The 5 Habitats of Inspiring Leaders

Elephant seal 5 Habitats of Inspiring Leaders

By Lloyd Irwin

The Antarctic Elephant Seal is an ungainly creature on land. After all, it’s not easy dragging around 4 tons of blubber on 2 flippers. But in its native habitat the water, it moves gracefully and easily, travelling hundreds of kilometres every day, holding its breath for 2 hours and diving 2 kilometres deep.

Leaders have similar limitations when they seek to inspire. They thrive in their “native habitats,” feeling right at home, while operating in their “endangered habitats” feels awkward and ungainly, a struggle to survive. Our experience with leaders reveals five unique habitats in an inspiring leadership environment, which together we call the Leadership Ecosystem. Identify your native habitat, and then choose one or two behaviours from the others to adapt and boost your leadership.

Habitat 1: STAY HUNGRY

The atmosphere of a team reflects its leader. A leader who is passionate, optimistic, curious, and courageous infects their team with similar qualities. Inspiring leaders have a “can-do “spirit, and bounce back from setbacks with the courage of their convictions. They don’t see themselves as victims of circumstances or of market conditions, but as agents of change, ready and willing to grasp the opportunities before them. What does your team “catch” from you and what do they see in your eyes? Is it passion, energy and belief, or fatigue, disapproval, and defeat?


People love to contribute, but surprisingly few leaders leverage this, often treating people as cogs in the organisational wheel – as doers rather than as contributors. Inspiring leaders show people that they matter and developing strong interpersonal skills which are a proven spark of inspiration in a leader1. They recognize unsung heroes, show appreciation frequently, and seek participation from their teams. How does your team know you value them? Do they feel appreciated and keen to contribute or just like a cog in the corporate wheel?

Habitat 3: SET UP TO WIN

Younger executives want to make the most of their skills at work and excel at their jobs,2 yet only 28% of them feel they are well utilised by their companies.3 Their leaders often underestimate their dispiriting influence when they remain content with the status quo and the familiar routines of their own role, or focus on cost-saving at the expense of building value. Their words, actions and attitudes inadvertently define a second-rate team culture, and undermine its drive to achieve. Inspiring leaders set up their teams to win. They clarify goals and expectations, then synchronize the necessary resources and effort to achieve them. They encourage people beyond comfort zones to innovate and give their best. What ground have you laid for your team’s success? Do they feel under-utilised or stretched with the clarity, resources and ambition to excel?

Habitat 4: OPEN DOORS

Team members won’t continue to help reach business goals unless they can also reach their goals. Sometimes a leader’s quest for personal or business success inadvertently takes advantage of others’ loyalty or limits their progress, like slamming a door in their face. As philosopher Stanisław Lem observed, success is elusive and shallow: “You climb to reach the summit, but once there, discover that all roads lead down.” 4Inspiring leaders look beyond themselves and their own success to invest in others, leaving a human legacy bigger than they are. They coach to grow, help others to maximise their potential and expand their horizons with new experiences and networks and, in return, win the loyalty and commitment they sought all along. Does your team see you as a professional development resource or a glory hog? Are you paving their path or placing obstacles in it?


People want to be led, not managed. Leaders who inspire others look beyond tasks to create vision and purpose. Recent neuroscientific research has proven that just 30 minutes thinking about dreams, imagination, and aspirations boosts motivation and improves receptivity to other people and new ideas, while thinking about targets, tasks, and outcomes invokes stress, defensiveness, and guilt.5 Inspiring leaders communicate corporate dreams and aspirations formally and informally, telling stories to convey the future, and modelling the integrity, dedication, and deepening personal centeredness that make a leader worth following. Few leaders are native to this habitat, yet its central role in inspiring others demands deliberate work and practice. What picture do your people have for the future of your organisation? Are they fighting for a worthy cause or do they just clock on and off each day?

So, which are your native habitats and where do you need to adapt if your inspiring leadership is to survive? No-one is native to all habitats and there will be times when all of us feel like a fish out of water. The good news is that adapting a little will help your leadership thrive. If you can’t, you might find yourself endangered, or even extinct.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood, or assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” 
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, writer and pioneer aviator


  1. Hayes, J., Interpersonal Skills at Work (New York: Routledge, 2002)
  2. Pfau, Bruce & Ira Kay, The Human Capital Edge (KPMG – 2002)
  3. The 2016 Delloitte Millennial Survey
  4. Stanisław Lem, The Cyberiad (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)
  5. Jack, A., R.E. Boyatzis, M. Khawaja, A. M. Passarelli, & R. Leckie, Visioning the Brain: an fMRI study of inspirational coaching and mentoring, (Social Neurosciences, 8 (8), 2013, 369-384)

Lloyd Irwin


Dr. Lloyd Irwin is a Senior Partner and leadership development specialist at Tirian International. Over the past 15 years, Lloyd has become a trusted partner for strategic leadership and organisational development with a wide range of corporate groups and industry sectors across Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. He is a member of the Daimler Global Coaching Pool and has collaborated with the Daimler Corporate Academy to develop and deliver several leadership and culture change programs for Mercedes Benz in Europe and across Asia Pacific. Lloyd has appeared as a guest on the Fox Business channel and is the designer of The Leadership Ecosystem.

New Leadership Ecosystem

The Leadership Ecosystem outlines 5 unique and complementary “habitats” of inspiring leadership. All leaders will be “native” to some habitats, but need to adapt to their “endangered” habitats in order for their leadership to survive. Together the ecosystem describes 45 core behaviours which make a leader inspiring, providing practical steps for leaders to take to boost their leadership. The program comes with a 360 degree diagnostic and a full-day, interactive and engaging simulation, climbing through the 5 natural ecosystems of Mt Kilimanjaro as a way of experiencing the different ecosystems first-hand and identifying changes to make (logo picture attached)

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