Aspirational Leadership: How a Good Leader Becomes Great

What makes a great leader? Why do employees gravitate toward people like Steve Jobs while other leaders struggle to gain a following? A significant amount comes from personality—outgoing, likeable people with strength of character naturally attract others. But another very significant factor is one’s beliefs and values. These take many shapes and can include, for example, independence, honesty, courage, collaboration, efficiency, loyalty—basically, the qualities one holds him or herself to as an important part of how he or she lives life daily. They are ‘hard-wired’ values that don’t require any thought or effort…they’re just ‘there.’

In a company, this combination of values, beliefs, characteristics, and behaviors creates what we refer to as the “corporate culture.” And, a leader who innately holds and exhibits the same ‘culture’ as the company he or she represents will inevitably experience greater success than someone who values a different set. Let’s take a look at Steve Jobs again as an example. In a recent Fast Company article, it was said that Jobs held three values to be most important: simplicity, elegance, and innovation. Why, then, would it surprise anyone that, under his leadership, Apple came to consistently deliver on these expectations?

Yet, not all beliefs and values important to a company are going to be held by every leader. Let’s take ABC Company, for instance. It prides itself on its culture of service, efficiency, discipline and order, and dependability. Joe, its CEO of just under a year, has a natural belief in providing good service and dependability. However, Joe struggles regularly with his inability to keep things orderly, which, in turn, affects his own efficiency at times. Can a leader effectively head-up an organization that sets itself apart for being orderly when he, himself, is not naturally bent for order? Of course.

In fact, the website of the Australian Institute of Management says it best: “Many senior leaders achieve senior roles without having the skills to lead effectively and to develop the next line of leaders.” In these cases, those beliefs and values that do not come hard-wired must be consciously and zealously practiced. They are known as aspirational principles—the beliefs and values one intentionally and ambitiously aspires to own and become.

And, in order to consciously and zealously practice these principles, they must be kept front and center, everyday; in his or her own work and life, as well as in the conscious instruction of employees on a consistent basis. To be more orderly, going back to our earlier example, you would need to awake earlier to help ensure punctuality, keep a calendar, set reminders and alarms, invest in organizational apps and tools, discuss order and organization with others, encourage others consistently in their pursuit of organization, and the list goes on.

It is also very important to remember that we, as humans, default to our innate beliefs and values in times of stress and trouble. In other words, it is not natural to use aspirational principles during trying times. A much more concerted effort is necessary to ensure we call on these principles, and the best way to do so is by practicing and being prepared.