Inspiration or aspiration?

Dec 17 2012 by Kate Tojeiro Print This Article

It was reported recently in the Wall Street Journal that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has introduced a series of initiatives designed (principally) to boost employee motivation and to prevent key people from jumping ship. Perks include product discounts and a programme known as "Blue Sky", which gives small groups of employees a dedicated amount of time to spend on their favorite engineering projects (something Google have been doing since its inception). Cook has also suggested he is more open to letting employees take sabbaticals.

Does this signal a change in Apple's leadership style? Not really, because Apple has always been known for its inspiration-style of leadership. These new initiatives are strictly pragmatic, arising out of the increased competition for skilled staff amongst Silicon Valley's technology companies. Apple management had always believed that the opportunity to work at the company and on its popular products compelled people to join and stay. With the substantially increased levels of competition this is no longer the case.

Inspirational leadership is often seen as the key to creating a successful business. Whilst in part this is true, businesses that are led by aspirational management are also notably successful. Whilst inspirational leadership and aspirational leadership may have different drivers, they can both deliver positive results.

In many industries, leaders will often draw lessons from examples set by their peers, politicians and others. I believe there are many upsides in doing so, since having worked closely with senior managers across different industries and observed leadership in its many forms, I have not found one style that offers a broad-reaching winning formula.

Organisations based on inspiration-style leadership have a clear vision of what they should stand for and where they are going. This leadership is inclusive by nature, connects well with employees and is able to articulate its vision in a way that is compelling to those around them. These companies tend to be driven by innovation and creativity and tend not to be risk-averse. Good examples include Panasonic, Apple and Google.

The aspiration style of leadership is driven by a different set of rules. Size, influence, market share and geographic spread tend to be more important than innovation or creativity. Power and an unremitting desire to be at the top, setting the standards by which other must follow, are key drivers. These companies are often more hierarchical than those that are inspiration-led. Businesses in media, banking, pharmaceutical and telecommunications are typical of those with an aspirational management.

Although clearly different in their styles, there are definite cross-overs between these two types of organisation. So if neither leadership style is perfect, should we be looking at combining the best of both and creating a new leadership model?

There's no straightforward answer here. First, perfection should not be an objective in itself. There are too many other important issues that come into play. Creating a new leadership model amounts to an exercise in change management that involves everyone in the organisation, not just those at senior management levels.

Additionally, the state of the economy, both on a national and global level, will influence any decision, and ultimate outcome. Specific management styles that serve a company well in healthy economic times may not achieve the same results when there is a major downturn. This may require a radical revision of the way management thinks and operates, not simply adopting the best of different styles of leadership.

Even though business leaders can benefit from observing the styles of other successful leaders, what makes the observation most beneficial is when they draw from these styles what they require to develop and nurture their own unique way of managing their organisations. The end point, after all, is to create a "great" company. Whilst many settle for just being "good" - because it's often easier - there are a growing number (although the numbers are, as yet, quite small) who are resolute enough to push hard for "great". It will be the great companies, in every sense of the word, that will consistently outperform the market and secure a reputation for excellence.

The evidence for good versus great is already there. In Jim Collins' 2001 study ( Good to Great ) of almost 1500 Fortune 500 companies listed at any time between 1965 and 1995, only 11 were judged to be "great" by consistently outperforming the market by a margin of at least 2.8:1. Collins and his team also found that within great companies, a certain type of leadership predominated. Key factors included a culture of discipline, confronting previous failures and harnessing the right technology. From my own experience, passion and humility would be two additional attributes.

As an executive performance coach, the effective leaders I come in contact with are team players who have a clear (and achievable) vision of what they want their company to be, are able to articulate that vision in a compelling way, and can galvanise their organisation to achieve what, to many, may often seem to be impossible.

What they also display is a mix of both inspirational and aspirational leadership styles. They concentrate their energies on the things they are good at and understand their weaknesses. They know that no one person can achieve everything and surround themselves with good people who can achieve what they can't. And they can inspire others to achieve greatness. This has often led to creating an organisation that new recruits want to be part of. For some, this legacy has endured long after they have retired.

So, is there a need for a new style of leadership? Not really - much of what today's business leaders need is already there in one form or another. What is required is a clear understanding of what is needed to navigate the corporate ship through turbulent waters, then creating a leadership style that is sustainable, a style that can be repeated, but not one that becomes formulaic.


About The Author

Kate Tojeiro
Kate Tojeiro

Kate Tojeiro is an executive performance coach and is the is the founder and Managing Director of X Fusion Ltd, which provides executive coaching and team performance coaching to senior level executives in both large Blue Chip organizations and early-stage start-ups.