Identifying Great Leaders: Inspiration and Impact


In a foundational leadership course I facilitate, I ask the students who they consider to be a great leader and why. With over 500 students in the past two years, I find in each class the answers are consistently similar. They identify two types of leaders who have either inspired or directly impacted them. The responses also provide some valuable insights for first-line supervisors and managers.

The first category of leaders are people most of us would recognize. Names like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Mother Teresa and many others like them. These are historical figures who have significantly impacted the world. When asked why they chose these particular people, the students typically mention how inspirational these people were. Following are some of the words used to describe these leaders:

  • Charisma
  • Powerful
  • Influence
  • Selfless
  • Passionate
  • Mission-oriented
  • Commitment

Almost unanimously, the common theme amongst those named is their ability to communicate, even though many of them did so in different ways. Even today, who could listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and not be moved? At the same time, Mother Teresa’s humility and amazing persistence for her mission in India served as powerful communication devices.

These leaders also had significantly different missions, but they all embodied the ability to motivate and move masses of people towards various goals. Certainly, the mission and goals of a Gandhi differ a great deal from a General Schwarzkopf. But their commitment and passion were the same. They personified confidence, even if presented in different forms.

Other famous people the students names include innovators like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin. Their creativity and inventive nature set them apart, and like the names listed before, impacted the world.

But guess what? Most of us aren’t going to be the next Abraham Lincoln or Bill Gates or Colin Powell. Yet, we can still have an incredible impact on those we lead (and serve). Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, We are not all called to do great things, but we can each do small things with great love.

That is my segue to the second type of leader my students recognize class after class. They identify first-level supervisors and front-line managers, the people who are impacting their lives on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong, not all of the students do this, but those who have effective supervisors are more than willing to list their supervisor as a “great leader.” Following are some of the attributes they use to describe these leaders:

  • Invested
  • Active listener
  • Cares about my growth and development
  • Courageous
  • Expertise
  • Integrity
  • Genuine

Who wouldn’t want to work for someone who has even just a fraction of those attributes?

When students name their supervisors and list some or all of those attributes, other students chime in how they wish their supervisor was like that. Sadly, many students tell different stories of supervisors and managers who are uninvolved, hide behind e-mails or are only worried about themselves. The results are lower morale, questions of worth or value to the organization and the desire to move to another location. Bear in mind, this is a voluntary leadership development course, so these students are hungry to do great things and emerge into leadership roles.

I get it. We get busy. Most of us are working long hours and there’s an endless supply of items on the daily task list. It can be downright exhausting, and perhaps, makes it difficult to keep our own morale up. Being responsible for someone else just adds to the weight.

But interestingly, when you start to do some of the things on that list of attributes, you gain a sense of energy. Developing others generates a sense of buy-in and ownership of the programs and – if done correctly –  may allow for some delegation of that mountain of tasks. Sharing expertise makes everyone around you better. Leadership at any level requires a dose of courage and a great deal of investment.

If that’s not happening now, shouldn’t it be? Wouldn’t it be great to have one of my students identify you as a great leader?

The implications are rather clear. First-line supervisors and front-line managers truly do have the capability to not only impact their employees but also to inspire them. This isn’t accomplished by great oratory abilities or by moving millions of people towards a goal. Instead, it’s about breathing life into the workforce. It’s about doing the hard work day in and day out to show you care about your people. It’s about putting people in the best position to succeed. That is greatness.


Brian Schooley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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