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Our BiteSize Learning team reveal their most inspiring leaders

Organisations never aspire to have bad leaders. So why do we have so many?

In today’s VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) team leaders need an unprecedented mix of skills and abilities (read more about it here and here).

At BiteSize Learning we asked the team to share their most inspiring leaders and to describe examples of their qualities.

The responses revealed many commonalities and also how multi-faceted you need to be in order to lead. Great leaders stand out because of how they make individuals feel but also how they inspire peers too.

Here are some of the traits we think good leaders share:


A willingness to take risks and to take the flak for the team means being brave. Fairly early on in his career BiteSize co-founder Paul Hodder worked for a new head of HR with a particularly bold approach.

“In his first few weeks, he told me to take the half of my work that I thought was least important, stop doing it and see if anyone noticed. I must have looked concerned because he then said, “Don’t worry, I only want you to make room for some really important things I need you to do, and if anyone complains, I’ll take the blame”.

“I stopped doing the weekly reports that were half of my work. One manager complained… five weeks later, the Head of HR apologised to him with me in the room, said it was his fault and agreed I would send him a report on a quarterly basis. My boss did also give me some more important, more interesting work, and then suggested I do the same exercise in three months’ time and, when I’d made some space, he’d have something better for me. Clever.”

Associate Marie Guest remembers working with a director at a premium brand based in London. “She worked on the product side of the business and I was working in HR so our professional backgrounds were very different. I watched her sometimes take stances which weren’t popular (or which others had shied away from) but she did it whilst presenting a clear rationale and was happy to be challenged.”


Leaders need to live by the values and standards that they espouse before they can demand them of others. Having integrity means actions speak louder than words.

Associate Richard Thornton describes his most inspiring leader as, “Not a ‘big’ personality, but a genuine, thoughtful and dedicated leader, who wanted those working with him to succeed.”

A personal friend to this day, he describes this man’s qualities as always being consistent and true to his values. “This did not always make life easy for him when we worked together. It’s fair to say that he and the departmental head didn’t always see eye to eye, and yet he never ‘leaked’ his frustration to us. He focussed on how he could help us to achieve, and shielded us from some of the politics that inevitably happen in large organisations.”

Taking accountability for your actions as a leader makes it easy for others to learn how to be accountable themselves. Marie recalls the same director who was clearly guided by a strong moral compass. “She was really open and told me that the more senior you get, the more ambiguity you have to deal with, but that being true to yourself is really important. She taught me to trust my instincts and always speak up if I felt I had a point to make which would add value – even if I felt a little scared about putting my head above the parapet.”

Our mindfulness lead Janice Benning saw courage when working for the headteacher of a large comprehensive boarding school.

“He was a brilliant communicator and had the respect of pupils, staff, parents and the wider community. Keeping such a diverse group of people happy is no easy feat – yet he made it seem effortless.

“He was tough when necessary, demanded and commanded respect and always had your back. He had the best interests of the staff and pupils at the centre of all he did, and would always fight our corner if necessary, stepping in when required, but allowing us space and time to handle difficulties by ourselves if we could.”


Nelson Mandela was well known for his humility. When working in the police force, our conscious leadership lead, Ivor Twydell, had the good fortune to briefly meet him when he came to unveil a statute in Bedford of Bishop Trevor Huddleston in 2001.

“I was the police commander for the visit – which drew thousands – and therefore responsible for his safety! Mr Mandela had such a powerful, calm, yet energetic presence despite his advanced years. He was quite simply magnetic with a smile that knocked you off your feet.

“In just a few seconds conversation I felt I was the most important person to him and at that moment, I think that was true. And, of course, what is truly inspirational is the forgiveness, wisdom and compassion he manifested in the way he brought reconciliation and healing to his country. What a leader!” 

Emotional Intelligence

The ability to identify and manage your emotions and the emotions of others around you is one of the key interpersonal skills required in a successful workplace. Good emotional intelligence often goes hand in hand with effective communication. Of all the leadership traits identified by our team, being able to communicate well was the most mentioned, but unpicking what that means is more complex than it sounds. It’s a mix of abilities as described by Ivor, who remembers one particular deputy chief constable during his police career.

“I loved his presence and the way he was able to communicate effectively with anyone – he had a real skill at creating rapport with anyone he met and made them feel respected and valued.

“He didn’t shout or bawl out others, he was always consistently calm and measured and that made him very approachable – people felt safe with him and consequently were not afraid to challenge him – something he loved.”

Janice explains how her headmaster leader demonstrated sensitivity to all his team.

“He always made time for you, and his door really was always open. When I had family issues and needed time off he made things as easy as he could and genuinely cared.

“When I gained some good publicity for the school or organised an event he would always come and say thanks.”

BiteSize co-founder Rob Conolly recalls working at an insurance company that had recently been acquired by a US company. They brought one of their own team as the new CEO.

“On reflection, and this wasn’t apparent at the time, this CEO had no ego and when he spoke to you, he was genuinely interested in you and your job and he left you with the feeling that he had complete trust in you and your ability, so all you wanted to do was to get the job done: he was a complete coach.”

A delegator

If you’re micromanaging your team and their tasks, you are not only devaluing your people but also denying yourself the freedom to grow and develop your own role as leader.

Paul learned from one of his former managers that effective delegation also brings efficiency.

“She openly admitted to delegating everything that came across her desk, leaving her time free to support people. She valued people working smart rather than long and demonstrated this by always leaving the office by 4:30pm (although you would often get a call on her walk to the station), and by making sure her office was clear of paper before she left.

“She would take time to evaluate, asking what we’d learned from a project and how we could do it better. But just as importantly, if you said you were OK – she would let you get on with it.”

Richard recalls how his most inspiring leader revealed his values by supporting the team at all times as part of his delegation duties:

“He focussed on how he could help us to achieve, and shielded us from some of the politics that inevitably happen in large organisations. More than that, he never let us forget that what we were doing was important, that it mattered, that what we did had purpose and meaning. This meant that the standards we set ourselves were high and that we cared about what we did. He also applied those standards rigorously to himself.”

A good motivator

It can be an overwhelming experience at times to understand what drives your team because everyone has particular drivers that excite, inspire or motivate them to be the best they can be. Done well, motivation can earn the utmost respect and loyalty.

Rob recalls how the insurance company CEO’s different management style motivated the team.

“There were very clear differences in the way that he operated when he joined the UK business; he rarely used the phone or email when he needed to speak to anyone. He would come and talk to you, face to face, at your desk. He wanted to understand what you did, he presented his problem and encouraged you to provide a solution by asking questions.

“He was empathetic but also challenging, he’d listen to problems but encourage us to think the issue through for ourselves, and was happy to give us the credit for our successes.”

Paul can remember how powerfully he was motivated by his headmaster when at primary school.

“When a new secretary arrived at the school we were sent, one-by-one, to see him, collect a sealed card he had written and then go to the secretary to pass it to her. I was 11 but I can still tell you that her first words to me were: “Hello Paul, apparently you are a brilliant artist and a goal-scoring machine”. Art was my favourite subject, and I was the school’s top scorer.

“I still remember the joy that I was being asked questions about something I was good at.”

Strong motivators inspire people to take on challenges that are out of their comfort zones. They know that it’s the only way to develop and grow. Janice saw this with her headteacher boss.

“One of my favourite memories of him is watching him nurture a scared teenager down an abseil tower by going down with him – despite being well into his 60s and not exactly fond of heights himself.”

Great leaders are never born

Great leaders are never born, but instead, acquire those qualities through a combination of character and experience. Sadly, without training and skills building, many leaders are left floundering and passing on bad habits to the next generation of leaders. This is why we run leadership courses to help develop the multi-faceted skills today’s leaders need. Find out more today by calling 0845 1233757.

So over to you, which leaders have made the biggest impression in your lives?

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