OVER the past 30 years, there has been increasing data to suggest that leadership has a lot more to do with inspiration and vision, rather than straightforward technical competence.

Leadership is now recognised as a transferable skill that can be developed by continued learning and development.

By contrast, the Great Man theories of leadership and cults of personality are now seen as largely irrelevant.

Research carried out by the Department of Trade and Industry in the United Kingdom confirms that today's workforce is more diverse, informed and sophisticated than ever before.

Ultimately, people are still looking for something different and better in organisational leadership.

Managers demand inspirational and visionary leaders who win not only results, but also the trust and respect of their teams.

Followers will respond to leaders who tell them that what they do is important and that it makes a difference.

There exists, unfortunately, an inspirational gap.

Research suggests that over half of managers are working for organisations which have apparently not yet fully evolved to meet the needs of today's high performing workplaces.

Too many experience excessive bureaucracy and command and control behaviours, which have a tendency to inhibit, rather than improve, individual and organisational performance.

Inspiring others

For Singapore to maintain its competitiveness, there is a growing need for companies to adopt strategies that will enable a greater level of innovation and deliver higher value goods and services.

Significant changes in what is required of good leaders have been observed over recent years.

High-performance, innovative organisations require "inspirational leadership" more than ever before if they are to survive and prosper in a world where the only certainty is uncertainty.

Inspirational leadership requires six essential elements. Such leaders:

* Genuinely care about their people,

* Involve everybody,

* Show lots of appreciation,

* Ensure work is fun,

* Show real trust, and

* Listen a lot.

To discover how these elements can be better realised in practice, a comprehensive research project was designed to look in more detail at the qualities of inspirational leaders.

A series of in-depth qualitative interviews with leaders who had been selected by peers for achieving exceptional results revealed common themes in terms of their most prevalent leadership characteristics.

They identified their own strengths as:

* Strong communication - storytelling and listening,

* Passion for learning and intense curiosity,

* Focus on developing people,

* Having fun and very energised,

* Strong self-belief, coupled with humanity and humility,

* Committed to giving something back and to making a significant difference,

* Clarity of vision and ability to share it with their people,

* Dogged determination, often "relentless",

* Very strong focus on priorities,

* Not afraid to show some vulnerability,

* Regular use of reflective periods,

* Almost universal dislike of jargon, and

* Passion for and pride in what they do.

Desirable traits

Not surprisingly, many of the leadership qualities desired by the followers surveyed also reflected the views of both exceptional leaders and the findings from best practice case studies.

They valued leaders who showed:

* Genuine shared vision,

* Real confidence and trust in their teams,

* Respect for employees and customers,

* Commitment to developing people,

* Clear standards of ethics and integrity, and

* Willingness to take risks.

Managers confirmed that individuals and teams who were inspired and enthused would operate at a different level from the competition.

Around one-third of followers admitted that they had never worked for, or been motivated by, an exceptional leader in their lives.

Over 60 per cent of followers reported that their leaders were out of touch with how people were feeling. This remoteness and distance had a negative impact on morale and motivation levels.

Giving people space and responsibility, and recognising and believing in their abilities, remain the most effective and powerful ways to motivate followers.

Participative, rather than command and control cultures, tend to encourage these behaviours.

This finding is probably linked with another: that followers do not, on the whole, see their leaders creating a feeling of energy, fun and excitement in the organisation.

About 93 per cent identified this as a key leadership attribute, yet only 32 per cent experienced it.