For me, the answer to this is easy - you can’t make someone inspirational. End of story? Not quite, because when it comes to leadership I think we could all become competent leaders - even great ones - if we put in the effort to learn from those who inspire us.
I have met inspirational leaders in many different circumstances, from benefit offices, to prisons, to Helmand. These people had incredibly different jobs, but they share at least two characteristics - an integrity that is evident in everything they do, and a passionate commitment to the people they serve (both “customers” and staff).
I’ve just seen the film “Selma”, an incredibly moving reminder of a moment in the history of the US civil rights movement. Luckily for the rest of us, you don’t have to have the eloquence of a Martin Luther King’s to be an inspirational leader. After I’d seen the film I read that the filmmakers weren’t permitted to use any of Martin Luther King’s own speeches, for copyright reasons, so his rousing words were made up for the film. These made-up speeches were impressive and moving, but what really inspires in this story is the commitment of a man to a cause and his willingness to suffer the consequences of his commitment.
Putting leadership values into practice
The leaders who inspire us have often had to confront unacceptable behaviour or take courageous decisions. All of us hope we would be courageous in a crisis, but the real inspiration is the courage to live your values day in, day out. In the Civil Service we have a set of shared values and a new Leadership Statement. By working out what the values mean for us in our jobs, by continually talking about them to our staff, and by trying to put them into practice on a daily basis we can build collective leadership strength. Working together in this way helps to reinforce our self-confidence as leaders and means we can support each other better when there are tough decisions to be taken.
As to the commitment to people, the retailer and restaurateur Terence Conran once said, “Good customer service is easy: employ nice people.” You can’t be an inspirational leader - or even a competent leader - if you’re not interested in people. If you’re not born with an interest in people then leadership is going to be tough, but every one of us can put more effort into understanding people and learning how to help them give of their best.
I recall a Permanent Secretary in DWP once asking why one of our managers had cornered the best policy staff when his work was not the top priority at the time. The answer was that he had an average team whom he had motivated and inspired so they outperformed the rest. We can all learn from leaders like him, by listening to our staff, supporting them and encouraging them to deliver excellent service.
Inspiration here is not just about the soft stuff; it has a hard edge too. Inspirational leaders support and encourage their staff, even if they make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they stand for second best. That’s because their commitment to people extends to the people they serve. This is definitely an area where nurture works: we can all improve our leadership skills by being clear what good looks like, rewarding those who deliver consistently good service and encouraging those who strive for continuous improvement.
If you look at the People Survey, there are examples of great leaders in every department at every level, including leaders who get scores of 90% on motivating their staff. Some of these have no doubt been inspirational since the day they were born, but many will have become great leaders by learning and improving. Imitation is the best form of flattery and we can all get a little bit closer to inspirational by learning what they do and doing it ourselves.