The route to compelling leadership

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Consider a few words on the concept of compelling leadership: ‘A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation, but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.’

This was written by acclaimed US writer David Foster Wallace in his essay on US Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. In particular, the statement ‘you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel’ gets at one of the core truths of compelling leadership: the leader’s positive impact on the emotions of their followers.

Understanding how a leader elicits these feelings involves examining some of the common components of compelling leadership.

Direction, not command

‘People would move a mountain for leaders that they know, trust, respect and value as an associate,’ leadership expert Darlene Hunter once told me in an interview. This view serves as a good foundation for compelling leadership: an underlying shared belief that the leader trusts and respects team members, and greatly values their contributions. Followers who feel this are much more likely to be engaged in their work and happy to be part of the organisation or company at large.

Often this trust and respect develops in part because the compelling leader does not demand unwavering loyalty from their followers; they are not interested in maintaining a hierarchical relationship of ‘Do what I say or be fired.’

These trusted leaders give direction, but they empower rather than command. As a result, followers often feel more like partners and less like subordinates, and this keeps them highly vested in any operations they are involved in. Team members know that the leader has the final say but, as Wallace writes, this authority is a power that is voluntarily bestowed by followers. Trust and respect runs both ways.

Hopeful and compelling

Compelling leaders often possess high emotional intelligence, and this helps them connect with followers on an emotional level. As another presidential nominee, Rev Jesse Jackson, said ahead of his 1984 campaign, compelling leaders are comfortable displaying a rich range of emotions: ‘Leaders must be tough enough to fight, tender enough to cry, human enough to make mistakes, humble enough to admit them, strong enough to absorb the pain, and resilient enough to bounce back and keep on moving.’

This emotional intelligence helps a leader express a long-term vision that is both hopeful and compelling. This vision usually connects long-term goals for the team and organisation to the achievement of some greater good, like the advancement of a worthy cause. This cause is usually larger than any one individual or organisation, and making progress on it will bring about positive change.

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Serving a greater good is also what distinguishes a compelling leader from a power-hungry demagogue who may attempt to manipulate the emotions of followers for self-serving aims. In contrast, the emotionally intelligent leader inspires and boosts morale without manipulation; they are in tune with how the positive cause resonates with followers on a human level and how that drives each operation forward.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are also mindful of the emotional states of their followers, and this often elicits admiration from team members. For example, a leader who helps a worker get through a difficult period in which negative life events are impacting professional performance will sometimes find that they have earned the lifelong respect of the worker.

Similarly, a leader who recognises early symptoms of burnout in a team member and approaches the situation in a helpful and compassionate manner will most likely stand out in the employee’s mind as one of the best leaders that they have ever worked with.

Safe space

Inspiration is not the only method that compelling leaders use to spark high performance from their followers. Some leaders are able to sustain a workplace where team members feel that they can grow and reach their potential, and create an environment that allows workers to take ambitious and innovative actions by providing them with a ‘safe place to fail’.

There’s a simple reason why this practice can be compelling to followers: not many leaders are doing it. Psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that most people are more motivated to avoid failure than to strive for success. This is evident in many current organisations, where the main message conveyed by leadership is: ‘Above all, just don’t screw up.’

Moreover, some leaders in organisations are intent on avoiding any risky action that might hurt their own careers. Take, for example, a leader who serves as a vice president of a company and reports to the CEO. In some cases, the leader is less focused on the best interests of their team members and more focused on managing them in such a way that will most impress the CEO.

In contrast, compelling leaders show that they are willing to risk taking lumps out of senior management if it allows them to manage in an empowering style that serves their team. These leaders provide a supportive environment for the kind of thinking-outside-the-box innovation that can lead to huge performance gains.

In these empowered environments, staffers are encouraged to grow and stretch themselves, and team members are more likely to believe they will fulfil their potential – and maybe even exceed it. This is compelling to many employees and, as Wallace says, ‘you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own’.

Author: Mark Tarallo is an author and journalist covering management and leadership issues

This article was first published in AB magazine January 2023

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