What Makes an “Inspirational Leader”?


I was talking with a leader I used to work for the other day, and after our conversation, I felt truly inspired. She was talking about all of the projects she was working on and her overall strategy to enhance HR service delivery. I don’t even work for her anymore and by the end of our brief conversation, I felt completely “on board” with her message and strategy. That’s the thing about inspirational leaders, they inspire you even when they’re not your leader. 

I was recently interviewed as a HR Consultant for a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article, “Building a Better Boss.” The article discusses HR's role in dealing with "bad bosses," and profiles several “bad boss” types, such as “micromanagers” and “bully bosses.” Discussing “bad bosses” is a worthy endeavor. Only through identifying and labeling certain behavior can we truly begin to change the behavior. I feel the same way about “great bosses.” Only through identifying and labeling their behavior can we learn how to be more like them ourselves. 

I have been lucky enough to work with many inspirational leaders, people in leadership roles who created energy around a meaningful mission and inspired those around them to do their best work. 

When I think back to all of the inspirational leaders I’ve worked for, they are very different people in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic background, education level, communication style, and personality. In fact, on a personal level, they are more different than they are similar. However, each one of them embodied these same characteristics.

Inspirational leaders work in a job they love. We’ve all worked with someone who hates their job. They show up late, don’t return your calls/emails, and are incessantly negative. They might be good at what they do, but they’re in the “wrong” job in terms of their values and interests, and it shows in their behavior. Inspirational leaders are the opposite. They are a great “fit” for their position. They are the absolute best person for the job, and it shows in everything they do. They show up on-time, work hard to meet deadlines, and accomplish more than most people around them. They engage their employees through consistent communication, teaching, and coaching. Their job is truly in alignment with their skills, abilities, and most importantly their values. Their passion for what they do for a living is infectious and is a great motivator for employees.

Inspirational leaders give honest, direct feedback. My favorite leaders spoke directly and honestly with me, even when it was something I didn’t want to hear. They gave me tons of positive feedback and support, regularly recognizing my accomplishments, but they also gave me well-intentioned, negative feedback. Their intention by giving the feedback was truly to help me improve, build skills, and succeed. There’s nothing worse than a boss who tells you you’re doing great when they don’t really mean it. Inspirational leaders focus on the positive, but they are not afraid to tell you, honestly and kindly, when you need to improve. Their candor builds trust and fosters an environment for open and honest communication.

Inspirational leaders are experts in their career field. And, it doesn’t have to be the same career field as their employees’. Some of the best leaders I’ve worked for are not HR professionals, but rather operations managers, politicians, lawyers, and finance executives who were truly stellar at their jobs. In turn, these leaders were humble about their short-comings and often deferred to their employees in areas they didn’t know much about. When your boss directs a customer to you and says, “this is Skye’s area of expertise,” it shows they truly value your ability.

Inspirational leaders believe in work-life balance. I don’t often see this quality as one that makes the list of leadership qualities, but to me, it is invaluable that a leader personally cares about their employees’ well-being. When a leader encourages vacation time, breaks, and normal work hours as an important component of the job, it makes their employees feel valued. And who wants to work for someone who doesn’t value them? The inspirational leaders I’ve worked for quickly approved my vacation requests, never called me while I was off sick or on vacation, and above all they modeled taking breaks themselves. What was the result? I worked harder for them.

Inspirational leaders are inclusive. The most inspirational leaders I’ve worked for valued the differences in their staff and they encouraged employees to bring their whole selves to work. In other words, their employees didn’t have to hide their personal beliefs and backgrounds, they were encouraged to share about themselves. Inclusive practices range from a team discussion about diversity and biases in the workplace, to greeting employees by their first name and offering them a seat at the table. Inspirational leaders see it as their duty to actively make employees feel welcomed and to encourage employees to show up as their authentic selves.

But it isn’t just the qualities that make a leader inspirational. There are also key skills they use to build teams and motivate employees. All of the inspirational leaders I’ve worked for were highly skilled at:

  • Facilitating team-building activities, such as strategic planning sessions, offsite workshops, or fun events.

  • Visual storytelling (using pictures, graphs, presentations, etc.) to generate interest in and commitment to a new idea.

  • Celebrating employees’ successes and milestones in a way that felt genuine to each employee.

  • Asking important questions and authentically listening to employees’ feedback

  • Rolling up their sleeves and doing the work beside the employees rather than just giving directives.


Become a More Inspirational Leader

One of the best ways to build leadership skills is through one-on-one leadership coaching. Whereas traditional training programs are focused on building knowledge, individual coaching is focused on building and practicing skills. If you or a member of your team is new to leadership, seeking to promote to a leadership position, or wants to employ techniques to become a more inspirational leader, I can help.

As a Leadership & Career Coach with over 15 years of HR experience, I support new and seasoned leaders with building the necessary skills to inspire their employees. I offer customized, confidential leadership coaching programs as well as one-off sessions held via phone or video-conference (your preference).

Interested? Email or text me: SkyeMercer@gmail.com / (208)-819-2341.


Skye Mercer, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

HR Consultant / Career & Leadership Coach




© Skye HR Consulting, LLC, 2019

Skye Mercer