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How leaders inspire: Cracking the Code

Posted on Mar 2, 2017

What makes a leader inspiring? Companies that can answer this question have a powerful tool to increase their competitive edge. Inspired employees are more than twice as productive as satisfied employees, according to research Bain recently conducted with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The power of a company with leaders who inspire at every level up and down the organization is hard to overstate. These are the companies that consistently pull off innovative or heroic feats in business because so many of the people who work there are motivated to make them happen. Companies spend billions of dollars on leadership training to reinforce and enhance the soft skills that inspire, motivate and create engagement, but most have found that it is deceptively hard to do these things.

Few rigorous methods exist to measure someone’s ability to inspire, to systematically develop that intangible quality or to embed those skills throughout an organization. As Barbara Kellerman, founding executive director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, has observed: “Leadership as an area of intellectual inquiry remains thin, and little original thought has been given to what leader learning in the second decade of the 21st century should look like.”

What does it take to foster inspiring leaders, not just through a lucky accident of talent management but year in and year out? To help answer that question, we have been conducting comprehensive research since 2013, using Bain and select clients as a test bed. Specifically, we designed an analytical approach to define, measure and develop inspirational skills.

Three key questions guided our research:

  • What characteristics matter when it comes to inspiring others?
  • How many inspiring behaviors does someone need to demonstrate reliably in order to inspire others, and what pattern of behaviors is most powerful?
  • How can we calibrate the strength of those characteristics in an individual?

While inspiration may seem difficult to decipher, we identified 33 distinct and tangible attributes that are statistically significant in creating inspiration in others. And having just four of those attributes as distinguishing strengths is sufficient to make someone highly inspiring.

The findings also demonstrate that people who inspire are incredibly diverse. Any combination of distinguishing strengths works: There is no fixed archetype of an inspirational leader.

Mark Horwitch is a partner and Meredith Whipple Callahan manager at Bain & Company. For more on this leadership research go to