to achieve. And don’t forget the importance of fun. In successful companies people work hard but enjoy themselves while doing so. It’s a key innovation driver and as a leader it’s your job to inspire staff to enjoy what they are doing.

Video: usnationalarchives – Picture: City of Boston Archives 

107 responses

  1. Great post Catrina.

    The engagement with the listener (staff, follower) is a critical component of a great leader yet all too often it is one that is either overlooked or simply not given the attention required particularly in a business where it can often be assumed through hierarchy. i.e. I'm the boss therefore people will listen. The reality is that only the mechanical response of hearing can be expected, the 'listening' implies a conscious level of engagement that stimulates follow on thoughts and actions in support of the leader and their vision….it is here that here that the real value is added, people become motivated and leaders truly differentiate themselves from the managers within organisations by inspiring their listeners to take action.

    This is the first blog I've read this week and it's set me up for the day….thanks!!

  2. Another good post, Catarina.

    In my view, great leaders inspire through setting the example for others to follow and not being "above the crowd" in their manner or dealings, and being able to tell the story of where they want to take everyone in such a way that it is clearly visible to all, is enticing and believed to be achievable, albeit with extra effort.

  3. A well composed inspiration leadership article, with two great examples of inpirational leaders. It included almost all elements of inspiration leadership quaities in a simple way. Despite the last paragraph speaks about a fact that is easy to beleive in it did not back that with enough evidence and examples from business life.
    The question remains are inspirational leaders really successful in driving results. or in just gathering people emotionally around them.
    I still like the article.

  4. Good point. I still think that Richard was a talented business man with born enrreprureurial strengths.
    While some of the inspirational leaders I know of had taken them selves into unnecessary strugles failing to sell them selves to the wider world, just like Nehro, Tito, Nasser. They have not achieved the dreams of their followers but on the contrary has cause delay in achieving dreams that would have otherwise been realized by natural evolution.
    I think the qualities you listed are great and encampassing, But there is a secret quantitave blend that makes it work. For example flexibility, how flexible one should be in the face of adverse conditions. Some inspirational leaders have gone too far in flexibility and some has been insufficiently flexible and both has failed a good Example is Nasser who recognized flexibility is needed but late. and Sadat who was so flexible and igonored the need to sell the objective to all stakeholders.
    Shall we still call them leaders? or shall we consider them rather lacking the complete and right blend of qualities proportions?
    A great debate and I still like the concise nature of this article.

  5. Wonderful and informative… I only have one question… How then do incompetent people get to be on top? I have seen many times when Managers use the work of their teams to promote themselves, giving no credit, all blame and leaving the teams disgruntled, to say the least. It seems that those 'leaders' are somehow fooling those above them, and so on and so on. I really wish that every person who is in charge of others had the basic desire to be a 'leader', but it does not seem so. Too many of us are working under those I describe, wishing to work under those you describe.

  6. Catarina: I enjoyed your article. I look for pieces, such as this, that I can take at least one item and apply it right away. And this article does just that.

    Leaders do not need to know everything, but they must display confidence to locate the answer. Also to be a leader you need to have passion, hunger and desire.

    All leaders have an ego, that needs to be removed as they lead. It is ok to have an ego, but must be suppressed as you lead. Leaders that cannot separate their ego will have a difficult time having followers.

  7. Nabil leadership is a huge subject. Who is a leader and who is not?

    Stalin, Tito, Nero and so forth were tyrants who exercised the leadership of fear. So if we exclude that category and instead focus on people who lead as opposed to scaring people to do what they want, the subject becomes a bit more manageable.

    Then we also have to differentiate between leaders and managers which basically boils down to leaders make people identify with and want to be part of making their vision come true and managers telling people what to do and people do so because they have to.

    Far too many "leaders" today are in fact managers which has detrimental effects on not only the company they work for but their staff and society as a whole.

  8. Great post Catarina.

    Focussing on what others need and desire and delivering it with passion and conviction is incredibly powerful and is what people really want in times of difficulty or change.

    Glad to have discovered your blog.


  9. I agree Tito, Salin, Nero, Hitler were probably managing by terror. Nasser was not. People loved him or at least the majority did.
    You are right leading is about identification with people and vice versa. Creating the social identity is the major leadership achievement in my opinion. He has demonstrated for 18 years the traits you listed, amazingly that was in the fifties and sixties. But you are right he had a gange around him that was spoiling his pure performance as a leader by tyranic practices. I agree with you leaders sometimes are not recognized as CEOs or Managers. They are sometimes in positions away from managers but have this great influence on others. Mother Teresa (spelling) is a good example of servant leadership that did not had any power of decision on others.
    Great discussons. I am still in the joy of your article and the comments on it. Thanks.

  10. Leaders who inspire will find employees following them willingly and voluntarily. Rule by fear and intimidation will isolate a leader and s/he will never get the facts on which to make critical decisions. When times are good, poor leaders can get away with treating employees badly. When times are good the good ones will flee.

  11. I love your statement, "People should feel they own your vision and understand where and how they fit in." When your employees embrace your vision as their own then your company's successes are also theirs which is quite motivating. I hope to offer this sense of ownership to my employees when I expand.

  12. Excellent post on leadership. You've summarized everything essential to leadership in one subhead "It's Not About You, It's About Them." Not being afraid to help others succeed is surely the best path to leadership, isn't it? Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  13. Catarina, Of all the fantastic posts you have written, this is my favorite. I have printed it out and will use it for my own inspiration and to inpire my son as he matures on his way out in to the real world. As an advocate for emotional intelligence skills, this article hits home about all those non acadamic or non technical skills that can lead an individual to the heights of success. Thanks.

  14. Another inspiring post Catarina. I've shared it where I can. Have you ever thought of writing a book? or have you already? I'd read it! 🙂

  15. Catarina,

    Great post about how to essentially be a mentor – not just a manager. Making sure your employees feel valued, can only have a positive impact on their productivity. Ruling by fear and intimidation is counter-productive. I have worked in both types of environments and I am sure it is no secret that I prefer the former. The highest compliment I ever received from someone I managed, was when she referred to me as her mentor. I knew that at least from her perspective (and hopefully the others I managed too) that I had been successful in accomplishing my goal of creating and maintaining a team environment where the team members actually wanted to help each other and work together to achieve our department objectives.

  16. Another great post Catarina. I read research done a few years ago and it said a leader like the then MD of Kimberly Clark typified a leader. One of his qualities was humility which the study said was far better for the company than having a charasmatic leader. The reason was that it allowed employees to shine rather than just have the focus on the leader.

  17. Yes Diane, leadership is an issue that attracts most people's attention and everybody has views on it. All human beings seem to have a definition of what is a leader as well as leadership.

  18. When you read the qualities outlined in your post it all seems so simple. The fact is, it isn't. Most people in a leadership role forget to really apply what is good for all they touch and affect to accomplish a goal. It starts and end outside of ourselves. That is what all the qualities really speak to. Thank you for taking the time to remind me and others of that fact. :)))
    My recent post Where Does The Time Go?

  19. "It's not about you, it's about them." I think that may be the most important aspect of the makeup of a great leader. I have been a "boss" most of my working life. I find that it is absolutely mandatory that you make your employees feel important and appreciated. You need to include them in the decision making process as much as possible because the more they are involved, the more committed they will be to making the decision work. In all of my years, I have never had an employee quit. I've never had anyone bring a complaint against me. And I think that part of it is that I am careful to make them feel important and appreciated. An employee who feels powerless is a dangerous employee. Those are the employees who file lawsuits. Lawsuits are almost never about what they claim to be about. They are almost always an employee telling you, "You think I am powerless? Watch this! Watch me exert the power to make your life miserable."

    Nice list, Catarina! I always enjoy reading your stuff.

    Kay in Hawaii

  20. Your article will give an insight to may small business owners who want to keep their employees happy. You are right, if my boss is praising me for a well done job, I will be glad to go out of my way to get great results. How many people will dare to follow the gut at the work place?
    Your article is easy to read and understand.
    My recent post Spring at Rosebank Drive

  21. Catarina,

    Great article on Kennedy.

    Still, the most telling is "the need to be led." That comes when we realise we are in over our head. Then we look for a leader. At that point, we look to someone be believe can save our you know what whether we like the person or not.

    People who write about Charismatic leaders like Kennedy, seem to be taking ex-post-facto inventory in an effort to convince people they can teach leadership. That is like looking at the recipe for a great cake, writing it into an article, and pretending that I am able to teach people how to bake.


    My recent post Our Middle East Muddling

  22. As I look at your list of things that characterize a great leader I'm particularly struck by two and three, "genuine humility and not afraid to show vulnerability" and "regularly reflect and have an unquenchable thirst for learning". I can count on one hand and still have fingers to spare the number of times I have worked with leaders who had both of those things. When I did come across those few who did, they were absolutely amazing. Years after working with them I still think on them with a smile. While they didn't always become the most powerful people, they always landed in some of the most influential roles you can imagine.

    My recent post Why Spying Will Make Us Communities Again

  23. Funnily enough I just finished a book yesterday that dealt with this topic. Making your employees feel valued, appreciated and involved goes a long, long way. Much longer than any pay rise or belittling will ever achieve.

    My recent post Suicidal Thoughts, Sickness, Health and Hope: A Personal Journey

  24. I love this speech by JFK and I would like to add that charisma also makes for a good leader. Most of the leaders over the past century (good and bad, I.e. Hitler) knew how to motivate a group of people with their undying passion and ability to deliver their messages so strongly that they could convince and sway people like few others could.

  25. JFK really ruined it for everyone in the speech department after this one. Ask not etc. is such a winner. Good leaders are hard to come by, but they have to inspire, and create an atmosphere of trust. I think the last part is probably the most important as it implies that they value your input and therefore in response ask you to give your all as an employee. Employees really will go the extra mile if you have their trust.
    My recent post Autobiography: Will Yours be Fact or fiction?

  26. You are absolutely right, Catarina, I like this article very much. The great talent is to have empathy with the people whom you are leading, and they will pay you back. But, there are not so many charismatic leaders over here who try to fill the emotional needs of their followers and make them feel like partakers of the great.

    My recent post Mind Games Behind Usability and Writing for Web: Zeigarnik effect

  27. Not to belittle the talent and characteristics of great leaders, it would also seem many of them are philanderers as well. Would be interesting to see where people weigh in on that front with so many politician's private lives being subject to public scrutiny.
    My recent post Finding Your Blogging Niche

  28. Hey Cat. I've been in Bombay India for a week now and got the change to visit Ghandi's old school where he studied law. All seven of your leadership traits rang true in his case. It's amazing how much a simple consistent display of values can make someone stand out and rise as a leader. Leaders or aspiring leaders thing they need to do drastically different and controversial things when really they don't at all.
    My recent post Want Your Own (Hosted) Website? Consider These Factors!

  29. Catarina – this is a really interesting article. There are so many inspiring and motivational speakers but no one can be as charismatic as JFK. This is a great article about leadeship.

  30. I remember reading this post and I thought what a world this would be if we all aspired to be good leaders. I realize that some are built better for this then others but in the effort if would surely help improve our lot in life, don't you think? To be a good leader takes the courage to let go of the thought that you must know it all, allowing others to be the expert, and the flourishing ideas that follow. Kennedy knew this instinctively and it showed in his following and results.

    A great example of these principles in practice is Google. They look for intelligent, but they highly prize emotional intelligence, having fun at work and they're big on praising risk takers regardless of their success. They love team players that don't always put themselves first.

    I know how hard all of this is, nevertheless I aspire to keep these leadership principles in mind in everything I do.
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  31. Since I was in grade school, I was a JFK fan, to some extent being proud of the first Catholic president. He was an eloquent speaker, just like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Each became president in their 40’s, each were sports enthusiast, and, if one measures a leader by the number of followers, each was clearly a great leader. They inspired with their speeches, generating fans who would follow them blindly. This is a measure of their greatness, as well as a measure of their responsibility.
    By this definition of leadership, Hitler was also a great leader. The challenge with leadership is captured in the phrase, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. My suggestion is to beware of inspiring leaders, and always consider whether the direction that they are taking you is one that makes sense.

    My recent post Planning: A Chore or an Adventure?

  32. I remember this speech. Inspiring leaders are hard to find these days. I think too many have lost sight of how valuable inspiration is and don't even try to encourage or convey it. Connect with people emotionally and make them feel important and valuable and see the results that yields.
    My recent post Herbal Conferences

  33. JFK inspired everyone who heard his inaugural address. A great leader has to be authentic. His famous words "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" came from the heart. He threw out a challenge and asked us to follow his example. Yes, he was young and handsome, but he exuded vitality. You just felt the world would be a better place under his leadership. Unfortunately, I also remember the day he was assassinated. It was one of the worst days of my life. Our collective nation was stunned into sorrow. I felt a personal loss and I know many of my friends did, too.
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  34. This was a great post although the comment on Hitler did make me go 'oh yeah'. But although his actions were horrific he was a great leader. It just means one needs to be careful about the leaders you choose to follow because clearly he was leading to the dark and darker side.
    My recent post WHO WOULD YOU BE?

  35. Catarina, I think his statement: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” was probably what set him apart from many leaders. With that statement he pulled people into his vision and instilled a sense of national pride.
    I was 18 and a Canadian when he was assassinated but when I heard it – I cried. It just seemed the end of a positive era.

  36. Leaders are so influenced by politics that they forget what they should be doing, making things better for people. JFK was showcased by the televised debates which let his charisma shine. I don’t know if he would have won the election if he hadn’t had the opportunity to shine on TV. Quite a turning point in campaigns.

  37. I agree with your list of qualifications, and I would add that a leader needs to be likeable. They are sincere to the issues at hand. Thanks for sharing.

  38. A leader should be a people’s person. If this does not come naturally, then they should be willing to work at it. A genuine interest in others is a must for one to “win people over”. Charisma helps and I am still pulled on whether one can work on their charisma or if it falls into the “you either have it or you don’t” category.

    Inspiring and encouraging others causes them to re-look at what they have to offer. It contributes to them feeling appreciated and valued.

    Great post as always Catarina.

  39. Listening to JFK actually made me kind of sad. Sad that our current (US) political candidates are so strongly focused on divisiveness rather than pulling the people together … not a charismatic bone in their collective bodies. Bah humbug! Anyway, I've never been one to need a lot of praise; what I enjoy is working for someone who leads by example and inspires me to keep challenging myself – and if they have a sense of humor, it's a real bonus!
    My recent post What It Really Means to Find Opportunity in Adversity

  40. The major part of this, is not what a inspiring leader is, but what will the organization let him become.
    I often state about my time in the military. They expect you to be inspiring, but also teach you NOT to show vulnerability, or bend the rules, or show flexibility.
    So sometimes, a leader, may be stifled by the organization or company they belong to. What you describe above, has to be instilled into the organization and they need to be flexible. so that true leaders can do the items you mentioned.
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post with us.

  41. Being a good leader seems easy especially if you duo the things you have mentioned, but it is far from it. it takes a special type of person to really be a good leader, to get others on board with their dreams and excited by their own enthusiasm. But most importantly, most leaders simply forget to apply what is good for all they touch, think outside of themselves and make their people feel like part of a team.

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