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Searching for inspirational leadership

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I’m often asked for book suggestions on leadership – so we often post book reviews and interview authors for our Leadershipzone Library and Book Club.  It’s fairly easy to recommend books on leadership styles, and the behavioural competences of leaders (more on that in another blog perhaps).  However, I  received one request this morning that gave me pause for thought – could I recommend any books on inspirational leadership?

Why should this be a challenge? 

The answer stares at you in the face when you look at the book reviews for any leadership title with the word ‘Inspiration’ in the name.  What inspires some people is a turn-off to others.  The clue is in the word ‘inspiration’ which points to the inner shift – the emotional connection between one person and another.  Sometimes it happens and other times it doesn’t.

At the beginning of our leadership coaching skills programme – Ignite – we invite people to join in an exercise.  They pick a well-known person who inspires them in some way.  Some of our participants bring pictures of local people – especially when we work overseas – and we get to hear about some truly inspiring people from around the world.

What’s interesting though, is the wide variety of qualities that a group of people will cover when they talk about inspiring leaders.  It might be their humour, their commitment, their ability to communicate.  Something about them as people that conveys itself to others – such that a positive emotional connection is made.

Our participants make a list and share their experience about these inspirational qualities with each other.  At times you can see that our Ignite participants really share and appreciate those qualities.  At other times there are polite nods, which hide disinterest, total incomprehension and even disagreement.  The good news is that we don’t need to agree on who those inspirational leaders are, we just need to understand for ourselves what ‘inspiration’ means to me, and truly respect other peoples’ perspectives.

We’ve been running the programme for ten years now, and we teach a coaching style of leadership – one that is emotionally intelligent and really resonates with people.  To support our participants, we’ve found a way to categorise those leadership qualities – in the spirit of making the seemingly-complex more simple.

We start with a definition of leadership:

“Leadership is about people being successful and enabling success in others: their teams, their organisation and the wider society in which they operate”Leadership is more than a position: it’s who we are, what we achieve and how we do it.  So when we look at leaders for inspiration, we need to see past their title or role description.  See the person, their achievements and their character, not necessarily the position.


  • Vision is a picture of what the leader wants to achieve going forward; how he or she communicates that direction; and, most importantly, paints a picture of what its going to be like in that new world.
  • Sometimes a group of leaders may share a vision – but unless each individual member of a leadership team makes it personal and alive for them, the vision may never get communication.
  • Vision is the goal, and it also links to the qualities a leader needs to have to guide others on the path towards vision.

In our Ignite programme we focus on just getting our participants to discover their vision, and then expressing it to others.  It’s amazing how powerful and inspirational these very short speeches are.  But if you started out by saying “say something inspirational” we’d probably evoke the opposite result, and everyone would clam up.


  • Our values are what’s important to us; what we stand for and why we do what we do.  Leaders who are in touch with their values find it easier to reach out to others through expressing them.
  • Again, you might have corporate values, but we each need to find out, genuinely, which of these we can sign up to because they really mean something to us.
  • When we have alignment between our personal values and the leader’s values, connection and inspiration can be profound.

Some participants pick up the power of values early on, and we build on this in our more advanced workshops.  It’s amazing the shift towards inspirational leadership when participants explore and understand other peoples’ values , based on a deeper appreciation and self-knowledge of their own.


  • In our more advanced leadership and coaching programmes we then look at the quality of authenticity and what we call the ‘Ideal Self’.
  • When we can better appreciate and tap into the qualities of who we really are – when we’re at our best – it’s easier to start living that every day.

This aspect of leadership is inspirational because it’s real.  We’re only human: we slip into and out of authenticity; we don’t live up to our ideal selves every day.  Walking the talk is a habit, that we need to practice and improve – it’s not a theoretical or academic position – and inspirational qualities like ‘commitment’, ‘determination’ or ‘drive’ show up here.

For me personally, authenticity is the element of inspirational leadership that shifts from the emotional engagement with the idea, towards motivation and action.

Looking for Inspiration

So with the challenge in mind to recommend a book  in mind, I walked down a quiet street on my way to my first appointment.  I watched a young child pinned against a wall and saw his mother pushing a pushchair with another child inside.  The young boy jumped out as they walked past and shouted ‘boo!’ to the surprise and delight of everyone – including me.  Watching a family at play reminded me of times past when I’d played this same game with my parents and later, with my own daughter – creating a deeper connection when we make each other laugh.

My conclusion is, when you’re searching for inspirational leadership – look first to yourself – and know what inspires you what connects you to you.  Observe the people around you who can express their vision, who engage you in shared values and who walk the talk when it comes to delivering.  But most importantly of all, remember that you’re a leader – you too can inspire and motivate others too – simply by being who you really are.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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