Closing the Inspiration Gap

The Foster School’s leadership development experience is designed to bridge the divide between what employees actually see and what they wish to see in their leaders
Closing the inspiration gap


As the old command-and-control structure cedes power in the modern organization, employees are increasingly motivated by inspiration, not authority. But researchers are finding an increasing divide between perception and reality in this critical dimension of leadership. We asked Daniel Turner, associate dean for masters programs, principal lecturer and the Peter and Noydena Brix Faculty Fellow at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, to explain this “inspiration gap”—and what Foster is doing to address it.

What is the inspiration gap?

Dan Turner: A large body of evidence tells us that followers hunger for inspirational leadership. Unfortunately, they don’t often receive it. A study conducted by the Chartered Management Institute in 2001 and outlined in Roger Gill’s Theory and Practice of Leadership demonstrates the point. In a broad survey of professionals in the UK (and later replicated elsewhere),  55 percent of managers identified inspiration as one of the three most important leadership characteristics, while only 11 percent  of followers said that their leaders provide it. It’s that 44 percent chasm between the perceived importance of inspirational leadership and the ability of today’s leaders to deliver that Gill calls the “inspiration gap.” This critical shortfall in performance presents both challenges and opportunities for leadership development.

The Inspiration Gap
of managers identified inspiration as one of the three most important leadership characteristics
of followers said that their leaders provide it
chasm between the perceived importance of inspirational leadership and the ability of today’s leaders to deliver

Why should we be concerned about the inspiration gap?

As work environments become increasingly complex, dynamic, and focused on short-term goals, followers—employees, staffers—find themselves with many new choices about the leaders they follow as well as how they spend their time on the job. Followers committed to a leader will stop at almost nothing in executing that leader’s vision; followers apathetic to a leader hinder progress toward organizational goals. What’s more, followers today speak with a remarkably consistent and insightful voice when it comes to those essential qualities that they are not seeing in their leaders.

So what does it take to be an inspirational leader?

An inspiring message certainly helps. A clear vision for the organization—one that resonates with the values of followers and is framed to ensure that they understand their personal responsibility in achieving that vision—is necessary but insufficient. In Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?, leadership researchers Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones make the case that the key characteristic of truly inspiring leaders is something much deeper and more fundamental: authenticity.

How is Foster acting on these findings on authenticity and inspirational leadership?

In two ways. First, we carefully select into our MBA Programs only those candidates whom we believe have a high level of readiness for inspirational leadership development, who can demonstrate that they know themselves and their values well. And once they’re here, we provide a compelling set of curricular and program experiences aimed at accelerating leadership development—with a particular focus on the inspiration dimension.

When and how does leadership development begin at Foster?

We begin accelerating leadership development of our MBA students from day one. Both the Full-time and Evening MBA Program academic experiences begin with LEAD, a week-long Leadership Essence Application and Development workshop led by experienced Foster faculty. The initial session of LEAD directly addresses the four cornerstones of authentic leadership: self-awareness, moral perspective, transparency and balanced processing. LEAD begins and ends with values. A variety of exercises culminate in an articulation of each student’s core values in a personal “brand essence” that they will draw from again and again in their interactions with classmates, personal networks and corporate recruiters.

What is the result of LEAD?

These initial active-learning experiences lay a foundation for the traditional classroom instruction to come by honing essential skills required to build trust, establishing strong, shared commitment to a compelling purpose, and achieving collective buy-in on concrete performance objectives. At the end of LEAD week, each MBA learning team writes a contract outlining its norms and core values, and each student creates an individual Leadership Development Plan to codify what he or she has learned and to track personal development throughout the course of study.

What are the other curricular components of leadership development?

In the core Leading Teams and Organizations course, the focus pivots to a broader organizational scale. A subsequent required course, Ethical Leadership, provides a solid foundation in ethical theory and highlights key challenges that the inspirational leader will face at the personal, organizational and societal level. Students in Foster’s Executive, Global Executive and Technology Management MBA Programs take additional leadership courses that speak to their particular level of readiness in leadership development, and students in the Full-time and Evening MBA Programs can choose to take additional leadership courses as electives.

What are the opportunities for leadership development outside of the classroom?

Foster MBAs develop their authentic leadership acumen and learn to inspire followers by serving as second-year Fritzky Leadership Fellows, diving deeper into personal leadership development by working with first-year MBA student colleagues. They also work as Board Fellows, serving on the board of directors of a local non-profit organization, and by exercising peer leadership within the myriad of student clubs, academic teams and the MBA Association, Foster’s student governance organization.

How do you ensure that Foster’s leadership development efforts are producing authentic and inspirational graduates?

Extensive feedback from recruiters—some educated at Foster—has helped shape our leadership education, and provided the most important evidence that we are producing what the market demands. Bryan Tomlinson (MBA 2009), a senior strategy manager at Microsoft, says that “Foster MBA alums separate themselves exhibiting authentic leadership both on product teams and as a part of cross-company projects. They strike a balance between ambition and consensus-building that is both refreshing and inspiring.” And Stefka Koenig (MBA 2005), a director of portfolio management at Philips Healthcare, tells us, “At the core of every great organization resides and inspirational, authentic leader who is capable of capturing the minds of his/her people, and the outcome is remarkable. Foster MBA graduates understand what it takes to be a great leader and come ready to lead with authenticity and inspiration.”

How does Foster’s leadership development integrate with the rest of the educational experience?

Leadership development is, of course, only part of an MBA student’s personal, professional and academic development. Effecting change in today’s environment requires many other essential skills: strategic thinking, evidence-based analytics, a global mindset and an entrepreneurial spirit, to name a few. These also are developed within the Foster School’s MBA Programs. But our distinguishing focus remains on our ability to develop inspirational leaders. We believe that with each Foster MBA graduate, the “inspiration gap” gets a little bit smaller.