Plot to Punctuation Logo

How to portray an inspiring leader

Joan of Arc. Napoleon. Susan B. Anthony. Gandhi. Hitler. Winston Churchill. Martin Luther King. Jim Jones. Whatever you may think of these men and women personally or the causes they championed, there is little argument that they all have something in common. All of them were highly effective leaders of their respective causes. That is, people followed them. They all exuded inspirational leadership.

Some novels call out for an inspirational leader, either as a main character or someone the story’s main characters can themselves admire or vilify. If that fits your current work-in-progress—or one you may be thinking about for the future—read on, for there are a couple of key techniques we can learn from history’s successful leaders. Now fasten your seat belts; this article is a long one.

Leaders share their vision.

All effective leaders, whether their aims be good or ill, have a vision for the future. And they share it with their followers. Whatever they’re after, whatever kind of change they want to create in the world, these leaders have a clear vision for it. And their vision is regularly manifested in their speech. They are not shy about sharing that vision with anyone and everyone.

The speech of effective leaders is peppered with leading phrases and future looking language: “I can see a day when …” Or “I imagine …” Or “I believe that in the future, …” And yes, “I have a dream.” These aspirational and inspirational phrases are how effective leaders open people’s minds and imaginations to their visions.

So if you’ve got a character who needs to inspire others to action—who needs to create a following—make liberal use of future-looking language. And try to make it distinctive. “I have a dream” will forever be associated with Martin Luther King. Your novel’s leader character needs his or her own unique phrasing, something that can become as much a part of the character’s identity and description as height or hair color.

Simple, vivid, and emotional

Great leaders also articulate their vision in vivid, colorful terms. They do it through imagery and metaphor, through evocative similes. They don’t do it through statistics and bulleted lists. Gandhi did not go around talking about how India’s Gross Domestic Product would go up if India achieved self-rule and equality for all. No. He talked about fairness, love, equality. He talked about simple, basic concepts that anyone could understand and that resonated with the emotions of his followers. And when he did have to use a statistic, he kept it lively:

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it—always.

That’s a statistic—"tyranny ultimately fails 100% of the time"—but look at the wonderful language Gandhi used to express that statistic and how he built a small emotional story around it, and one that serves also to reassure his followers: “this movement is hard and sometimes I fear we will never succeed, but this undeniable fact of history always picks me right back up.” He admits to the same doubts that his followers must surely have had, then offers them a compelling reason to have hope. He explicitly commands listeners (note the imperative voice in “Think about it") to ponder what he has said, and to let this undeniable fact of history do the same for them.

So let your leaders talk about fundamentals. Let them talk about their vision in terms of lofty, philosophical, and emotional words like “love,” “truth,” “equality,” “freedom,” “success,” and so forth. Let them convey their visions in terms that are at once simple but vivid, and that connect with their followers’ hearts.

The what/how/why trap

Still, a great vision and vivid emotional language is not enough. Leaders with vision and vivid language may yet fail by falling into the “what/how/why” trap. And my thanks go to Simon Sinek for bringing this to my attention, because it’s brilliant.

Leader falls into the trap by explaining their vision for the future in terms of what they want to do. If pressed, they will give some details of a plan for how to do it. Chances are, no one will think to ask them why they’re doing it in the first place, which is good for them, because they probably haven’t spent much time thinking about it.

Great leaders explain their visions in exactly the opposite way. Great leaders talk almost exclusively about why they do what they do. They talk about their purpose. Their cause. What they believe deep down to their toes. Sinek explains this in marketing terms: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Great leaders speak to that. Gandhi spoke to validate the basic belief that politically repressed Indians were worthy of every bit as much respect, dignity, opportunity, and freedom as any Englishman—even though they weren’t getting it under British rule.

Yet, most people instinctively talk about what, because what is concrete. It’s tangible. It’s obvious. The problem is, talking about what doesn’t motivate people to action. Talking about why does. If your novel’s leader wants any followers, talking about why had better be the first thing out of his or her lips.

It works because people know immediately whether they agree or disagree with a philosophical principle, which is what so many whys boil down to. When Martin Luther King talked about equality among the races, people knew right away whether they agreed with that basic belief, or whether it scared them. Had he jumped right to a concrete change—say, passing Affirmative Action legislation—he’d have met with much more resistance because even among people who agree with the core belief about equality, they might well differ over whether Affirmative Action was a good way to promote it. Let your leader characters stick with the philosophical principles, and leave the pesky concrete details to others.

Let actions demonstrate the why.

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked almost 400 kilometers to the coast so he could make salt from seawater. Under British Rule at the time, you couldn’t just make salt. You had to pay a special tax. Gandhi’s why had to do with freedom and opportunity. Thus, he did not make speeches about how the Indian people desperately needed access to cheaper salt. That wouldn’t have demonstrated freedom and opportunity in vivid terms.

Instead, he simply made salt. He showed that he had the freedom and ability to do so, and thus, that the tax was both unjust and unenforceable. He did not make an appeal to what he felt needed to change ("we must force the British to repeal the salt tax!"). He talked about why, about the fundamental injustice of the tax, something the Indian people readily understood and agreed with. And the people responded. By the time he reached Dundi, on the seashore, some 50,000 people were there to join him in his protest.

Actions speak louder than words. And in “show, don’t tell” parlance, your leader characters will be much more believable if you can find actions for them to take that demonstrate the why behind their visions. What can your leader characters do to demonstrate their vision and exemplify their why?

Followers follow for themselves

Nobody followed Gandhi to the sea, trekking those hundreds of kilometers—on foot, mind you—because their salt shakers were empty. They weren’t hoping Gandhi was going to go into the salt business, selling lower-cost, tax-free salt. No. They did it for themselves. They followed Gandhi all the way to the sea because his words and his actions validated their own beliefs about themselves. They followed because Gandhi shared their personal vision for opportunity in a free India.

The same thing happened in America’s Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King went to Washington, D.C. to deliver his famous “I have a dream speech,” a quarter of a million people showed up to listen under the hot summer sun. They didn’t do it for him. They didn’t do it because they thought he’d feel bad if there was only a small crowd. They did it for themselves, because they wanted to be involved in remaking America according to the vision they shared with King for a more equitable society. And I can’t resist borrowing a line from Sinek here:

Notice, Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

He didn’t say what needed to change, but rather, what he believed. And people who shared those beliefs took his cause for their own, and volunteered. So let your leader characters speak to the secret, unvoiced dreams and visions of the people around them. Let your leader characters give their followers an outlet for pursuing their own dreams. Because the truth about leadership is that it’s not about the leader. It’s about the followers, and validating their reasons for following.

Heroes vs. villains.

Of course, the basic visionary and communication skills of effective leaders can be used for good or for evil. There’s a reason Hitler and Jim Jones were in the list at the top of this article. In truth, there’s not much separating the heroes from the villains. In hindsight, we can tell the difference through our judgments about the rightness or wrongness of their visions. But in the moment, at the time the characters in your book are deciding how to lead or whether to follow, hindsight is unavailable, and it can be damned hard to tell a hero from a villain.

This is because on an emotional level, there is no difference to the followers between a heroic and a villainous leader. Both heroic and villainous leaders alike call out to their followers by appealing to the best in them. They invoke the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy to inspire their followers towards greatness or towards what they argue is a better and brighter future.

For the heroic leaders, this appeal is genuine and heartfelt. Such leaders themselves believe what they are saying. Villainous leaders, by contrast, appeal to their followers better natures while at the same time arranging for themselves to be the beneficiaries of their followers’ efforts. Cult leaders, politicians, and corporate PR campaigns often do this (make of that what you will).

A picture of leadership

Through all of this, I hope a picture of what effective leaders actually do becomes clear. Great leaders have a vision. They share their vision in vivid, emotional terms. They speak in terms of broad, philosophical fundamentals, not concrete minutia. They focus on why they are passionate for their vision, not on what they think needs to change. And they let their actions demonstrate the truth of their beliefs.

By doing so, they call out to the shared beliefs held by people who ought to be their followers and motivate those people to take up the cause as well. That is how leaders inspire movements, and if you show your leader characters doing those things, readers will have no trouble believing you when an army of followers materializes around that person.

June 15, 2010 00:05 UTC

Tags: character, leadership, vision, actions, show don't tell, believability

Permalink Permalink | Comments 3 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar