What makes a good leader – is it mostly inspiration or perspiration?

Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope you are basking in the attentions of a secret or not-so-secret admirer as you peruse my blog.

The idea for this blog first popped into my head when I watched Foxcatcher. Initially, not knowing anything about the story, I was intrigued to see how Steve Carell mainly known for his comedy acting would handle the serious role of portraying the American millionaire eccentric John Du Pont. (Spoiler alert it’s the performance of his career).

John Du Pont had a vision to build up particular sports in the US such as wrestling and pentathlon and he set up the national wrestling team training centre in his Foxcatcher estate and donated $500,000 per year to the national wrestling federation. During this time Du Pont described himself as a mentor, a role model, a coach, an inspirational leader, a father and a friend to the teams he coached.

This got me thinking, can you really describe yourself as a ‘role model’ or an ‘inspirational’ leader? Surely these are titles that others bestow on the privileged few individuals who have touched their lives in such a way? So then what makes an inspirational leader? What characteristics do they display?

There’s no shortage of quotes and articles written about what makes a great leader but for me it’s someone that:

  1. demonstrates authenticity
  2. has a clear vision and sets a direction of travel that people can believe and get on board with
  3. demonstrates clear values and has courage to challenge those that don’t act with integrity
  4. says what they mean, does what they say they will do and follows through on their promises
  5. supports others and sees the promotion of more junior people as an opportunity rather than a threat
  6. knows when to let others lead and doesn’t meddle or undermine
  7. makes me want to be as good as they are and makes me strive to the next level

I’ve had the privilege of working for several inspirational leaders throughout my career and there is definitely no carbon copy of a great leader. My experience is that the best leaders work extremely hard and are dedicated to the work they do yet are never too busy to spare time for others, particularly more junior people and those early in their career.

Conversely, in Foxcatcher, John Du Pont spent millions with the athletics federations in the US so that he could ‘play’ at being coach. He wanted the control and he craved adulation that many coaches experience, but in reality he couldn’t earn this as he wasn’t good enough to be a coach. No matter how much money he ‘invested’ he couldn’t buy the one thing he really wanted which was their respect and for them to call him the ‘inspiration’ that he truly craved to be.

In my view leadership is mostly perspiration. Many great leaders suffer from imposter syndrome, never thinking they are good enough and therefore continue to work hard and strive and take their people with them on their journey of success. Often never being satisfied and always thinking how things can be improved.

To end I’d like to thank those leaders that have truly inspired me over the years. It has been an honour and a privilege.