Want to be an inspirational leader?

Buzzwords like inspirational leader get bandied about and they are quickly blurred with conventional wisdom about leadership. Be self-aware, be values-grounded, be credible, be a story-teller, be results-driven, etcetera. I suppose that’s all true. But what makes a run-of-the-mill leader, even those who at times flirt with greatness, markedly different from a truly inspirational leader?

I believe it’s the Little Bit Crazy Factor

Leadership gurus today, like New York Times best-selling author Bob Rosen, argue that great leadership requires being healthy. One of his Six Roots of Healthy Leadership, Rosen says emotional health is a necessity, that leaders need to stop their negative feelings, to stay optimistic, and to avoid getting carried away by enthusiasm.

It seems there’s evidence that Rosen doesn’t have it quite right. Play with me for a moment. Make a mental list in 30 seconds of the most inspirational leaders of all time. Who made your cut?

Inspirational leaders of the 20th Century

Perhaps our lists overlap, at least to some extent. My list included Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Winston Churchill. Men heralded as among the greatest, most inspirational leaders of the 20th Century:  Evidence shows they all experienced prolonged mental illness.  All four of these inspirational leaders clearly battled depression. Each of them had documented suicidal thoughts. For example, King jumped out a second story window in an attempt to end his own life.

Nassir Ghaemi provoked this little-bit-crazy factor theory through his book, A First-Rate Madness:  Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. He details that the very qualities which mark people with a mood disorder. Creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism—also make for the best leaders in times of crisis. Renowned inspirational leaders are compared to the lacklustre leadership of “mentally normal” men such as George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Ghaemi made me a believer – I’ll take the little bit crazy leaders any day of the week. (Okay, major caveat:  Hitler was mentally ill and of course there are ample crazy others we need to vigilantly watch out for.)

Inspiring people connect with others

Please don’t misunderstand me. My tongue-in-cheek “Little Bit Crazy Factor” is not encouragement to use the word crazy to describe depression or other mental health issues, that is not okay.

But think about the artists, writers and inventors, most of the world’s magnificently inspiring people sure weren’t consider completely sane in their day. Whether it is Einstein or Mother Teresa, Van Gogh or Joyce, there was something a little bit crazy about them, an off-kilterness that compelled them to do, say, create and give. They had the ability to connect with others in ways that most of us cannot. Their creations and words resonate as truisms and evoke passion in us, leading us to spring forth with creativity and productivity of our own.

As Einstein said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” To me, this means we’d better get a little bit crazy to solve the big hairy audacious problems that exist in our workplaces and in the world today. Let’s be unabashed about it.

Here are three Little Bit Crazy Factor hints:

  1. If your intuition is whispering or screaming, trust it. Don’t let fear stop you, share that crazy, inspired idea out loud.
  2. Minimize distractions to unleash your inspirational leader.  Graham Greene rented a secret office and even taped a piece of cardboard to his glasses as a sort of blinder. Give yourself that kind of distraction-free space. (I doubt Gandhi would have been Gandhi if he’d tethered himself to a smartphone.)
  3. Dance, Jump, Move.  YOU have it in you too. One key to being your most creative, most inspirational self is to get your body moving. Do a crazy dance right now, jump up and down ’til you can’t any longer, just move and let your creative mind run free.

Go on, be inspired and inspiring:  get a little bit crazy.

Jone Bosworth, J.D. writes about leadership, women, and wise organizational strategies. A speaker, certified executive coach and strategist, Jone is the CEO of inCourage Leading, LLC.