Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on February 26, 2019
What makes a truly great leader? In part, it’s the ability to inspire followers toward an aspirational goal. I miss the inspirational leadership of three former leaders, whose words and their delivery of those words inspired many of us.
Former President John F. Kennedy, in his Sept. 12, 1962 speech, announced the national goal of sending men to the moon and returning them safely to Earth before the decade was out. As a high school student at the time with the goal of going to college and earning a degree in chemical engineering, I was inspired by not only Kennedy’s audacious challenge to overcome the immensely difficult technical and engineering barriers, but also by his confidence that the goal could be achieved.
Former President Ronald Reagan, in his Jan. 20, 1981 inaugural address, spoke of the exceptionalism of Americans in a very positive, uplifting message, describing the “will and moral courage of free men and women,” and how committed we are to defending freedom. Reagan’s eloquent speech was a call to action for all Americans to be the best they could be, and serve as an example for the rest of the world to emulate. He is the president I most admire.
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill on June 4, 1940 delivered his “we shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament to rally his citizens during World War II. Churchill’s speech, reenacted by Gary Oldman, in the film, “The Darkest Hour,” is an inspiring example of how a national leader can mobilize a nation’s citizens toward the most challenging goal it has ever faced – national survival. In the film, one can overhear the comment, “He mobilized the English language, and sent it into battle.” Unfortunately, not very many leaders can do the same today.
So, what did Kennedy, Reagan and Churchill have in common? They had wonderful command of vocabulary and knew how to inspirationally communicate their goals and beliefs with emotion in an up-lifting way that won the hearts and minds of their citizens. They united the nations they were leading at the time.
How does a business leader win the hearts and minds of those they lead? How do you become an inspiring leader? Certainly, it takes more than great communication skills. Inspirational leaders have other skills as well.
Lolly Daskal is a leading executive leadership coach and founder of Lead From Within. In her article, “Six powerful traits of the most inspiring business leaders,” Daskal identifies these traits as people skills, credibility, authenticity, emotional intelligence, motivation, and positivity.
Murray Newlands, an entrepreneur, business advisor and speaker, in his article, “Seven characteristics of inspirational leaders,” says that inspirational leaders have a clear vision of the future, express unerring positivity, listen to their people, are grateful to their team, communicate impeccably, are trustworthy, and are passionate about what they do.
Based on my own experience as a CEO and director on the boards of numerous companies, I would like to add to the list of characteristics and traits of inspirational leaders identified by Daskal and Newlands, as follows:
Is genuine in words and actions, and is a person of high ethics and integrity
A leader who is not genuine and lacks ethics and integrity will not earn the respect and trust of the people within their organization. They will certainly not inspire followers to achieve great results. Board members, be sure you hire a CEO with these traits.
Communicates the importance of the company’s goals
The senior leadership team of the company needs to communicate the importance of the company’s goals in both group meetings and in one-on-one conversations with key opinion leaders within the company.
Employees need to feel that the goals are meaningful and achievable and will have a positive benefit for them and the organization. The goals should be aspirational, and stretch beyond the normal reach of individuals.
Identifies the role that employees play in attaining the goal
After completing a new strategic plan, as the recently appointed CEO of PQ Corporation, I communicated the goals of the company to our business units, and just as importantly, the role each business unit had in achieving those goals. The role of our low-growth commodity chemical business was to generate cash flow, through very heavy emphasis on continuous improvement. This cash flow would be invested in our high-growth specialty chemical and catalyst businesses.
After I made my presentation to the employees of our commodity chemical business, one of the employees commented, “This is the first time I was told what our role is in the achievement of the company’s strategic goals.” In my former position as COO of the company, I was too close to the strategic planning process to realize that the different roles of business unit employees to achieve the company’s goals had not been explained to them. All individuals who take part in achieving the goals of the company should have a personal ownership of the role that they themselves play in the achievement of those goals.
Frequently provide updates on progress
By frequently sharing updates on the progress towards achieving the company’s goals, an inspirational leader has the opportunity to keep the focus on what the company is trying to accomplish. It keeps the company’s employees in the game.
Great inspirational leaders have great communication skills. To those that have a fear of public speaking, you can conquer that fear by facing it head on, by receiving coaching and taking every opportunity to publicly speak. You will never regret that you developed this skill. Someday, you, like Churchill, Kennedy and Reagan, may be able to mobilize the English language and send it into battle.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.