BOSTON (05/31/2000) - "Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred."
-from The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Lord Tennyson My fascination with leadership began when I had to study this poem as a child.
I could never understand why the six hundred followed their leader knowing they were facing sure death. I asked why so many times my teacher sent home a note saying I was being disruptive in class. Fortunately, I was not dissuaded from my quest to understand great leaders.
Think of some of the inspirational leaders of the past: Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, George Patton, Mother Teresa. What did they have in common? Passion for a cause, commitment, vision, energy, courage. Make your own list. One of the best ways to become an inspirational leader is to study those who are.
Better yet, work for one and learn from her.
Early in my career I had two experiences with what I'll call inspirational leaders. One remains my favorite boss. First, he was always accessible. No matter how busy he was, he made time for me. To me, it meant I mattered.
Second, he never solved my problems. Instead, he gave me guidance in the form of principles that could be used over and over again for different situations.
Some examples: "Kill your enemy with kindness"; "Always take the high road--in the long run, it is the winning strategy"; "Win the war, not the battle."
Third, he encouraged me by praising my strengths. It was up to me to use them to succeed. Last, and maybe most important, he "lifted me up." He made me feel I could do anything. Isn't that what inspiration is all about?
Here are some characteristics to emulate if you want to become an inspirational leader:
Passion and Vision: People are drawn to those who have a vision and a passion for their cause. In our field this should be an easy one. The mix of the new technology and the transitional state of business as we move from the old economy into the new economy makes exciting opportunities easy picking. If you work in your own areas of deep interest, the passion surfaces with no difficulty. Then create the vision for others to see. Finding the words, drawing the pictures that capture the imagination is a skill that can be learned and practiced. Think of famous inspirational words that still reverberate today, such as Martin Luther King's "I have a dream...."
Will and Determination: Some people commit to accomplish, others try to accomplish, but great leaders intend to accomplish. They have a will and determination that knows no boundaries. No matter the number of distractions, they keep their eye on the target. They see obstacles as only those things you need to get past to reach the target.
Courage: Aristotle believed that courage is the first of all virtues because it makes the others possible. There is an element of personal risk-taking in the deeds of great leaders. They do not have a "what's in it for me" attitude. They take on the "big idea." There is a willingness to take a stand even if it is controversial or politically incorrect. With this goes the willingness to take responsibility and accountability for results.
Confidence: Fear of failure is not an attribute of inspiring leaders. They take failure in stride--not satisfied that it occurred, but not devastated, either.
The best leaders can readily describe their failures; only the mediocre have none to remember. Learn from these great leaders and try again. Have the confidence to make the big decisions and move on.
Caring: The ability to empathize with others and understand their individual motivations is a hallmark of leadership. Great leaders find many ways to meet people's needs. They care enough to expect a lot from their people, and they believe in them. They engender tremendous loyalty as a result. When someone cares about you personally it creates a solid bond.
Charisma: There are leaders with low-key personalities who inspire great devotion, and there are also many who have great charisma--their social, extroverted personalities draw people to them like a magnet. Either way, great leaders manage to find a common ground with people and build rapport.
Authenticity: Say what you mean; mean what you say. Meet commitments. Be predictable. Set the example of what you want people to be.
Connectedness: Inspiring leaders connect with ideas by listening intently with open minds and learning from everyone. They connect with people by looking at them directly. They see people for who they are and what they know--not what they are and who they know. Finally, they connect with results by getting things done.
You might think some people are born leaders. But there are surely days when even the greatest are neither inspired nor inspiring. On the flip side, sometimes events raise people to a greatness they've never shown and may never exhibit again. One example I've seen was in a large company undertaking a huge, risky project. Most times in this company people would avoid this type of project because of the risk of failure. In this case, though, the project leader was so passionate about the possibilities and the positive outcomes that he created a sort of mystique around this project. Others began to see it as a chance of a lifetime. Before you knew it, people were volunteering right and left. Needless to say, it was a huge success.
What raised this project leader to the level of greatness in this instance? His real commitment to the outcome? His ability to see the vision? His determination to get it done? All of the above. Can he sustain this inspirational leadership? That's up to him.
And it is up to you. Try to work for an inspiring leader, try even harder to become one and to give back to the profession by developing new ones. The opportunities are bountiful. There is such a body of knowledge resident in this community, such a creative force, so many big ideas waiting to be championed.
Send your own tales of inspiration or other thoughts about our ongoing Total Leadership column to email@example.com.
Before retiring in 1999, Patricia Wallington was corporate vice president and CIO at Xerox Corp. In 1997, Wallington, now president of CIO Associates based in Sarasota, Florida, was inducted into the Women in Science and Technology Hall of Fame and named by CIO one of the 12 most influential IT executives of the decade.