Leaders inspire leadership

Leaders inspire leadership

Let’s do a quick recap from the earlier blogposts. We’ve seen that there is no definitive list of ‘leader traits’: leaders are as diverse as  humanity. We’ve also seen that there is no neat list of leader behaviours or skills. Instead, we’ve seen that a focus on why we have leaders gets us real traction:

  1. Leaders create meaning and purpose.
  2. Leaders inspire leadership in others.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

In this blogpost, we’re going to focus on leadership and make it personal: to pick up the ‘how’ questions. How do leaders lead? How do people showing leadership do it?

As we have seen, the list of qualities leaders apparently need to show quickly becomes
overwhelming and self-contradictory. Depending on who you read, leaders are visionary, entrepreneurial, practical, have integrity, make people feel special, and so on into a long list. But we can simplify all of this with the observation that people follow people. That leadership is at its root about one person choosing to follow another person.

  1. Leadership is personal: people follow people.

Which leads immediately to the question ‘why would someone choose to follow you?’

Leaders inspire leadership from others. This means inspiring people to be prepared to put their heads above the parapet, to take a stand, to call out what isn’t working and what can be improved. Leadership is not the same as the exercise of power. For sure, when someone has power it can make it easier for people to follow if that person’s role gives them the authority to direct. But if we think it through, what is being followed is the authority invested in the role rather than the person.

When a police officer directs us to do something, we are following the authority we as a society have invested in the police as an institution, enacted in the role of the police officer. We are interested in something different here. It is when people feel they have the option not to follow that leadership becomes particularly interesting, because people are choosing to follow. Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin.

At the heart, leadership involves you and your colleagues actively shaping the environment within which you are working and living – the network of relationships, the physical environment, the psychological environment, the culture of the team – taking active personal ownership, rather than seeing it as someone else’s responsibility.

Yet as we explored in the last blogpost, doing this isn’t without risks: what if others don’t follow your lead?

If leadership is a personal act – people follow people – it is helpful if we can give other people good reason to want to follow, and this takes us into an exploration of why it is that one human being might choose to follow another. What are the qualities that make it more likely for followership to happen and which qualities are less relevant?

There are indeed many ways of leading, but that there are certain qualities of a person that make it easier for one person to follow another. These are your distinctive, personal pattern of strengths of character and intelligence. People will follow your lead because of your own, authentic, distinctive character.

For some, this will be their charismatic ability to energise people and give them a sense of optimism. For others, it will be because of their seriousness, responsibility and determination to deliver on their commitments. For other again, it will be because of their ability to find fresh angles, see into the future and their willingness to try, to experiment.

We see our role at CharacterScope as helping you understand and build confidence in your leadership contribution, and then to develop it. We help you to recognise, value and play to the strengths that make it easy for others to follow your lead.

We provide the tools and insight to help you understand why people will be prepared to follow your lead, and to have an idea what your ‘natural’ leadership contribution is – the one you will feel most comfortable and confident making. Yet we go beyond self-awareness and provide the content and tools to help you actively develop your character strengths, whether it’s your self-belief, resilience, optimism, your ability to think ahead, to build perspective, to develop your spark of originality.

For all of the 34 strengths in our CharacterScope framework, there’s a 25-day development plan. We don’t pretend it’s easy developing character, but we do know it’s a prize worth working for.

Why do we have leaders?

Why do we have leaders?

Rather than start this, the third blogpost in our series of articles doing a deep-dive into leaders and leadership, with an exploration of what leaders do, we’re going to start with an even more basic question: what are leaders for?

Part 1 Part 2

Here’s why this question matters.

We saw in the last blogpost that trying to pursue a definitive list of leadership attributes (‘what are leaders like?’) seems inevitably set for failure. As an alternative route, many have argued that focusing on what leaders do will bring us the insight we need. Yet at CharacterScope we think that going this route quickly leads to a blind alley.

A glance at the leadership section of an airport bookshop shows us a few textbooks on leadership next to multiple biographies and leaders describing ‘what they did’ and why you should copy them. If you read these, you’ll find that the list of what to do becomes exhausting, long and contradictory. Leaders need to show charisma, to pull people towards themselves; they need to show great self-belief and yet have humility at the same time; they need to be dispassionate yet emotionally intelligent; they need to sustain the strategic overview yet be close to the executional detail, and so on. There are loud, impassioned leaders and quiet, reflective leaders. Bold ones and cautious ones. Leaders with extraordinarily attuned emotional sensitivity, who ring with others’ emotions like a glass, and leaders who are no more able to resonate with another person’s emotions than is a lump of wet clay.

Stepping back, we can see that the leadership literature has been focused for decades on just a few questions: ‘what are leaders like?’ and ‘what do leaders do?’ These are important questions but only become worth answering after we have asked the ‘why’ questions: ‘why do we have leaders? what are leaders for? what happens when there is no leadership? why is leadership a universal of human experience?’ To answer these questions we need to look in a different direction, into ourselves and our psychology rather than into a book.

The psychology of leaderless groups

The simplest way to answer this is to reflect on your own personal experiences of being in a group that lacks a leader or where the person appointed as leader seems unable to lead.

The experience is deeply disorienting, like we are waiting for something, are being busy, trying to be productive, but with an underlying unease that what we are doing is meaningless. We know that somebody needs to take the lead and we know we need to find a shared purpose that the group can form around.

Yet the act of taking the lead on behalf of a group, particularly a group of strangers is stressful. Not least because it immediately raises the question of whether anyone will follow our lead. And what are the consequences if people do not follow? Does it mean that my membership of the group is compromised, that I have lost my voice, my influence? What will people think of me?

When somebody else takes a lead, what do I feel? Do I feel relief that I don’t have to take the lead? Relief mixed with resentment about somebody else putting themselves above me? Do I have an inner certainty that I could do better, combined with frustration with myself that I didn’t take the lead? And when in turn someone who has resisted my lead makes their bid for leadership, will I follow, or will I resist? And what if no-one is allowed by the group to lead?

This intimate connection between leadership and followers, and the emotional undercurrents that swirl around leadership and followership provide important psychological insights. We can use these insights to get to the following key ideas.


Leaders create meaning and purpose and help people connect to it.

Leadership involves creating, or discovering, meaning and purpose and then helping people connect productively to this purpose. Being a part of a group without a purpose is a sure-fire way to feel frustrated and disconnected.

Second, leaders create the conditions for others to show leadership. Or more simply:

Leaders inspire leadership from others

This second theme gives us the key insight that whilst not everyone will become a leader, leadership is for everyone, not just those who have ‘leader’ as their role. This idea, that everyone has a leadership contribution to make, goes right to the heart of the CharacterScope endeavour. We exist to help people and their organisations be more characterful, places where people work productively and flourish personally.

We’ll explore this idea further in later blogposts.

For now, take a moment to reflect on your own world. How clear are you about the purpose of the teams and groups you are a part of or lead? If everyone in the team wrote down their understanding of the team’s purpose would they write the same thing? And would it be equally meaningful and motivational for all? And how good are you and the leaders around you at inspiring leadership from your colleagues.

What are leaders like? (and why this is the wrong question)

What are leaders like? (and why this is the wrong question)

In this second blog post exploring leadership and the role of character development in good leadership, we take a look at what leaders are like. Or rather, we explore why asking this question is not a very good idea and whether there are better questions to give us insights into leaders and leadership.

Part 1

Leadership for many is something remote. Something other people do, and often don’t do well. It is something for older, more experienced people. Some may aspire one day to be a leader, others could imagine nothing worse. Leadership development is something that happens after management development. It is something we are invited by others to do, not something we take on to ourselves.

We watch the news and rarely can see ourselves doing what we see leaders doing: standing on stage, delivering speeches, confronting, arguing, playing the political game. It seems not to relate to our journey to work by tube, standing elbow to ribs. Leadership ends up seeming remote from our daily lives and this remoteness disables.

We have a powerful pull to see leaders as someone or something special. Yet the evidence suggests that this is not the case. There has never been a satisfactory answer to the question of what makes a leader. Read the political and historical biographies, watch the TED videos and tv programmes and try to summarise what leaders are like. Are there particular personality factors? A particular pattern of intelligence? A distinctive make up to their character?

It is easy to misstep in thinking about leadership. If we do not separate out the person and the role of ‘the leader’ we are destined to confusion. You might hope that somebody in a leader role would show leadership, but a moments reflection suggests that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Taking or showing leadership is not the same as having the role title ‘leader’.

This is a simple enough idea but one that has far-reaching implications. For example, if we study people who have the role title of leader we will end up listing out some behaviours and attributes that undoubtedly are related to leadership but we will also list out factors that do not relate. This then faces us with making the judgement about which of these attributes actually do relate to leadership, and how we are to make that judgement is not at all clear.

For example, in the UK at present business leaders are far more likely to be men. They are also more likely to be taller than average, to have more prominent jaw-lines, to have come from a particular educational background. They are also more likely to be extrovert, have lower trait anxiety and be more open to experience; they are wealthier and have more affairs. Our instincts are that some of these attributes legitimately relate to leadership and some are a reflection of current biases in who gets into privileged positions. But how are we making this judgement? In a very real way, we already need to have an understanding of what leadership really is before we can start to pick out the traits that distinguish.

Businesses have invested heavily over many years in trying to identify the particular characteristics that pick someone out as having leadership potential. Each large corporate will have their own formula and our experience from consulting to hundreds of these corporates over more than two decades is that there will be some overlap (common traits), but each will have some distinctive parts. Many will emphasise the need for their senior leaders to have a quick mind, or to be extrovert, a good communicator. Some will emphasise curiosity, others emphasise people awareness; some self-belief, others humility, and so on.

When the picture is looked at in totality, it is hard to resist the conclusion that all that ends up being compiled is a list of the traits of humanity. There certainly seems to be no single thread from which the fabric is woven. Nor even a repeated motif in the pattern of the cloth.

This insight can be an uncomfortable one: there is no definitive list of characteristics that sets one person apart as being a leader or having leadership potential. The definitive and distinctive list of leadership qualities remains elusive because there isn’t one. And if there is no definitive list, then perhaps we are all more or less equally capable of leadership.

This conclusion feels at odds with our inner certainty that there simply must be something that sets leaders apart. To understand this, we need to go a little deeper again and in the next blog post we will shift from the question ‘what are leaders like?’ to some more fruitful ones: ‘what are leaders for?’ and ‘what do leaders do?’.

And again, let’s close with some quick personal reflections: are you able to pick out the behaviours and skills you have that others will experience as leadership? Are they the same as those shown by your colleagues around you? Have you ever been in a situation where there was no leadership and leadership was needed? If so, what stopped you from taking the lead?

Part 3

Why would someone be prepared to follow you?

Why would someone be prepared to follow you?

It is time to think again about leadership. In this series of blog posts, we’re going to dig a little deeper into what leadership really is, whether it matters, what leaders are like and how to develop leadership.

For all of our fascination with leadership, the TED talks, the conferences, the money spent on leadership development, there has been little gained. There are hundreds of books and tens of thousands of papers describing what leaders are like, what they do, how to assess their potential, how to develop them. Pay rates for senior leaders over recent years have shifted from a multiple of 30 times that of the lowest paid worker to 300 times: the market thinks that leaders are either far more valuable than they used to be or are a far scarcer resource. Yet in a recent definitive guide to academic research and writing about leadership, Richard Nohria and his colleague at Harvard concluded that there was little serious research and scholarship into leadership.

Meanwhile, businesses spend significantly on developing leaders, often choosing to send them to the same business schools that Nohria has pointed out don’t really believe in leadership as a proper field of study. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that leadership is seen as a money spinner rather than a serious subject. But given the expense, businesses increasingly treat leadership development as the province of the elite, an exclusive grouping, the high-potentials, those with talent.

The impact is profound. We live in a time when many institutions, from political parties to governments to banks and corporates, believe that a there is a deficit in leadership. We live in a society where many people feel let-down by their leaders, doubting whether they care about the society they are creating, a scepticism souring to cynicism. Too many senior leaders seem primarily concerned with themselves or their immediate circle rather than shaping a society and wider world of equity and meaning.

Put starkly: there are too few good leaders.

Yet the established leadership industry carries on with practices that evidently are not producing positive outcomes. How can it be that graduates from the prestigious business schools know so much about financial structuring yet remain clueless as to why someone might be prepared to follow them. How can it be that our prevailing way of talking about people, society and organisations continues to rest on market-place assumptions rather than an understanding of how people make meaning, lead fulfilling lives, create happiness? Why is it that for most people leadership development is reserved until they are at a stage in their lives when they feel fully formed and their hunger for learning is dimmed? How is it that leadership is often one of the last things that people learn in the world of work?

It does not have to be this way. Our aim at CharacterScope is to encourage everyone to think about themselves as a leader, to find and value that part of their identity that does leadership. For some this may feel an alien notion, for others a familiar one. But we believe the world will be a better place if everyone takes the time to understand and develop their leadership.

In the next blog post we’ll go a little deeper into what leadership is really about, and how established ways of approaching this important topic all too often fail, leaving people thinking that leadership is something for other people, not for them.

Part 2

But let us leave you with some things to think about between now and the next post: why would someone be prepared to follow you? And why are you prepared to follow others? And finally: what would happen if we didn’t have leadership?

How character shapes culture

How character shapes culture

Mark Loftus writing for the FT 125, the Financial Times’ senior leadership community.


The modern workplace is undergoing a cultural revolution, and it’s not just the millennial workforce driving it. Common-sense tells us everybody is looking for positive and inspiring workplaces that engage them personally as well as professionally. And the negative impact of toxic culture is familiar to us all. Research from Deloitte backs up our intuitions: getting culture right is shown time and again to directly impact employee engagement, retention, dedication and satisfaction.

Yet if creating a vibrant, healthy culture is such an obvious win-win for both sides, why is it so difficult to do in reality? Culture is a story about character: how your character shapes your relationships, and how the network of these relationships define culture. In truth, the culture of your organisation is a legacy shaped by the character of the founders, maybe many years ago. Yet as senior leaders, if you are not actively re-modelling the culture, who is?

Our CharacterScope data shows that many businesses have been over-selecting for a limited few types of leader. In particular, the focus on an executional approach has been embedded into senior executive selection criteria. If you believe that hitting quarterly metrics is the overriding imperative then your behaviour will risk treating people as a means to these quarterly ends. 

By contrast, the transformational character is under-represented at the senior level. These are the leaders who are adept at bringing hearts and minds with them, at helping people through the uncertainties and ambiguities of digital disruption, who sweat the detail of soft-skills. They understand and treasure difference and diversity, and yet share with the executional leader a similar unrelenting drive to achieve extraordinary things – through and with their people rather than at their expense.

The difficulty lies in businesses realising this. Overhauling an ingrained workplace culture isn’t an overnight process. It can often take time for employers and employees to bring about the changes. But putting the wheels in motion is perhaps just as important as the change itself. And both business and workforce will reap the benefits.