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  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

To Be An Inspiring Leader

By Hubert Saint-Onge

Inspiring leaders make a significant difference wherever they are. Everyone is a leader in their sphere of influence and the attributes of inspiring leaders apply to roles at all levels of the organization. While CEOs can apply inspiring leadership principles to a broader context, managers, team leaders, and individual contributors can also call upon these leadership principles. Parents are leaders in their families, teachers in their classrooms, and medical professionals with their colleagues and patients. All of us have the opportunity to apply inspiring leadership principles in the different dimensions of our lives.

More than ever, we need inspiring leadership in our enterprises and throughout society to counter the pervasive erosion of integrity surrounding us. Technology has brought us to a morally interdependent world. Boldface lying has become par for the course in the political scene. The disregard for others is expressed freely at all levels of society. Yet, the success of our organizations and communities makes it imperative to enact leadership that elevates behaviours and honours human dignity in all our interactions. In an organizational context, leadership that inspires people will help forge meaningful connections across different functions and teams and with external stakeholders. The sustainable success of organizations depends on our collective ability to engender a deep commitment to excel at uplifting people to an ethical, values-driven way of exercising leadership.   

But, what does it take to be an Inspiring Leader?  How would we recognize an Inspiring leader?  How do Inspiring Leaders exercise leadership to uplift everyone's spirit into the best version of themselves? This blog addresses the pressing need to articulate the answers to these questions in terms that create meaning for leaders at all levels.  

How they conduct themselves.

Inspiring leadership is an orientation guided by principles, beliefs, and values. The self-awareness of inspiring leaders shapes how they approach their work. It is an antidote to outsized egos that produce negative environments and unproductive conflicts. Responding more reactively makes it difficult to find common ground. Inspiring leaders seek to attenuate conflicts and resolve issues by finding ways to reconcile different points of view.  

Any sign that a leader shows a propensity to be self-serving is like kryptonite to their ability to inspire others. Ethical lapses or transgressions sow distrust that undermines their leadership. People have an uncanny ability to read behaviours and situations: things don’t stay hidden long. Inspiring leaders are guided by their inner moral compass and a higher sense of purpose. They adopt a consistently principled approach with the ethics and values they exemplify in their day-to-day decisions and interactions. They model leadership that inspires others and brings out their best version of themselves with authenticity, humility, and commitment to others.  

In the early 2000s, I was an executive at Clarica (an insurance company) as it demutualized and realized a highly successful IPO.  The CEO, Bob Asley in his speech at the first Annual General Meeting stated: “Part of what has made Clarica special with customers is that we’ve had a culture that values people who work within it – I have no intention of letting that go in a narrow push for short-term profits first, people second.” As CEO, Bob was the archetypal Inspiring Leader: soft-spoken, unassuming and caring. This was a bold, heartfelt statement to shareholders as a newly minted public company.  It is the type of principled statement that galvanizes people's commitment to the success of an organization.

How they interact with others.

Inspiring Leaders care about the people around them. They connect naturally with people. They have a pervasive presence and influence on how people around them behave based on the example they provide on how to conduct business and collaborate both inside and outside the organization.

Inspiring Leaders listen to people in a way where they feel heard and understood. There is a quiet energy in the listening even though there might not be agreement. They enjoy the interaction however challenging the work. Their openness creates the room to find mutually acceptable solutions. Their authenticity and the confidence they engender around them help rally people with diametrically opposed views to agree on solutions.  

They care deeply for the people around them and consistently show deep respect for them. They are honest and straightforward in communicating their expectations and even providing difficult feedback when required. They embrace two-way conversations with curiosity and courage. They are prepared to listen, connect, and collaborate with employees and stakeholders. They find ways to help people be at their very best.  

When I gave a leadership workshop with about 80 mid-level managers, Brad Henderson, the Best Buy CEO at the time, walked in 10 minutes into the session, sat at the back and took notes. The active exchange among participants continued uninterrupted. Someone told me later that Brad did this often. Brad felt it was more important to listen to what people had on their minds than to take centre stage. This was his way of connecting to what was going on. In other organizations, the presence of the CEO in such a setting would have sucked the oxygen right out of the room. When I saw Brad later that day, he said he had enjoyed the session and gave me a few helpful pointers. He always stood out as an outstanding example of an Inspiring Leader.    

Inspiring leaders convey the authenticity and wisdom that is conducive to engendering trust. They have a straightforward and respectful way of addressing issues with people. They can say exactly what is on their mind and do it in a way that makes the recipient of the feedback appreciative and motivated to correct what is not working. They thoughtfully filter their reactions rather than letting their ego take over. They challenge people without causing fear. They model how to work through challenging situations constructively with low ego and deep respect for people, knowing that everyone who experiences their approach to leadership will want to create a similar experience with people around them.  

Inspiring Leaders are attuned to the organization's pulse. They resist asserting their authority and prefer engaging in sense-making with people around them. They ask questions, listen, learn, and then create exchanges where everyone can agree on a given course of action. Listening is a powerful form of communication. People often think of communication as talking, but listening is far more productive in a leadership context.

Inspiring leaders bring a consistent quality that everyone can sense in their interactions: they look to resolve matters;  they don’t accuse or complain – they take constructive action knowing they are modelling how others will want to lead.  They are not easily thrown off. Their approach remains consistently helpful and supportive. They respect people and treat them with dignity and respect. They strive to bring out the best in others. People they work with can sense this commitment, bringing mutual confidence to their interactions.

How they impart their sense of purpose.

Inspiring Leaders share a purpose that people see as worthwhile and create purpose-driven motivation. Their leadership creates meaning for the people who work with them. Everyone involved can then sense the commitment to the success of the organization and the people working there. An Inspiring Leader makes it compelling for you to commit and dedicate your effort.

A colleague, Vince Molinero, describes how a CEO worked hard to rally his organization to a new vision. He saw the need to meet personally with every employee and asked them to come prepared to tell him what they needed from their leaders to help make this transformation happen. Vince quotes the CEO when describing this experience:  “I was impressed with how people came prepared. I was impressed with the transparency of what they shared with me. And I was overwhelmed by the amount of trust that people put in me to share that type of information. I’ve never been more inspired and fired up as a leader than I was coming out of that exercise.”

This example illustrates the self-reinforcing loop at work with inspiring leadership: a leader fires up his/her people with a new vision, and when he/she meets with them, they are inspired by them. This example points to a mutual reinforcement loop: leaders see how people get inspired and how, in turn, this inspires them.  As a leader, you want to share the organizational purpose to inspire others to be on a mission to realize it with you. Their passion and level of energy are contagious to others, including you.

How they create a clear vision.

They are deeply committed to the organization's success. They share an optimistic view of the future and invite people to be part of it. They constantly refine their vision in exchanges with people to engender shared ownership of the direction.       

They are passionate and perseverant about the vision and supporting long-term goals. They are fully dedicated to achieving them. Inspiring leaders strive for excellence, but you can't achieve excellence without clarity and action. Positive leaders provide the clarity that leads to focused action.

Robert Gordon, known to everyone as Squee, was President at Humber College for two decades.  He fired up those people’s excitement and pride with his vision to democratize how the College worked and to keep enlarging Humber’s cultural presence in Toronto and beyond. With his characteristic unbounded energy, he sponsored the Music, Writers’ and Comedy programs and many others. He always believed in the impact of vision and presence: he modelled and proved it.  People who worked closely with Squee shared that he got the most satisfaction from seeing people he mentored succeed far beyond what they expected. There comes a time in the lives of inspiring leaders when the capacity to guide and foster the next generation is more rewarding than their own success.  

How they impact others around them.

An inspiring leader can have a generative impact because they raise the standards and performance of everyone around them:

-       They both challenge and encourage their teams to meet collectively owned goals.

-       They challenge their people to achieve more and better individually.

-       They care for their people and hold them accountable for being at their best.

-       They insist on highly principled and ethical conduct for themselves and others.  

-       They communicate with clarity, speak from the heart, and expect the same from others.

Inspiring leaders look to translate their quest for excellence into a better future for all through clarity,  accountability and a relentless drive to improve and succeed.

How they build the grit and the resilience to persevere on this path.

After many years of research at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth concluded that “grit” is the most important characteristic of successful leaders. This is the sustained ability to face up to challenges with determination, perseverance, and high energy over time.   

At times, the constant challenges and the slings and arrows can affect a leader's spirit and cause them to regress. To stay whole, leaders must give themselves the room to recharge and boost their resilience as required.    

How inspiring leadership impacts the organization.

The most readily recognizable effects include:

  • A high-powered, energetic, cohesive tone and an optimistic spirit prevail throughout the organization.

  • People across the organization believe they can shape their destiny and co-create the future.

  • Innovation naturally springs from the work as people exercise shared ownership and strive to succeed together.

  • The organization's purpose becomes a noble, common cause that unites people and fuels their collaboration.

  • People consistently elevate their sights to reach “big hairy goals”.


The leaders who have the most impact are the ones who inspire others to elevate their commitment. Very few people would say that they don’t want to be more inspiring in the exercise of their leadership. Yet, becoming an inspiring leader in the terms outlined here is a tall order. Their challenge is that they don’t know how and are afraid to fail. But wherever you start, building these skills will be worthwhile. Remember that no one is born an inspiring leader.

Let the strength of your natural leadership speak for itself.  In a self-effacing manner, be attentive to people around you and allow your work to create meaning for people. Instead of reaching for a ‘push motion’ and attempting to coerce employees to become 2 percent more productive, gradually develop the skills to communicate in ways that inspire a commitment to excel. Instead of imposing more demands on people, foster self-initiation with accountability. Your leadership will then lose a more hierarchical and imposing nature to connect, collaborate and generate results by inspiring people to excel. Your reward will be to see how your leadership becomes contagious among the people you interact with.   


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