Four Characteristics of Inspirational Leaders

I’ve met numerous leaders in my career. Some did a better job than others at actually leading. But few were what I would call “inspirational leaders.”

Braveheart Movie Poster

By inspirational, I simply that they had the ability to motivate others to accomplish something significant, perhaps even heroic. William Wallace was such a man.

Remember his speech in BraveHeart before the battle of Stirling Bridge. He said,

I am William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen, here in defiance of tyranny! You have come to fight as free men. And free man you are! What will you do without freedom? Will you fight?”

A veteran shouts, “Fight? Against that? No, we will run; and we will live.”

Wallace responds,

Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live … at least for a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take … our freedom!”

The men are inspired and Wallace leads them into battle. They defeat the British, who were more numerous and better equipped.

Later on in the movie, Robert the Bruce has a discussion about leadership with his father. He understands that there is a fundamental difference between having a leadership title and actually being an inspirational leader.

Robert the Bruce: “Lands, titles, men, power … nothing.”

Robert’s father: “Nothing?”

Robert the Bruce: “I have nothing. Men fight for me because if they do not, I throw them off my land and I starve their wives and children. Those men who bled the ground red at Falkirk fought for William Wallace. He fights for something that I never had. And I took it from him, when I betrayed him. I saw it in his face on the battlefield and it’s tearing me apart.”

Robert’s Father: “All men betray. All lose heart.”

Robert the Bruce: “I don’t want to lose heart. I want to believe as he does.”

Fortunately, in real life, Robert found his heart and became a great leader. He led the Scots against the English in the First War of Scottish Independence and eventually defeated King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

What does this have to do with business? Everything.

If you are going to accomplish something significant, you need help. You can’t do it alone. You can’t pay your people enough to give you their hearts. Nor can you frighten them into it. Instead, you and I must become inspirational leaders—leaders who can inspire others to give their best efforts for the sake of a great cause.

In my experience, inspirational leaders share four characteristics in common.

  1. Inspirational leaders set the pace. One of the great examples of this is depicted in the movie We Were Soldiers, directed by Ronald Wallace and starring Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Hal Moore. Prior to leaving for service in Vietnam, Moore delivers a moving speech to his troops. He says,

    I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive, but this I swear: I will be the first one to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead, or alive, we all come home together.”

    Moore then literally fulfills this promise. He is the first one to step into battle and the last one to leave. This is real leadership.

    True leaders don’t ask their people to do anything they are unwilling to do. They lead by example. They model the behavior they want others to manifest.

  2. Inspirational leaders believe in the future. They are able to paint a vivid picture of a different and better reality. They make it concrete, so people can see it, touch it, smell it, and taste it. They give people hope that things can be better, and they have a plan for making it so.

    Regardless of what you think of his politics, Ronald Reagan was a master at this. He offered hope. In the late 1970s, as a result of high inflation and high interest rates, Americans were discouraged. Many were cynical. Some were saying that things couldn’t get better—this was simply the new reality and Americans needed to get used to it.

    Reagan painted a different picture. He didn’t accept the status quo. He offered hope for “Morning in America,” a time of new beginnings. People bought into his vision, because they liked where he was going.

  3. Inspirational leaders connect people to the larger story. People want to know that their lives have meaning. They want to know that they are more than a cog in a machine. They want to know that their work matters.

    True leaders connect them to a larger story—something big and significant. Something epic. John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart [affiliate link] and numerous other bestsellers, is a genius at this.

    The ultimate story is, of course, God’s story. And, finding our place in His story is incredibly motivating. As leaders, our job is to help people understand that what they do, not only matters in this life, but in the life to come. It will “echo into eternity.”

  4. Inspirational leaders help people believe in themselves. We all get bumped and bruised as we go through life. Circumstances constantly conspire to undermine our esteem. It’s easy to lose heart—to begin doubting our ability to handle the challenges we face.

    That’s why it is so refreshing to meet someone who believes in us and is willing to verbalize it. It gives us confidence that maybe we do have what it takes.

    Great leaders—like great parents—help people believe in themselves. They look for opportunities to catch people doing something right. They focus on their people’s strengths, not their weaknesses. And, they have a knack for offering encouragement at strategic moments—when the team needs it.

Not everyone is in a position of leadership. But, as Robert the Bruce pointed out to his father, leadership is influence. And that is something all of us have.

Question: Are you an inspirational leader? What is the most important thing you can do today to become one?
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