Portraying Inspiring Leaders
by Jason Black
Some novels call out for an inspirational leader, either as a protagonist or as someone your protagonists can admire (think Gandhi or Martin Luther King), or vilify (Jim Jones). But writing a convincing inspirational leader is not an easy thing. Fortunately, we can study examples like these to learn what they did to inspire their followers.
Leaders share their vision
Inspiring leaders have a clear vision for the future, which they relentlessly share with their followers. They regularly reflect their vision through their speech and are not shy about sharing their vision with anyone and everyone.
A great leader peppers his or her language with forward-looking phrases: “I can see a day …” Or, “I imagine …” Or, “I believe that in the future, …” These phrases, and many others like them, are both aspirational and inspirational. They are the subtle crowbars effective leaders use to open people’s minds and imaginations to the leader’s visions.
If you have a character who needs to create a following—that is, needs to inspire others to take action—make liberal use of forward-looking language. But please, make it distinctive; MLK forever owns the phrase, “I have a dream.” What is your character’s vision, and how can she share it with others?
Simple, vivid, emotional language
Great leaders articulate their vision in colorful, emotional terms. They use imagery and evocative metaphors. They don’t do it through bland, focus-group language. Gandhi didn’t talk about how India’s Gross Domestic Product would rise under home-rule. Instead, he talked about simple, basic concepts everyone understood and empathized with.
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.
Basic concepts—truth, love—conveyed through beautiful language. Is your character that eloquent? Perhaps she needs to be.
Deliver facts poetically
Nothing kills inspiration faster than dry facts and boring statistics. Yet at times, such information is necessary. So when an inspiring leader needs to convey such information, he typically couches the statistics in poetry, with nary a percentage or GDP figure in sight. The above quote is actually delivering a statistic—tyranny fails 100% of the time—but is considerably more poetic than the distilled version.
Share personal, empathetic stories
Leaders also wrap their messages inside miniature stories, which both share their own personal feelings and build empathy with their followers. Look at that quote again, and notice the small, personal story Gandhi builds around the statistic. He shares his personal despair in the face of British power—something every one of his followers could empathize with—and how the inevitability of history gives him hope. He uses the imperative phrase, “Think of it," to gently command his followers to engage in his same thought process and arrive at the same hope.
Leaders avoid the what/how/why trap
Simon Sinek, in his book Start With Why, explains that leaders who fail often do so by explaining their vision for the future in terms of what they want to do. If asked, they will share ideas for how to do it. But if anybody asks them why they’re doing it in the first place, they’re probably sunk because they rarely spend much time figuring out why. Inspirational leaders do the exact opposite. They talk almost exclusively about why they do what they do. Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Focusing on why works because people immediately know whether they agree.
In fighting unfair British tax laws in India, Gandhi did not talk about what needed to happen. He did not spout polemics like, “we must force the British to repeal the unjust salt tax!” Instead, he talked about fairness, freedom, and opportunity. That was Gandhi’s why, the belief that Indians deserved free opportunity equal to any Englishman. Does your character know why he’s fighting for his vision?
Talk is cheap
Effective leaders back up their inspirational words with matching actions. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked almost 400 kilometers to the coast so he could make salt from seawater, precisely because it was illegal. Gandhi’s why was all about freedom and opportunity, so he demonstrated those things. He simply said, “I’m going to go make salt,” and started walking. His actions resonated so strongly that by the time he reached the sea, some 50,000 people had joined him. What can your characters do to demonstrate their why?
Leaders validate followers’ beliefs about themselves
Nobody followed Gandhi anywhere—to the sea, to peaceful protests, to anywhere—because they wanted him to be successful. They did it because they wanted to be successful. They followed Gandhi because his words articulated, and his actions demonstrated, their own beliefs about themselves. They followed because Gandhi shared their personal vision for opportunity in a free India.
Let your leader characters speak to the secret, unrequited dreams of their followers, and create an outlet for their followers to pursue those dreams. Leadership is ultimately not about the leader; it’s about the followers. How does your character validate her followers?
Noble leaders and villains
All that really separates a noble leader from a villainous one is the moral quality of their why. What worked for Gandhi also worked for Jim Jones, and Hitler, and Charles Manson. The basic visionary and communication skills of effective leaders can be used for good or for evil. For us writers, that’s great. It’s one skill-set to learn, doing double duty.
A picture of leadership begins to emerge. Great leaders have a clear vision. They focus on why they are passionate for their vision. They share their vision in vivid, emotional terms. They speak of broad, philosophical fundamentals, and let their actions demonstrate their beliefs.
By doing so, they call out to the shared beliefs of those around them and motivate those people to take up the cause. This is how leaders inspire movements. If you show your leader characters doing those things, readers will have no trouble believing you when an army of followers materializes around them.