Inspiration or aspiration?


Great leaders concentrate their energies on the things they are good at. They must also inspire others in their organisation to achieve greatness.

Most businesses today, particularly large multinationals (the most noticeable and easiest to scrutinize), are driven by two distinct styles of management; inspiration-led and aspiration-led styles. Whilst they are quite different in their modus operandi, they do have some distinct cross-overs. Neither, however, provides a holistic winning formula in the current economic climate.

Inspiration-led organisations, companies such as Apple, Google, ARM Holdings and Amazon, have charismatic leaders who are inclusive by nature and connect well with their teams. They tend not to be risk-averse (certainly in terms of being wrong) and are driven by innovation and creativity. They will have a clear vision of where they want their company to be in the future, and they have the ability to effectively articulate that vision in a way that is compelling to those around them and other stakeholders in the organisation. Bureaucracy is anathema and these organisations tend not to be (overly) hierarchical in structure.

Organisations that are driven by an aspiration-led leadership have a very different way of operating. Many also have charismatic leaders but size, market share, influence and geographic spread are more important than innovation and creativity. They are power driven and being at the top is crucial; they are game makers and definitely not game followers. The behaviour of these aspiration-led organisations can sometimes be seen as arrogant and self-serving. Businesses in the banking, mining, pharmaceutical and petroleum industries are typical examples of companies that have an aspiration-style leadership.

Over many years I have worked with numerous senior managers across a wide range of industries. It is not uncommon to find that many of them draw leadership lessons and inspiration from examples set by their peers and others. There are distinct advantages in doing so. Learning in a contextual way can have much more meaning and impact than learning in a conventional manner. Sometimes it results in their changing the way they behave and manage, but this invariably produces positive results.

As I mentioned earlier, neither an inspiration-led nor an aspiration-led management style is perfect in all situations, so should we combine the best of both and create a new leadership style?

Maybe it’s a bit like asking if BP could be run more effectively by having Richard Branson working alongside Bob Dudley in a joint CEO role! Certainly, the innovative Mr Branson has been noted for castigating the management of some of Britain’s leading organisations, but perfection is not the principal objective in creating a new style of leadership.

Developing a new leadership style to address the changing needs of business will ultimately involve everyone in the organisation, not just those at senior management levels. It is certainly accepted that what has worked well in buoyant times is unlikely to be as effective in difficult economic times. Traditional ways of thinking and operating will need to be challenged if companies are to remain strong and competitive. To quote Mark Twain, if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. It is about being prepared to change, then driving that change forward, both on an individual and corporate level.

Observing the styles of other leaders will provide valuable insight. However, what makes the observation most beneficial is when leaders draw from these styles what they require in order to develop and nurture their own unique way of leading, creating and generating that meets not only the immediate needs of the organisations but, more importantly, those of the future. Since a change in leadership style is going to affect the entire company, results are not going to be immediate. In itself, this is not a problem because once the need for change has been identified and communicated from the top down, the seeds for creating a new way of doing business will have been sown and should quickly flourish.

Effective communication of change can be achieved in a number of ways. One which I have found to be most beneficial, particularly in large companies with multiple layers of management, is providing employees with direct access to senior executives. Which employees and how much access will depend on the organisation, but from my experience with organisations that provide this access, junior managers often report feeling more "included" in their company and less marginalized from senior management. They have an opportunity to provide input on new ideas and projects, and senior managers have the opportunity of mentoring up-and-coming juniors. Just as senior management draws leadership lessons from its peer group, so do younger managers draw experience from their superiors, albeit in a much closer relationship. Mentoring also discourages vital talent from jumping ship and taking their skills elsewhere. This is important because even in a down economy, talent will always be in demand.

Great leaders are those who concentrate their energies on the things they are good at, and totally accept the things they are not good at. Irrespective of whether their style is inspiration-led or aspiration-led, they are comfortable with the fact that they, alone, can’t achieve everything, so surrounding themselves with good people who have the skills to achieve what they can’t, these leaders are able to inspire others in their organisation to achieve greatness. Which takes us back to the issue of whether there is a need to create a new leadership style.

A new style in itself is probably not required. After all, if it’s not fundamentally broken, why try and fix it? Both inspiration and aspiration styles of leadership can be effective, even when an economic collapse threatens the very existence of a business. Where there is a desire or need to change an existing leadership style, business leaders should choose from the attributes of existing styles and nurture an approach that best suits them. The overriding objective, however, is not to create a style that becomes formulaic, but a style that is sustainable and can be repeated.