Infectious excitement – ‘catching’ the vision

The conventional and dualistic way of thinking about leadership and the tendency to believe that leadership qualities such as ‘inspiration’ can somehow be distilled, bottled and tested for, has resulted in a proliferation of training and consultancy firms offering courses on inspirational or transformational leadership. These range from courses focusing on charismatic individual qualities, through to approaches which are more critical of the idea of the leader as Great Man, offering instead a skills and competency based training . Visionary leadership has become something that can be taught, or otherwise coached and mentored. For example, in 2005 the Department of Trade and Industry of the UK government (DTI) commissioned some research to produce an ‘inspired leadership tool’ (2005) available both face to face and online for leaders to develop their skills with a view to ‘closing the inspirational leadership gap’ in the UK. The following is taken from a slide show for use by Sector Skills Development Agencies (SSDAs), government agencies charged with developing skills for businesses. The first attribute of an inspirational leader is the following:

Dimension 1. Creating the future

This dimension describes the leader’s ability to demonstrate and communicate a shared vision, their capacity to focus on exciting long-term possibilities and share these with others such that they “catch” this excitement and want to contribute.

The inspirational leadership that the government is seeking, which they hope will lead to greater innovation in the UK, is bound up with individual leaders who can generate infectious excitement, and who can harmonise and align their staff around their vision. The not-for-profit sector has also developed its own equivalent of this, although there is still a tendency to cling to the idea that leaders in the not for profit sector will have heroic attributes. However, these will be attributes which are appropriate to the sector: for example Henry Mintzberg , a very prominent management scholar from Canada gives an example of leaders in West Africa who inspire and motivate because of their humility and thoughtfulness. In other words, ‘greatness’ in the service sector tends more towards Gandhi than Donald Trump. What commentators in the not-for-profit sector say they are looking for in leaders is essentially the same as the requirement for leaders in the private sector:

The question of how to assess what type of leader is best suited to the specific requirements of NGOs depends on, first, their ability to engage with the external world, and second, their skill at managing performance. … The ability to manage and encourage effective performance is as much about implementing change and transforming an organisation, as it is about managing staff, delegating responsibilities, or introducing new systems. (Hailey, 2006)

Rather than questioning the assumptions about what leadership might mean in a very different sector, Hailey produces a version of the dominant paradigm that would be acceptable within organisations which have a more pronounced tendency towards the articulation of values and to privilege more participatory ways of working. In NGOs leaders are still expected to unite the twin poles of church and corporation, transformation and results.

Wherever one looks in organisations, no matter in what sector they are based, theories of leadership have converged to a considerable degree. This has led to leadership positions in organisations to have very highly inflated salaries. The rationale is that if leaders really are exceptional invidividuals with exceptional qualities, then surely they should be rewarded commensurately. Leaders in the private and the not-for-proift sectors can usually expect very considerable rewards and the gap between what senior managers are paid in relation to what the most junior recieves has grown enormously.


3 thoughts on “Infectious excitement – ‘catching’ the vision

  1. Randy Zwitch

    It’s interesting to me that there is a school of thought that “inspired leadership” can be taught. People become managers for any number of reasons (created/own company, technical expertise, long career with company, etc.), but to me being someone who inspires others is a personality trait more than a behavior.

    It’s like being a salesman…low barrier to entry, but only those with the ‘good salesman’ personality will find any value from additional training. Same thing has been said about the value of an MBA…those who can get into a top school would be successful without an MBA (self-selection), and those who don’t go to a top school might not get the value from the degree.

    One thing I can say is that an inspirational leader is worth whatever salary they want! Working in the financial services industry, which is clearly in a crisis, we need more inspirational/transformational leaders. What we got from the ‘greedy years’ were just mediocre leaders riding a bull market.

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Thanks Randy. I wonder if it was the inspirational/transformational leaders that got everybody into the mess in the first place. I was reading Gillian Tett’s book, (she of the Financial Times) and the way she writes about the financial crisis would indicate that it was exactly inspirational types who thought, after Enron, that they were ‘the smartest guys in the room’. Hitler, too was a pretty inspirational leader for many.
    Transformation is a big promise, inspirational leaders are on complex ground.

  3. Randy Zwitch

    I agree. There’s definitely a fine like between Steve Jobs and Ken Lay!

    There’s a lot of Enron types in the financial industry still. You’d think after the current meltdown people would re-calibrate their risk tolerances, but I hear “the worst is past, let’s go for it” almost everyday now.

    Transformational and inspirational leaders without humility, perhaps those are the guys to be avoided!


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