What makes someone inspirational?

October 5, 2010

A few times recently I’ve found myself writing these words: “One of the most inspirational voices of our time” about  Kumi Naidoo,  Paul Farmer  and Wangari Maathai.  As I don’t take the use of the adjective “inspirational” lightly, it made me think about what makes me refer to someone as ‘inspirational’?  We obviously all have our own personal answers and I started to think about what values I apply to my use of the word.

  • Walk their talk – It is one thing to give a good speech, it is quite another to lead your life so you are carrying through on what you encourage others to do.
  • Take a different path –   One can inspire people to do what they have always done better but I find it most inspirational when one has the creativity and courage to take a different path.
  • Balance vision with practicality – I find it is the rare leader who is visionary while also understanding the practicalities of moving towards that vision.
  •  Have a very strong ‘moral compass’ and integrity –  Although many of us start out with the “best of intentions” there are many challenges along our journey and temptations to ‘cut corners’, ‘make deals’ or take other actions that are not in the best interest of the people who have trusted in us.  Those who I find inspirational, are well grounded and don’t lose their ‘moral compass’ and integrity despite temptations they may face to do so.
  •  Cross-cultural communicators – This may not be as common on ‘inspirational’ lists, but I greatly value those who have taken the time (like Kumi, Paul, Wangari and many others I find inspirational) to get to know, understand and appreciate different cultures and to help others to do the same.
  •  Don’t take themselves too seriously – Realize the attention, awards (and even adulation) is about their work and not just about themselves.
  •  “Walk with kings but keep the ‘common touch’” One of my favorite poems has always been “If” by Rudyard Kipling from where this line comes.  I have had the good fortune, perhaps not to walk with kings, but with queens and prime ministers, and I have little patience for those who get too impressed with themselves just because they have done so…Those who inspire me can “walk with kings” but retain their ability to respect and engage with each and every individual they come in contact with no matter what their status in life.
  • Bring out the best in people – Part of being inspirational to me is to inspire other people to be the best they can be.

Who are some of the people you find inspirational and why?  How do you define inspirational?