Some people I know work for large organizations that are faced with fiscal challenges, but few doubt their employers’ ability to survive long-term. What these organizations do not have is good leadership. Those at the top of the pyramid are effective managers but lack vision and the ability to inspire others that good leaders possess.
And I suspect that many organizations, both public and private, are in the very same spot. Their financials are acceptable but their leadership is lacking. What is missing is ability over the horizon to see possibilities and then mobilize others to action to fulfill those possibilities. Employees are drawn to leaders who have imagination and energy. The reason, as historian and leadership philosopher James McGregor Burns has postulated in his fine book, Leadership, is because they see in the leader the potential to fulfill their own ambitions and ideas.
Needed in this downturn are men and women who can inspire, not simply with the power of their personality but with the power of their imagination. Such vision need not be reserved solely for those at the top of the pyramid; rather it can be recognized and nurtured by those who are in position to groom and promote the next generation of leaders. Here are three attributes to look for.
Realism. Inspirational leaders are rooted in reality. They know the facts but remain undeterred. This sense separates them from fools who are quick to rush into things before considering consequences. Inspirational leaders are keenly aware of what could go wrong and are honest about it. It is his honesty that draws capable contributors. They sense the leader knows the facts but is willing to experiment as well as persevere.
Improvement. Wanting to make things better is essential to inspiration. Therefore inspirational leaders value innovations. They are inherently creative because they are not satisfied with the status quo. Very importantly they seek to open doors for people who can innovate in their function, be it product development or logistics. They encourage employees to think for themselves.
Optimism. You must believe in the better tomorrow. This is easy to do when the economy is rising but more difficult when it is shrinking. Optimism for the inspirational leader is not merely inherent; it is contagious. Others feel it and want to feed off it. This is essential to getting the work done now but developing next generation initiatives that will position the organization for success over the long term.
Inspiration is more than an emotional reaction. While inspirational leaders are often charismatic, as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were, leadership inspiration comes more from the power of possibilities. Bill Gates is an exemplar. Gates does not warm to the spotlight the way celebrities do. It is the power of his ideas, first at Microsoft and now at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that draw bright capable people to him the way moths are drawn to flames. As Dr. Burns has taught us, people want to work for projects that Gates shepherds because they will be able to achieve their own goals, too.
Leaders who can inspire others to achieve are a rare breed. But in times of crisis they are necessary to help their organizations past the dark times and more importantly shine a light, and help show others, how to follow that light to prosperity. “A leader’s job is to look into the future and see the organization, not as it is,” as Jack Welch once said, “but as it should be.”
Leaders are not futurists per se but they are people who can see potential where others see roadblocks. More importantly they can surround themselves with very capable people who can make the impossible possible.