How Important Is Inspiring?

Steve Coats

Based on over twenty years of survey research, Kouzes and Posner have shown that there are four characteristics which people most consistently look for in the leaders they admire: honesty, competence, inspiring, and forward-looking.

Over the years I have shared these findings with thousands of aspiring leaders. And there is seldom, if ever, dissenting points of view about this ranking. Many may try to make the case that one of their personal favorites should be high on the list—be it supportive, fair-minded, or whatever. But, in the end, they recognize and concur that these four attributes are the most important characteristics of leadership.

On many occasions, I also have taken these findings a step further. In a completely unscientific fashion, I have asked people to rate themselves on how they believe they are doing in each of these four areas. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10, I ask participants to respond to questions such as, "How honest are you?," How competent?," and so forth.

How do you think people responded? Which do you think they typically rated the highest or lowest? Is there a wide spread between the two? What would your response look like?

The results I've seen form a fairly predictable pattern. The business people I predominately have worked with tend to rate themselves very high in honesty and competence, and much lower in forward-looking and inspiring (generally in that order). When asked directly, very few view themselves as inspiring and, in fact, many readily ante up evidence about how "uninspiring" they are. For some reason, they do not seem to be too concerned. It is as if being considered inspiring would be nice, but it is not anything to lose sleep over. They even argue that not everyone is destined to be a John Kennedy or a Martin Luther King.

I might add that they do not seem so cavalier about honesty and competence. And even though many do not rate themselves very high in forward-looking, they seem to accept that it is, indeed, essential for leaders. For some reason, however, inspiring is usually not viewed in the same light. Could these leaders be attempting to minimize a weakness they don't believe they can strengthen? Or is their perspective actually correct?

Remember that nearly 70% of all respondents to the Characteristics of Admired Leaders survey have indicated that inspiring is an attribute they most admire in a leader. Ironically, most of these self-admitted, non-inspiring businesspeople selected it as well.

So is Inspiring, as a key characteristic of leadership, really important? The answer may come from looking no further than Senator Barack Obama. Here is an individual who in mid-2007 (just 18 months before the Presidential election), was given little to no chance of being elected President of the United States, especially given the prominent position of his opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton. Nine months later, he was the front-runner. And if there has been one word used most frequently to explain his unexpected and perhaps miraculous rise, that word would be inspiring. In many people's eyes Barack Obama is inspiring - and that attribute, above the rest, is differentiating him from the pack and helping him in his run for the White House.

Through March 2008, Senator Clinton's attempts to sway voters in her direction by focusing on the issue of competence have yet to be proven successful. So, is competence important for leaders? You bet. But at least in the 2008 Democratic primary contest, so is inspiring.

No leader of a company or a country can be a one-trick pony. If Senator Obama is perceived to lack honesty, competence, and vision, his inspiring presence will not be nearly enough for him to win. But it will likely be "the difference" if the other attributes are not in question.

As we watch with interest how this all unfolds, there are a few key lessons to be learned. The first is that it is clear that a leader cannot discount the importance of being perceived as inspiring. People want to be inspired and energized about the future, and know that their leaders really care. These are the leaders they will more readily choose to follow. This means that those considered inspiring will have a leg up as leaders over those who are not. So do not overlook or minimize the importance of this attribute, just because it is not one of your strong suits. You will grow in your effectiveness as you work to make it a strength.

The other lesson is also very important and could be the subject of another article. Being inspiring is much more than simply being a gifted speaker. Having a golden tongue certainly is an asset, especially if you are running for public office. But it is not the only criteria for being inspiring. Funny thing, when you ask people to think about great speakers, they are quick to point out some well known names (including Kennedy and King). One name that never makes this list is Mother Theresa yet she is almost always at the top of the list of the most inspiring people. (And I am sure you can cite a number of other examples as well.) Perhaps we should give some thought as to why.

If being genuinely inspiring is not simply great oratory skills, then what else is it?

Examining this leadership characteristic from that perspective will reveal a variety of new options, beyond public speaking, which you can pursue in becoming more inspiring yourself. And that will serve you well on your leadership journey.

One of the leading authorities on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, Steve Coats has been involved with The Leadership Challenge for over 20 years. A managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm, he can be reached at stevec@i-lead.com

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