What Makes a Leader Truly Inspiring?


By Wes Furlong

“I have never bothered or asked in what way I was useful to society as a whole; I contented myself with expressing what I recognized as good and true. That has certainly been useful in a wide circle; but that was not the aim, it was the necessary result.” –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The difference between a talented leader and an inspiring one is how far you’re willing to follow them. We’ll listen to talented leaders share their insights, but there’s something beyond talent that leads us to follow them into unchartered and painful territory. What is the difference between leaders we respect and leaders we’d follow through the wilderness into some supposed “Promised Land?”

Passion is contagious. Charisma certainly captivates us. Eloquence and physical qualities do too. But someone can have all of that plus a high IQ, endless resources, and well connected friends and we still won’t follow them very far. It’s also true that someone can lack all of it and we’d still follow them into battle. Why?

Every inspiring leader goes through a death of sorts. Usually, there’s a long process that leads up to it and the death itself might be triggered by circumstances outside of their control, but regardless of how or even why it happens, the leader disconnects from the present order of things and completely surrenders to an unseen reality. It’s the impact on their personal life that stands out. There’s no doubt about it: they’re fully in and compel us to do the same. Inspiring leadership is undeniably biographical.

I remember attending my first U2 concert and hearing Bono sing, “In the Name of Love.” There’s only one way to make that song work: full throttle! Any second-guessing or backing off, and it’s dead. But there wasn’t a trace of timidity in his voice. His unbridled emotion (Latin root of “emotion” movere means “to move”) grabbed a hold of 70,000 people and swept them up into something larger than themselves.

Inspiring leaders do this. Their full abandonment grabs our hearts and yanks us out of our lethargy and doubts.

A young student once asked a rabbi, “What must I do to change the world?” Perceiving that he craved influence and wasn’t fully surrendered to the changes he sought for others, the rabbi said, “Go over to that small graveyard and criticize the dead.

Then praise them.” Obviously perplexed at such a strange response, the rabbi continued, “When you can be as dead to the praises and insults of people, you can begin to change the world.”

I can’t lead someone whose affirmation I require.

I can’t lead a group if I fear their rejection or misunderstanding.

I can’t take people somewhere significant if I’m as deeply entrenched in present reality as they are.

This is where the death must happen.

Are you fully abandoned to the vision?

Would people who know you say, “Without a doubt?!”

Has your heart been so enraptured that timidity and self-consciousness have given way to an unfeigned boldness?

Are you ok with the pain of insecurity and rejection that leadership requires?

If not, don’t start with leadership techniques. First, bury yourself! Deal with these heart issues before you engage the forms and techniques of leadership. If not, you’ll become a tour guide, not an inspiring leader.

Sam Chand once said that one’s leadership potential is in direct proportion to their threshold of pain. Here’s why: Growth requires change, change requires loss, and loss requires pain. We hit painful walls that force a self-inventory: is it worth it? Can we endure? We either decide it’s not worth it or we press through and allow “perseverance to finish its work.” (James 1:3)

You don’t need a great voice, a large network of powerful friends, wealthy benefactors, or good looks to be an inspiring leader. But you do need charisma, passion, and vision. The great news is that when you emerge out of this death of self, they will naturally emerge in ample supply.

Charles Wesley was once asked why he was so influential and said, “When you light yourself on fire, people love to watch you burn.”

BONUS: Why Your Anxiety is Suffocating Your Ability to Lead

A well-differentiated leader is one who can separate while still remaining connected and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.

Oftentimes, we look at a successful leadership journey and notice the techniques, the interpretation and application of data,…but the truth is, the same leader probably could have chosen a different technique, had half the data, and the journey would still had been successful.

It’s the integrity of the leader that resists the disintegration of a group. Friedman names five natural tendencies in relationships that cause disintegration:



Blame Displacement

Quick-Fix Mentality

Lack of Well-Differentiated


The posture ofseparate but connected’ is hard to achieve; Leaders must be decisive, but not dismissive or aloof, they’re deeply involved in the emotional processes going on, but they’re not caught in a cycle of reactivity or dependent upon consensus for direction.

Maintaining a non-anxious presence has been a real challenge for me. I’m more intense by nature, I’m emotionally connected to what we’re doing, and in the face of resistance, it’s hard not to be anxious. -A staff member gets arrested, the city is resisting an important building project, …we have ample opportunities for anxiety.

How Jesus Modeled a Non-Anxious Presence

Dying to the need to be accepted and understood.

It’s important to communicate clearly and listen well, but if I need to be completely understood, or liked by all, or develop consensus among all parties involved, important barriers won’t be crossed.

Things look different on the other side of a barrier. Jesus explained the cross before he was crucified, but it wasn’t understood until afterwards. He didn’t wait to move forward.

Establishing a healthy rhythm between the mountain and valley.

Our creative work must begin with the same 4 words that introduce the book of Genesis…”in the beginning God…” We’re always in that pull between the tower of babel and Pentecost…and our vision must be received rather than self-generated…Jesus would say, “I only do what the Father does.” Clarity on the mountain top produces decisiveness in the valley.

Cultivating a non-anxious presence in the face of adversity.

I had to resist a need to try and control outcomes, we can work hard to create fertile soil and spread good seed, but when we move beyond what we’re meant to steward, we become anxious.

Wesley Furlong serves as the lead pastor of Florida’s Cape Christian Fellowship. In 2012, Wesley star-ted a city initiative called Not In My City and is passionate about seeing families experience God’s fullness and reclaiming the full healing ministry of Jesus in the local church. To learn more, visit www.wesleyfurlong.com