How Leaders Inspire: Cracking the Code (2023)

There are few rigorous methods to measure an individual's ability to inspire, to systematically develop this intangible quality, or to embed these skills throughout an organization. As Barbara Kellerman, founding executive director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, observed, "Leadership as an area of ​​intellectual inquiry remains tenuous, and little thought has been given to what leaders in the second decade of the 20th century should be learning in the 21st century." . century look."

What does it take to nurture inspiring leaders, not just through a fluke of talent management, but year after year? To answer this question, we've been conducting extensive research since 2013, using Bain and selected customers as a test bed. In particular, we have developed an analytical approach to define, measure and develop inspirational skills. Three key questions guided our research:

  • What qualities are important when it comes to inspiring others?
  • How many inspirational behaviors does someone need to reliably demonstrate to inspire others, and which behavior pattern is strongest?
  • How can we calibrate the strength of these traits in an individual?

Although inspiration may seem difficult to decipher, we've identified 33 distinct and tangible attributes that are statistically significant when it comes to generating inspiration in others. And having just four of these attributes as characteristic strengths is enough to make someone highly inspirational. The results also show that people who inspire are incredibly diverse. Any combination of different strengths works: There is no fixed archetype of an inspirational leader.

How Leaders Inspire: Cracking the Code (1)


What inspires employees?

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The Bain Inspirational Leadership System consists of 33 elements that we have identified as statistically significant in inspiring others.

The properties that matter

To understand what inspires people, we surveyed all employees, not just formal executives or HR professionals. Why? People at all levels of an organization are looking for inspiration. Employees are the best judges of what inspires them. It's the collective voice of all those customers or followers that counts to validate what qualities are inspirational, not what leaders say they do or what hiring managers say is important.

Since inspiration is subjective, it helps to understand the basic form of analysis. Beginning with an initial survey of 2,000 Bain employees, we asked respondents to rate how inspired they were by their colleagues. We also asked them to rate what was important to contribute to this sense of inspiration. To do this, we selected a list of attributes to be tested based on data from multiple disciplines - including psychology, neurology, sociology, organizational behavior and management science - and extensive interviews.

Using followers' responses, we performed a conjoint analysis (typical of consumer research) to assess the relevance of a number of attributes contributing to respondents' sense of inspiration. The result was a set of 33 traits that are statistically significant for inspiring others. Bain then used these behaviors to create the Bain Inspirational Leadership model (see Figure 1).

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These 33 inspirational qualities are very different. Self-respect means, for example, a confident but realistic assessment of one's own abilities; Expressiveness means conveying ideas and emotions clearly and convincingly; and empowerment allows and encourages the freedom to stretch. Other attributes can also inspire, but overall, the 33 behaviors we identified were the most inspirational.

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We've grouped the qualities that inspire into four quadrants that highlight the contexts in which they tend to find application. For example, one quadrant contains the qualities related to leading a team. Another cluster includes behaviors that develop one's inner resources, such as stress tolerance, optimism, and emotional self-awareness. While these quadrants provide structure that makes the model easier to digest, they do not emphasize a particular distribution of abilities. Our research shows that each of the elements is important to an organization's collective inspirational health and that no combination contributes more to an individual's ability to inspire. It is not necessary to have an attribute from every quadrant to be effective.

A surprising result:centerednesswas the most important feature. Of all the elements, centeredness was the skill employees most wanted to develop. Centeredness is a state of greater awareness achieved by involving all parts of the mind to be fully present. As more companies offer optional mindfulness programs to promote health and happiness in the workplace, our research shows that centeredness is fundamental to the ability to lead. It improves the ability to stay calm, manage stress, empathize with others and listen better.

Centeredness is the connection of the other 32 elements and is a mandatory ability. Just as leaders need to be able to meet their performance goals, for example to be rated as satisfactory, we recognize that leaders need to be able to stay centered in order to inspire. Being centered is a prerequisite for using your leadership strengths effectively.

The strongest combination

How many of these inspirational behaviors does one need to reliably inspire others? We used our database of more than 10,000 reviews to correlate the profile of strengths and weaknesses with the level of inspiration reported by a person's peers.

We have defined athe individual strengths of the individualthan those in the top 10% of their peer group. We have labeled the traits between the 70th and 90th percentile as potential distinctive strengths and those in the bottom 10% as weaknesses. The traits that fall between the 10th and 70th percentile are neutral traits because one's ability does not diminish or contribute to the differential effect on others.

The result was exciting: just one trait almost doubles your chance of being inspirational—and the more trait strengths you have, the more inspirational you can be. In fact, more than 90% of those who demonstrate particular strengths in four or more of the 32 elements are inspirational to their peers (see Figure 2). This finding underscores the power of authenticity: no combination of strengths is statistically stronger than any other. Inspirational leaders come in many forms.

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The key development takeaway from these insights is that a person can increase their inspirational leadership ability by excelling in just a handful of intrinsic strengths and turning weaknesses into neutral. The data also shows that developing a distinctive strength is more effective than neutralizing a weakness: On average, investing in adding a distinctive strength is one and a half times more effective at creating inspiration than neutralizing a weakness.

Calibrating a strength

Why create a leadership program that focuses overwhelmingly on strengths? A growing body of research has shown that encouraging people to strengthen their strengths is more effective than striving to address their weaknesses. According to Gallup research, employees are 73% more likely to be engaged when an organization's leadership focuses on their employees' strengths, versus 9% when it is not.

“One of the things we know is that when things are negative, people see fewer options [and] they are less able to solve problems. It shuts down the brain," said business psychologist Jennifer Thompson, associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “When people have a positive environment, they are more creative. You are more productive.”

Because inspiration is relevant to every employee, calibrating an individual's strengths requires feedback from above, below, and across the organization. To assess an individual's strength in relation to a specific trait, we have developed a 360 degree assessment based on the views of employees at all levels. These customer inputs are then compared to the results of a person's peers to find their relative strength. Understanding where you stand out from the crowd based on distinguishing strengths helps each individual define his or hersleading brandand use it more effectively in daily interactions.

Anyone can begin to develop the capacity to inspire by discovering and cultivating his or her inherent talents. Bain's Inspirational Leadership System includes structured reflection, input from 360-degree surveys, and self-assessments. Each employee chooses four or five of the 32 attributes based on their existing strengths and what feels authentic. This combination of skills becomes a “rock pile” or inspirational brand of leadership – something that each person can strive for and use on a daily basis for their personal development.

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Infographic How to Become an Inspirational Leader Bain research identified 33 defining traits of inspirational leaders. If you have four strengths, you can be exceptional.

Building an inspiring organization

Typical leadership programs target a limited number of people within an organization – the traditional group of leaders and high potentials. Those who are excluded, including the vast majority of workers, never get a chance to develop their skills. But to function as a true system and to build inspiration into the way an organization works, leadership programs need to go deeper. And the sooner people start using it, the stronger and more valuable their skills will be as they progress through the organization.

The majority of our employees use Bain's Inspirational Leadership System, and the goal is to reach every employee. The number of colleagues who describe themselves as inspirational increased by 18% between 2014 and 2015, and their impact is spreading: the proportion of employees who describe themselves as “inspired” has grown, as has the response, since the program started on employee engagement and the strength of Bain's culture, as per Bain's Net Promoter System®.

Of course, Bain is not alone in his quest to understand what defines inspiring leaders. Many companies are experimenting with their own programs. Aetna, for example, has instituted a company-wide focus on mindfulness sponsored by its CEO. And Telefonica Deutschland has started empathy training for its employees to improve customer satisfaction. These types of programs are valuable, but many fall short of their full potential. Our research shows that a more comprehensive, analytical approach can create a powerful system that increases inspiration across the organization.

As the nature of work becomes increasingly collaborative and self-directed, inspiration can mean the difference between teams that excel and those that lag behind. Leadership systems that systematically build inspiration work because, at their core, they honor the complexities of human relationships, foster authenticity, and create a common platform where each individual can make unique contributions. Organizations that take advantage of this powerful combination gain a competitive advantage few can match.

Net Promoter System® is a registered trademark of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.

Mark Horwitch is a partner at Bain & Company and leads Bain's leadership programs. Meredith Whipple Callahan is a senior manager in Bain's leadership group. Both are based in San Francisco.

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The authors would like to thank Vanessa William, a manager of the group, for her valuable contribution to this article.

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