inspiring leadership

Of all the tasks and goals on a CEO’s to-do list, “inspire people” may not be an obvious entry. The kind of leadership that inspires employees isn’t an easy one to attain. It requires strong personal skills, and the ability to interact and collaborate with employees in a positive way.

In a story for the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman write that feedback data they collected — “from just under 50,000 leaders who have been assessed by approximately a half-million colleagues” — showed that inspiring leadership was essential.

“Of the 16 leadership competencies we most frequently measure, it is clearly the one that stands out,” the authors write. “In our data, the ability to inspire creates the highest levels of employee engagement and commitment. It is what most powerfully separates the most effective leaders from the average and least-effective leaders. And it is the factor most subordinates identify when asked what they would most like to have in their leader.”

Here’s a look at some elements of inspirational leadership.

People skills

Even the most talented business leaders can have their limitations beyond the boardroom. If their skill set veers away from communication, listening and positive interactions, there may be bumps in the road. In a story for, Lolly Daskal explains that leaders “may have technical skills that will get your foot in the door — but it will be your people skills that will open those doors.”

“Many leaders are great at what they know,” she writes. “They are smart with information and brilliant when it comes to making decisions, but it’s hard to be inspiring unless you also have great interpersonal skills. The importance of solid people skills transcends industry and profession; so, whether you lead people, aspire to lead people, or work within a team of professionals, you need to apply people skills to achieve inspirational leadership.”


No one expects a CEO to be in constantly cheerful mode. Given the stresses and pressures inherent with the corner office, coming off like a game show host isn’t realistic or productive. But as Kathy Caprino writes for Forbes, a positive outlook and a clear plan are important parts of inspirational leadership.

“Positive leaders don’t focus on those challenges in negative ways, by dividing people or stoking fear and anxiety,” she says. “They find within these challenges rays of light and kernels of hope to focus on. They offer to us a beautiful vision of growth and hope for the future that most everyone can get behind. And they encourage us to work together towards those visions, for the good of all of us, not just ourselves.”

Be open

CEOs should naturally be open to the ideas of others around them, including senior leadership, managers and employees, and not boast of “open-door” policies that are essentially lip service. Elle Kaplan examines this for, noting that being a leader “doesn’t mean your opinion is the only one that matters.”

“The best leaders listen to everybody on the team, no matter where they are on the totem pole,” she explains. “Successful entrepreneurs need to be able to change directions at the drop of a hat when necessary. Sorry to break it to you, but this type of change won’t happen if you source ideas only from yourself or your peers at the top. So be open to hearing, ‘Is this what we should be doing?’ from everyone, and be OK with honestly answering that question. Often, seeing things in a new light opens up new opportunities and happy surprises. And this will lead other employees to see that it’s important to be flexible in their thinking and approach to work.”


Strong leaders step up when employees stumble, and they also acknowledge their own faults. When a mistake — whether it’s a slight misstep or a massive blunder — happens, a leader takes responsibility. As Caprino writes, “Uplifting leaders don’t blame or attack others — ever.”

“They take full responsibility for what they are shaping and creating, and remain accountable for what happens in their organizations and in their lives, no matter how challenging that is to do,” she writes. “For that to occur, they are open to seeing and learning from their missteps and misdeeds. Blame and recrimination, and using biting, demeaning language to cut down other people, runs counter to inspiring leadership.”


It’s vital for business leaders to express thanks for the work, ideas and dedication of their employees. Those that ignore the efforts of others — or only acknowledge it in a superficial, non-specific manner — likely won’t inspire anyone in a meaningful way. Geoffrey James writes about this for

“Inspiring leaders are deeply grateful,” he says. “They know that their success is hugely dependent upon accidents of birth and circumstance. Uninspiring leaders are self-satisfied. They secretly believe their success is a natural result of being smarter and better than everyone else.”


If “insecure” is a word frequently used to describe a business leader, that leader has some work to do. As Caprino writes in her Forbes piece, people with “a fragile ego” are often defensive and “need constant validation.” Positive CEOs take a more uplifting approach, she says.

“Their emotional ‘well’ is full — they don’t need continual validation of their worth and their ‘rightness,’” Caprino writes. “When someone criticizes them, they don’t immediately go to the angry place — they remain quiet, calm and open. And finally, they don’t covet all the attention and credit for great ideas and successful initiatives. They’re thrilled and appreciative that others in their leadership sphere have contributed in important ways that supported growth.”


Here’s a word that may not rank highly on a skill-set list. It’s a topic explored by James Allen, co-leader of the global strategy practice at Bain & Co, in a story for The Wall Street Journal. He explains how Bain asked employees about inspiring peers and managers in a survey, and the result showed that centeredness was the skill that emerged as most crucial. Allen describes centeredness as “the ability to choose how to respond in stressful situations,” and “being fully present and aware of the situation so that you can bring your best traits to bear on the problem.” The CEO that can handle the tough moments, in a direct and responsible way, shows this kind of centeredness, as Allen explains.

“Like politicians, they exist in a fishbowl of intense scrutiny from the public, analysts, regulators and their own employees,” he writes. “Yet they always seem ready for that defining moment. They field difficult questions or manage stressful situations with purpose, if not always with grace. In these moments, you see the specific inspirational qualities of a CEO shine through. Some are brutally honest, others are empathetic. Perhaps you’ve seen the video of Steve Jobs telling a roomful of Apple engineers why killing so many of their projects was essential to restoring focus, or you recall reading how Starbucks’ Howard Schultz turned the company around by refocusing on its original mission. These are moments where their individual personalities were on full display — and the results were inspiring.”

Read more: 5 Reasons Why Humility Is an Essential Leadership Trait