Be an Inspirational Leader

Think about the inspirational leaders of Apple, Amazon and Southwest Airlines. You can probably name them: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Jeff Bezos, and Herb Kelleher.

Next, try to name the leaders of General Motors, TiVo and AOL during the same period. Some were good, but very few left a leadership legacy that was strong enough to ensure future success.

Most candidates for senior leadership positions are highly qualified, experienced and deeply engaged in their work. Lousy bosses are commonly weeded out in the long run, and competent bosses are usually promoted.

Why, then, do so many good managers lack the requisite leadership skills?


Leaders who want to succeed should clearly communicate what they believe and why they’re so passionate about their cause, according to business consultant Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Portfolio, 2010).

Most people know what they do and how they do it, Sinek says, but few communicate why they do what they do.

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy into why you do it,” he writes.

Great leaders inspire us when they connect with our hearts and emotions, says Sinek, who presents his ideas on TED TV (

Martin Luther King Jr. and Walt Disney always communicated their “why”—the reasons they acted, why they cared and their future hopes. Great business leaders follow suit:

  • Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, believes air travel should be fun and accessible to everyone.
  • Apple’s Steve Wozniak believes everyone should have a computer and, along with Steve Jobs, set out to challenge established corporations’ status quo.
  • Walmart’s Sam Walton believed people should have access to low-cost goods.
  • Starbucks’ Howard Schultz wanted to create social experiences in cafés resembling those in Italy.


Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak teamed up in their 20s to challenge a computer industry designed for large corporations. Wozniak saw the personal computer as a way to provide tools to the “little guy.”

Steve Jobs had originally sold surplus electronic parts, but he was much more than a salesman. Jobs wanted to make his mark on the world, and he envisioned building a company as the best way to start a revolution.

In Apple’s first year, with only one product, Wozniak and Jobs brought home a million dollars in revenues. Year 2 produced $10 million in sales; year 4, $100 million. Within six years, Apple Computer was a billion-dollar company with more than 3,000 employees.

Jobs and Wozniak were not alone in their technological quest, nor were they the smartest or  most experienced of the bunch. They actually had no leadership development training or executive coaches.

What made Apple remarkable was not its fast growth, nor its unique ideas about personal computers. Apple has repeated a pattern of success over and over again. Unlike any of its competitors, the company has challenged conventional thinking within numerous industries: computers, small electronics, music, mobile phones and broader entertainment categories.

With only a 6 percent market share in the United States and about 3 percent worldwide, Apple is not a leading manufacturer of home computers. But the company nonetheless leads the computer industry in innovation and technological advancements, while becoming a force to be reckoned with in other industries, as well.

Apple’s success lies in its leaders’ ability to inspire, challenge the status quo and empower its workers.

Apple inspires because it starts with why, according to Sinek. Company leaders communicate the reasons Apple exists, as well as their heartfelt motivation for creating new products that give customers new levels of freedom and power.

Apple has access to the same talent pool shared by every other computer company. Its leaders hire those who can eloquently verbalize their desire to be great. Those selected to join the company can achieve this goal because their leaders communicate passion and their “why.”


Every executive who supervises others must be prepared to motivate, requiring you to create loyal customers and workers who link themselves to your higher cause.

External incentives or benefits are insufficient. True leaders create followers who are inspired—not simply swayed by marketing or hype. Their willingness to act is rooted in a deeply personal cause that is greater than themselves—even if it means making a personal sacrifice.

The leaders who helped create the iPhone, iPod and iPad don’t inspire employees with money, gym facilities or company picnics. They inspire their employees to care about why.

As for customers, never mistake repeat business for loyalty. Repeat business means people do business with you multiple times. Loyalty means people are willing to turn down a better offer to continue doing business with you.


Studies have shown that more than  80 percent of U.S. employees don’t believe they’re working in their dream jobs. What if leaders could change this?

People who love going to work are more creative and productive. They go home feeling satisfied and have happier families. They treat their colleagues and customers better. Inspired people are the glue that holds strong companies together, while also increasing bottom lines.

Inspired employees care because you care. You know you’ve succeeded when employees’ beliefs resonate with your own, when they demonstrate their loyalty and when they’re willing to turn down better offers or other options.