Inspirational Leaders: What the World Needs Now – is Leadership, Real Leadership!

I know I am not the first to ponder what good leadership is and yet it is a question that seems to have a greater sense of urgency now that ever before.


I felt very sad at the news that Nelson Mandela passed away in December 2013. And then again, the same feeling in October 2014 with Gough Whitlam’s death. Both men had lived long and full lives so their deaths could not be called tragic by any means, and yet I felt that something very significant had ended with their passing.


I have observed a shift that has occurred in the way that leaders lead. It seems to me that there is now a much stronger populist bent to modern leadership where popular appeal is seen as crucial to retention of a leadership position and its associated power. This approach appears to be prioritised over more visionary approaches to leadership. This certainly seems to be true of political leaders. More and more we see leaders rise and fall based on their popularity rather than their vision or their skills. And we all know that popularity can be made and lost in the blink of an eye, based on not much more than suggestion and whim.


So what about visionary leadership? What about leadership that is motivated and driven by values rather than popularity and power? Or even leadership that is concerned for human wellbeing and promoting kindness and compassion rather than leadership designed to promote fear and intolerance of difference. Important social issues seem to have become ‘all about the money’ rather than about what is in the best interests of humanity.


It doesn’t take a lot of work to find out that it is rarely, if ever, ‘all about the money’. The argument that there is not enough money is simply not true. It is all about priorities, and the priorities that are set by our leaders, rather than dollars in the bank. We can find billions of dollars for defence at the drop of an oily rag and yet when it comes to homelessness or poverty, there is suddenly not enough money. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that in the five financial years between 2002-03 and 2006-07 the war in Iraq cost Australia approximately $3 billion. It is now estimated that in Australia the total cost of the Iraq war was over $5 billion. And in the US the overall cost is estimated to be in excess of $938 billion. That’s a great deal of money to find when we have already been told that ‘there is not enough money’.


It is also now clear from research on ‘happiness economics’ that the relationship between money and happiness is not as straightforward as we might have imagined. The Easterlin Paradox (based on the work of Richard Easterlin) suggests that in the long term, increases in income do not result in increases in happiness. While income increased in the US from 1946 to 1970 there was not a related increase in happiness, and in fact happiness levels decreased from 1960-1970.


It could be argued that capitalism as a form of social organisation contributes to low self-esteem and self worth and those persistent feelings of ’not being good enough’ (Gilmore, 2004). It is not a big leap to suggest that our focus on material possessions, often at the cost of happiness and well-being, may well be more than a happy coincidence for capitalism. At its crudest, retail therapy is a great way to boost our sense of self.


Interestingly, if we were to employ a purely fiscal lens to the most persistent social problems it would make sense to argue for a greater focus on human wellbeing and a reduced focus on profit and greed. A happy population is far less likely to draw heavily on social resources. If sufficient funds were directed to early intervention and prevention programs as well as high quality responses and interventions for people in need, many of the worst social problems would be mitigated in a more cost effective manner. This is a good idea not just because it might cost less – it is also a good idea because it is the right thing to do. And we seem to have lost our commitment and desire to do things simply because we all know that they are the right things to do.


I believe that what we really need to see in our world now is inspirational leaders who
  • are more likely to act and respond because it is the right thing to do
  • are more likely to make decisions based on the overall impact on social wellbeing rather than just one dimension such as economics seen in isolation from all others
  • are motivated and driven by values and no matter how that is expressed, at its heart there is a core value and intention to make the world a better place for every human being
  • strive for a consistency between these values and intentions and their actions; this is called integrity – a very desirable characteristic for us all but certainly for our leaders
  • encourage more value-based discussions where the focus is on why we are doing these things and how these values and intentions relate to the vision for a better world
  • are inspirational to others and make us all want to be better people who also want to make the world a better place
  • are not motivated (at least not solely) by their ego and need for power and therefore they are not puppets who please and pander and placate rather than lead and set a positive example
  • are able to make difficult decisions because it is the right thing to do and not shy away because they might be unpopular or because there might be difficult consequences
  • do not speak to others with disrespect designed to degrade and discredit and belittle. (Yet political leaders spend many of their days doing just that. I have always wondered why they appear to be so surprised that the general public do not respect them and certainly do not feel inspired by them. In fact, if you or I spoke to a colleague in a workplace in the same manner using the same words that a politican uses to speak to a fellow politican in parliament, we would be performance-managed and quite likely lose our jobs. And no one would be surprised.)


For me, an inspirational leader is one who can get this delicate, gentle balance between not needing to keep themselves small because of underlying feelings of shame or inadequacy, but allowing themselves to be big yet not letting their ego get too involved. To be vulnerable and imperfect and genuine and authentic, while committed to making the world a better place for everyone – these are the qualities that I most admire in a leader.


This is the first post in a series that we are launching on Inspirational Leaders. There will be four separate series on this topic – Inspirational Leaders: What the world needs now; Inspirational Leaders: Are not always in the places you’d expect to find them!: Inspirational Leaders: It’s not about having power but what you do with it; and Inspirational Leaders: Young people are the future of change. In our first series we will profile leaders who have in some way contributed to making the world a better place, most of them will be known to you but some may not.


We hope you enjoy this series and if you have any suggestions about people to profile please let us know.