3 traits the most inspiring leaders share

Recent research by Bain & Company aims to identify the core traits of inspiring leaders.

Eric Garton, a partner in Bain & Company's Chicago office, leader of the organization's Global Organization practice, and co-author of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, recently shared insights from the company's research in the Harvard Business Review.

"Anyone can become an inspiring leader," Garton writes. "They're made, not born."

But leaders often misunderstand what it means to be inspiring, according to Garton. For example, during a 2,000-person survey undertaken as part of the study, researchers found that some leaders make their teams feel motivated, but don't change outcomes.

Garton shares three recommendations based on his team's research for becoming an inspiring leader who also gets results.

Be the best at one thing

When asked what makes someone inspiring, survey responses ran the gamut: from optimism, to humility, to responsibility. To be seen as inspiring, it mattered much less which traits leaders had than whether those traits were highly developed.

It also turned out that great leaders aren't really well-rounded. Instead, they tended to be better than everyone else at one skill.

For any attribute on the survey, being in the top 10% of the peer group for that attribute doubled an individual's likelihood of being viewed as inspiring.

Researchers concluded that inspiring leaders are a diverse group and "there is no universal archetype," Garton writes. Whatever your current strengths are, he says, you can use them to become an inspiring leader.

The "best" leaders share these 3 personality traits

Find the team that needs you

Inspiring leaders also tended to be in organizations and roles where their unique attributes aligned closely with the mission and strategy of the team. For example, Garton writes, an organization that relies on lavish marketing campaigns to beat its competition is unlikely to value someone whose strength is cost management.

Garton says most inspiring leaders place themselves in positions where their unique strength is also the precise thing that the team needs to achieve its goals. Then they obsess over developing that quality in themselves and their teams.

Shock the status quo

To jolt a stagnant organization into new behaviors, Garton says inspiring leaders sometimes need to take a radical, symbolic move.

For example, to kick-start a more customer service-driven culture at Starbucks, Howard Schultz closed more than 7,000 stores for three hours to retrain the baristas to make espresso. When Alan Mulally strove to build a more honest communication culture at Ford, he publicly applauded an executive for admitting to a failure in a meeting.

Gestures like this need to be carefully chosen, Garton writes, but they can be an extremely effective way to break teams out of counterproductive habits and signal your commitment to new priorities (Garton, Harvard Business Review, 4/25).

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