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Why Great Leaders Inspire Others

Individuals follow leaders who appeal to causes, values, and convictions larger than themselves. Here's why.
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It is a truism that people want to believe in causes greater than themselves. That belief is central to the nature of purpose and its role in organizational intention, and even in the way we focus.

It is also true for leadership. Followers want to believe that their leader stands for something, and, to an extent, may be better than anyone else at the job. Such a conviction defines why followers defer willingly to leaders. 

Historian James Macgregor Burns has written that we follow those leaders whose values we emulate. Politicians leverage (often cynically) such convictions for political gain emulating conservative or progressive talking points as a means of "connecting." Too bad. True leaders do not pander to audiences; they lead from their core convictions.

Clayton Christensen spoke about such convictions in an address he delivered to the class of 2012 at Harvard Business School, where he is a professor. The students did not want Christensen, a best-selling author and noted expert on innovation, to speak about business. Rather, they wanted him to speak about how to live a more principled life. These students, who are among the brightest of the bright, were searching for meaning behind work. Based upon their pedigrees, these students are likely to succeed financially. But they know that life is not a sum of dollars and sense.

Christensen—a deeply religious man—shared his own story of choices he had made and of which he was proud. And he closed with these words. "Don't worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that…your life will be judged a success."

Judging yourself by what you do for others is an idea central to many faiths, both Western and Eastern. It does not mean that you need dedicate your life to social service. The world needs men and women in management who are competent and caring leaders. These folks may run their businesses according to their bottom line—but they do not run their lives that way.

Instead, they are engaged in their communities as well as with employees. One thing I note in family owned businesses is the personal commitment that people at the top feel for people who work with them. 

One company that operates on such principles is Beryl Companies, a healthcare call-service company. Its management team, headed by Paul Spiegelman, is a truly communitarian. He and his leadership are personally invested in the future of their employees. It is a family-run enterprise that seeks to make employees part of the family with good benefits and competitive rates of compensation.

It really comes down to doing well by doing good, and in doing so leaders provide their followers with an example of purposeful and principled living. People not only want to follow such leaders, but they also do so with great enthusiasm.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Mar 6, 2012

JOHN BALDONI | Columnist | President, Baldoni Consulting

John Baldoni is the president of Baldoni Consulting, an executive coaching firm. John speaks widely on leadership and has written 10 leadership books; his newest is Lead With Purpose: Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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