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This blog post was published under the 2010-2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Leadership Statement: inspirational leaders - nature or nurture?

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Civil Service Leaders, Leadership Statement

Head shot of Ursula BrennanFor 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.

Understanding people

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.

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  1. Comment by M posted on

    Most interesting article however the words 'inspirational' are used quite a bit but in fact inspirational leadership theory is quite old in research terms. Authentic leadership is whats out there at the moment for all to see and learn from but not forgetting there much needed attention around emotional intelligence too :-)!

  2. Comment by Andy Robinson posted on

    I remember addressing a group of Stn Cdr's and AOC at RAF Shawbury in 2008 making a statement that has always been my steadfast approach to leadership; 'Look after your people and they will look after you'. Through good and difficult times the teams I have had the privilege of leading have always been brilliant. I believe that leadership is an art form and for leaders their palette is when they blend and mix styles and approaches to meet with the challenges they face. Granted their are attributes that we may be born with but experience throughout our lives helps us to develop our approach to leading.

  3. Comment by Alex Fitzgerald (50) posted on

    For a department that is allegedly not ageist myself and some colleagues take exception to the term career pathways for young civil servants that make me and my experience feel undervalued.
    Just saying.

  4. Comment by John Evans posted on

    I think it is possible that the "average" team may have worked hard and made their Manager look good! As they were self motivated and hard working, in the first place.
    Nice to know that the Management team still believe they are the one's who inspire and therefore make themselves appear better than what they - does anyone consider it is only through the effort and hard work of their workers - which eventually get them elevated to such lofty positions?

  5. Comment by Caroline Johnson posted on

    A very intersting and helpful blog post. But I wanted to comment specifically on the example of the DWP manager whose excellent leadership had improved the performance of his team. If an individual's performance is affected by the quality of the leadership they receive, how is it fair to moderate staff performance, across different teams, without weighting for the quality of their leaders?

  6. Comment by Jason Snowden posted on

    I second all of Kate's comments! A good read that I'll bookmark for regular referencing, thanks

  7. Comment by Rob Neil posted on

    Excellent article!!! Illuminating, authentic and - dare I say it - inspiring. Thanks for shining your light (Ursula) on the essential role of leadership. I love your link to the empirical evidence offered to us via the annual People Survey (as MoJ's Head of Engagement Networks I'm almost bound to say that!). Like you, I was inspired by the movie 'SELMA' which details just three months in the extraordinary life of Martin Luther King Jnr. Oh yes, there's more we can all learn. Thanks again for sharing. Stay Strong. R

  8. Comment by Kate Dixon posted on

    a really helpful and encouraging blog. thank you for sharing and motivating me continue to pay attention to borrowing from others and tweaking my own style. and for advocating cinema as learning and development!