What lessons can you learn from inspirational leaders?

Recently I’ve been leading Zoomly’s ‘How to develop your leadership style’ workshop quite a lot for different clients. One of the first tasks participants work on in is to consider the leaders who’ve inspired them.

Time and again I observe teams discussing this somewhat hesitantly at first, but soon the tempo shifts to an inspirational sharing session. Later, people often remark on how this activity got them thinking about what they can do differently or better – so I thought I’d adapt this for sharing with blog readers.

By ‘inspirational’ we soon realise these leaders could be people on the world stage, such as Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela. In sport, team captains and managers often figure in this exercise. In business, Steve Jobs’ name often pops up, as does Bill Gates’. Leaders who’ve inspired invariably include managers from much earlier in people’s working lives. So far, so obvious. I often suggest people think more broadly: what about members of their community, professional network, or family?

Who are the leaders who’ve inspired YOU?

Make a note of all the names that come to mind: from here and now, from around the world (or down the road), past and present, famous and/or familiar. Aim for three to five people.

What is it about them that inspires you?

Reflect on the qualities you admire about these people. For example, I’ve heard many a participant describe the high standards upheld by leaders they encountered very early in their careers. Discussing high profile people, ‘Charisma’, ‘Enthusiasm’ and ‘Determination’ are words that often come to mind. Closer to home, people often reflect on the ‘Resilience’ and ‘Empathy’ of fondly remembered relatives.

Write down the qualities that you admire about each of your inspirational leaders.

How do/did those qualities show up?

Here we dig a little deeper, to get beneath our impressions and identify behaviours. For example, one of my inspirational bosses was frequently described as ‘accessible’ and ‘open’; he always seemed to have time for people. How did that show up? He seemed to have developed the habit of being ‘ruthless with time, but gracious with people’ – when you asked if he’d ‘got a minute?’, a minute was what you got – or two. I’d put ‘asking clear questions’ and ‘listening attentively’ down as behaviours, as well as ‘staying focused on priorities’.

Over to you: what behaviours do/did you observe in these leaders that convinced you of their qualities? Note them for each of your leaders; importantly, if thinking about this brings back a phrase they use/used that sticks in the memory, take faithful note of it.

What themes can you now see?

Step back, pause for thought and look for any themes that may emerge. You might find recurring qualities amongst your inspirational leaders; highlight these. Consider the behaviours that appear consistently, and those that are complementary to one another.

What do you want to do more/less of?

First, if there are qualities you’ve identified in your inspirational leaders that you now want to develop, identify the actions you’ll take – starting now – to emulate them. What are the behaviours you want to start, or do more often?

Second, looking at your emerging themes, consider which, if any, of your own qualities and behaviours may be incompatible with those of your inspirational leaders. You may now be aware of behaviours that you want those you lead to experience less often. Make a commitment to what you’ll be doing more/less of – and how you’ll hold yourself accountable.

Yes, of course there’s a little more to developing your leadership style than this exercise – yet this is a great place to start.

You may also find this post useful: When should you create a personal board?

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’

Image credit: LessonsLearned-ChristianChan/DepositPhotos

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