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Terry Pearce on the role of vision, communication, and inspiration in effective leadership

March 27, 2015 5 minute Read by George W. Bush Presidential Center

This week in Little Rock, Arkansas, the presidential centers of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson are hosting their second meeting of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program. The initiative gives prospective leaders the chance to study presidential decisions, while they learn from key administration officials, practitioners, and leading academics about the elements of leadership. The purpose of the program, which will involve sessions at the centers of each of these presidents, is to help participants develop the skills they will need to address this century’s challenges and opportunities.

Terry Pearce is among the experts that the scholars will hear from this week. In this interview, Pearce, author of “Leading Out Loud,” discusses the role that vision, communication, and inspiration play in effective leadership.

Strong leaders know how to inspire others, but how do they summons the ability to do that? At one level, they are human beings like everyone else. Yet they also must stand apart from the crowd and show the way.

Inspiration comes from within. It is intrinsic and therefore does not arise when the only payoff is extrinsic.

“Inspire” literally means “to breathe life into...,” and we can’t breathe life into anything if we do not have that breath in ourselves. Accordingly, those who would lead will spend time thinking about and imagining projects and changes that are aligned with their personal values.

Most agree that knowledge about values and aligned projects can only be gained through introspection, and most suggest that at least some of that introspection has to take place in solitude. Only when we know who we are can we deploy ourselves to inspire others. 

Vision and inspiration certainly are related. How do effective leaders develop their vision?

Once we know our values, we can envision a myriad of ways to make them real in the world. Imagination is the first step in creation. If you value mirth, happiness and play, you might envision, as Walt Disney did, the happiest place on earth.

Developing our vision is simply done by asking, “How can I best make my values real?” Then we write those ideas down, clarifying the project, and start finding those who respond, whom we can inspire and take with us in creating something real.

Communication is also important to vision and inspiration. Yet communicating well is not always an easy task. How do leaders learn how to communicate their vision?

We can dream in the dark, but without communication in the light, nothing gets done. If we listen to our dream, we will hear a story — a narrative we can relay to others. That narrative always takes the same form; where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going.

How do we learn? We find those who communicate well and emulate them; we find teachers who can give us examples and tools like metaphor, image and symbol. We compare the mythologies of those we are leading and appeal to their universal stories.  We read history of great communicators who have led change in the world. We expand our range of emotional awareness and become more daring and authentic. We make distinctions between facts and feelings and become proficient at both.

What is the role of empathy in leadership? The same for passion? What role do these play in effective leadership?

Empathy and passion live in the same house, and a common mistake is to feel both but express neither—to wave them off as “soft skills” that will make us unnecessarily vulnerable. What moves us (passion) is also what compels us to connect with others (empathy).

While neither is necessary to direct or manage a project, both are necessary to lead. Passion and empathy expressed in our story combine with competence in that rare person called “leader.”


George W. Bush Presidential Center



As the 13th presidential library, the Bush Library and Museum promotes an understanding of the American presidency, examines the specific time in history during which President Bush served, and provides access to official records and artifacts from the Bush Administration.



The Bush Institute is an action-oriented, nonpartisan policy organization that cultivates leaders, fosters policies to solve today’s most pressing challenges, and takes action to save and change lives. Our work is inspired by the principles that guide President and Mrs. Bush in public life.

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