What makes an inspiring leader? The key attribute may not be what you think…

What makes an inspiring leader and why does being inspirational matter?

According research by management consultancy firm Bain & Company – inspired employees are more than twice as productive as satisfied employees* – so it’s clearly something for us to sit up and take notice of.

Through their research, Bain set about to define and measure inspirational leadership skills, conducting research which asked questions such as: What characteristics matter when it comes to inspiring others? How many inspiring behaviours does someone need to demonstrate reliability in order to inspire others?

In their research they Identified 33 distinct and tangible attributes that are statistically significant in creating inspiration in others – these were clustered around four key areas: developing inner resources, connecting with others, setting the tone and leading the team.

Bain’s research concluded that having just four of the 33 attributes as distinguishing strengths is sufficient to make someone highly inspiring.

And it showed that that there was one attribute at the nexus of all the attributes.

What do you think it was? Was it vision? Assertiveness maybe? Was it empathy or optimism? Perhaps it was self-regard? Could it be world view or maybe shared ambition?

While all of these showed up in the 33 attributes that are regarded as being important in inspirational leadership – it was “centredness” that showed up as the most important attribute.

Centredness is fundamental to the ability to lead – it improves ones ability to stay level headed, to cope with stress, empathise with others and to listen more deeply. In short – being centred is a precondition to using one’s leadership strengths effectively. Which means that it is a pretty big deal.

So what does “being centred” actually mean?

It seems that to most people being centered means to be calm and balanced in the midst of whatever is going on – the ability to allow life’s small mishaps to roll off one’s shoulders and the ability to quickly regain control of your mental and emotional responses in challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed.

But what if being centred doesn’t come naturally to us – how can we cultivate this essential leadership skill?

There are various schools of thoughts and approaches around how to cultivate more centredness.

One approach developed by Wendy Palmer has it’s roots in martial arts (aikido), mindfulness and neuroscience; described by Wendy as “Leadership Embodiment or Centred Leadership” she proffers that we are able to cultivate the ability to choose to be centred and mindful and that in doing so we can begin to shift from reacting habitually to responding resourcefully and creatively.

In this approach a distinction is made between two aspects of ourselves – “Personality” and “Centre”. When we are operating from Personality our focus is on safety and managing our environment – we want to be in control, have people like us (approve of us) and to feel safe; of course constantly attempting to manage every situation to achieve a desired outcome makes it very difficult to be skillful or creative, especially in threatening or stressful situations.

Conversely when we are in a centred state of being we appreciate that everything changes, we can open ourselves up to challenges and are able to adapt. Operating from centre allows our natural responsiveness and creativity to emerge because we are not focussed on safety.

So how can this be achieved? This shift from personality to centre can be achieved by working with our bodies, through posture and breathing. When we centre ourselves our posture shifts – and this shift in posture can influence how we think as well as articulate our thoughts.

There is a growing body of research about how our bodies and posture affect our thinking with the topic being made famous through TED talks such as that by American Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on presence and body language.

So the encouraging news is that by working with our bodies, posture and breathing we can begin to cultivate the centred state of being so valuable in leadership – not to mention life in general.

From my point of view this isn’t about being continually in a zen- like centred state – it’s about developing the muscle that allows us to be able to quickly find our way back to our centre – and there is increasing evidence that working with the body is one of the most effective ways of doing it.

So – are you ready to enhance your leadership skillset and to be an even more inspiring leader? Yes? Well it’s time to put your body where your mind is – start building your centring muscle today with the exercise below. 

Centring practice (adapted from Embodied Leadership by Wendy Palmer and Janet Crawford).

  • Ideally standing up (although it works well sitting down too) – breath up your back, over the top of your head and slowly down your front back down to your feet – do this a couple of times.
  • Orient yourself in the room – notice the walls in front, to the side and behind you; become aware of the ceiling above you and the floor beneath you
  • Imagine an energy field – an orb that surrounds you and that expands out towards the walls, ceiling and floor – you might like to give it a colour
  • Next, scan your body starting from the top of your head – as you move down your body relax your eyes, jaw, tongue, shoulders, chest, belly, buttocks down to your feet.
  • Finally – you might like to think of a quality you would like to embody more. Take a moment and ask yourself – what would it be like to have just 5% of it – for example what would it be like to have 5% more ease/self assurance/curiousity in my life?– and take a moment to notice how you feel and any shifts that happen in your body.
  • Practice doing this whenever you can – while boiling the kettle, waiting for the lights to change to green – any time you can – aim for 10 x 50 seconds a day

And remember – practice makes permanent!

Wishing you all the best


Boldly-Go Leadership & Team Coaching

*Bain & Company “How Leaders Inspire: Cracking the code”