When we think of inspiring leaders our minds often go to figures of social and political importance; magnificent orators whose frequently ground-breaking achievements really showcase their ability to govern greatly.
But what about the acts of leadership that inspire us every day?
Dr Clare Holt, who has a PhD in Relational Leadership and is the Course Leader for Learna’s Executive MBA in Healthcare Management and PgDip/MSc in Leadership in Healthcare, considers what makes an inspiring leader.
When it comes to inspiring others, it is as much to do with the smaller, every-day acts as the large-scale, remarkable ones. In short, real leadership can more often be found in the mundane actions we undertake, rather than the extraordinary gestures.
We see examples of this all the time, even in our own world leaders. We have watched as they have responded to the global crisis: Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership style is more commanding, focusing on grander rhetoric, likely inspired by his hero Winston Churchill; whereas Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has focused more on openness and humility, reflecting on her own experiences and emphasising the togetherness and shared experience of the crisis.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership impressed last year, when she confirmed that the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy were in fact key workers, so would be visiting the children of New Zealand undisturbed by the pandemic. There’s a reason this story was reported by news outlets globally… because it connected with people.
Your ability to connect with your team, colleagues and those around you is what makes you an inspirational leader; not your job title. Leadership is as much about the people you are leading, as your own ability and style.
So, what makes an inspirational leader?
Walk a mile in their shoes
Empathy is central to understanding and relating to those around you. As someone with a level of authority, you need to tune in to what your team are going through. Don’t assume that you understand; talk to them, spend time with them (as best you can right now) and see for yourself.
Taking the time to empathise and understand demonstrates that you are in this together and gives your team confidence that you are equipped with the knowledge to support them with whatever they are working through.
This level of empathy can be difficult in a time of crisis when leaders are struggling too. That’s where there’s power in showing your own vulnerability. Don’t be afraid to show your team that it is difficult for you too. In doing this you are demonstrating that you are genuine and authentic; you are not superhuman and you are giving them permission to recognise that it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay not to be okay.
Being honest and sharing when times are difficult can inspire confidence in your team that you are able to work though challenges together.
Be cautiously positive
Of course, positivity is central to inspiring and motivating a team and to fostering a good culture and mental attitude. But leaders need to be conscious of being over-positive. This is known as Prozac Leadership in the academic literature; the tendency to portray everything as rosy and the reluctance to consider alternative voices.
Prozac positivity can deter colleagues from raising problems or admitting mistakes. This affects communication, and the distance it creates between leaders and their teams can be more damaging than just admitting when things aren’t going to plan. Being honest – even when things are difficult – builds mutual trust and respect.
Learn from those around you
It is important to look back on those who have inspired and influenced you – or even those who didn’t. You can learn a lot from the managers you didn’t connect with, or who you frankly found a bit dull! Why didn’t you relate to their style of leadership? Who did inspire you instead? Which qualities made them a good leader?
Formalise your experience
There is no magic spell or check list that makes a good leader. Leadership is all about context. Even those who appear to be ‘natural’ leaders – while they might be naturally adept at applying leadership in practice – they don’t necessarily understand exactly what they’re doing, or why it works.
This is where we see the benefits of formal leadership training. Looking at leadership through an academic lens gives you the tools to understand why and how different leadership styles work. Studying for an Executive MBA gives you that grounding – the psychological, sociological and theoretical understanding of the ideas under-pinning leadership. It provides a great deal of sense-making and can formalise the experience you already have.
Students studying for Learna’s ILM accredited Executive MBA’s are out there in the real world working with colleagues, clients and partners. The blend of academic theory we study on the course, with students’ own in-practice examples from their workplaces enables them to analyse how and why different leadership styles work and reflect on their own approach. Then the next day at work they can directly apply this knowledge, with the confidence, tools and language to lead.
Don’t hold back
Particularly for women, confidence can be a barrier to leadership. While so much progress has been made, women are still under-represented in senior positions. We can also be conscious of the need to prove ourselves as worthy as male counterparts. But you truly have nothing to lose. It’s so important to see more women with diverse experiences and mindsets in leadership positions. Don’t shy away from an opportunity to bring what you have to offer to the table.
In the meantime, lead from where you are now. Leadership isn’t just for the boss. Whatever your position, we all have our own sphere of influence and we all cast a shadow that is being observed by colleagues, clients and friends.
About the author
Dr Clare Holt is an academic with a PhD in Relational Leadership. Her diverse career started in hospitality, before moving on to several roles within FTSE 100 companies, followed by a stint as an air traffic controller. She then pivoted into academia. Today, among other roles, Clare is the Programme Leader for the Learna Executive MBA in Healthcare Management, which is designed for doctors of any grade and other healthcare professionals who wish to gain vital skills in leadership and management. Clare also tutors on Learna’s Postgraduate and MSc programmes in Leadership in Healthcare.