How the World’s Greatest Leaders Approach Engagement


Leaders should always be looking for new ways to engage their people; in fact the best leaders in the world test a range of engagement strategies regularly, until they find the approach that works best for them and their people. What’s always interesting is looking to the world’s most iconic leaders – the likes of Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey – and how they managed to successfully establish and maintain a winning culture, engage their people and achieve greatness.  

What’s even more interesting, is the values and principles that guided such leaders when it came to their employee engagement strategies. We investigate further: 

Learning from: Nelson Mandela

Engagement is critically important when leading a team – whether you’re trying to build a business or transform a nation! Engagement is the key component to achieve goals and objectives, no matter what they are. 

Nelson Mandela’s approach to leading people – both in the workplace and in the country of South Africa, was through humanity: recognising the need for equality, diversity, responsibility, accountability and leadership. He looked at what was lacking, and what his people needed to thrive, while empowering them to be better and do better. HR leaders can take a feather from Nelson Mandela’s cap when thinking about their approach to leadership and employee engagement in the workplace:

Key Takeaway: Focus on the human needs of your people

It’s easy to assume that employees are motivated by money and/or grand titles, but these fail time and again if their basic human needs are not met. By human needs we mean emotional needs: do they feel valued and heard? Are there opportunities for growth and are they encouraged to grow? Do they feel included and represented in the workplace? Nelson Mandela taught us that true inspiring leadership puts the human needs of people at the centre. 

“If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important – and you do that by being genuine and humble.”

Learning from: Bill Gates 

Bill Gates admitted that, in Microsoft’s formative years and when he hadn’t yet perfected his leadership skills, he used license plates to track attendance. In an interview on BBC Radio, he said, “I knew everyone’s license plates so I could look out in the parking lot and see when did people come in, when were they leaving.” Now that’s not a lesson to take from Bill Gates – luckily through trial and error, experience and wisdom his approach to employee engagement transformed! He realised that this particular ‘eye-spy’ approach was merely tracking compliance and not productivity, motivation, or any of the other crucial factors that mattered most for achieving goals and objectives. Which led him to a deeper understanding of employee engagement: measure based on desired outcome. 

Key Takeaway: Measure and address the areas necessary to perfect to achieve your desired outcome 

For example, if you want contribution, track collaboration and coaching. If you want commitment, measure impact on the organization’s purpose. If you want to achieve greater results and a winning culture, measure diversity and inclusion. Think about your desired outcome and then decide which factors may drive you closer towards them and measure those. 

Learning from: Oprah Winfrey 

“There is a common denominator in our human experience… Everybody wants to know ‘did you hear me’ and ‘did what I say matter?’” Oprah Winfrey said this during her commencement speech at Harvard University in 2013. Employee engagement boils down to the same two factors: knowing that what’s been communicated was heard and that it matters. 

“I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience….The common denominator that I found in every single interview is we want to be validated. We want to be understood. I’ve done over 35,000 interviews in my career. And as soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: “Was that OK?” I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives. I’ve heard it from victims and perpetrators of crimes. I even heard it from Beyoncé in all of her Beyoncé-ness….[We] all want to know one thing: “Was that OK?” “Did you hear me?” “Do you see me?” “Did what I say mean anything to you?”

Key Takeaway: Listen to what your people say, and take action 

Every human being wants to know that they’re heard and that what they say is valued by others. Employees want to work for employers that value what they have to say and they measure this by the action taken after they’ve spoken. To show your people that you care about what they have to say while acquiring data that can be used to make sound people and business decisions, conduct regular pulse surveys. We at Inpulse pride ourselves on emotion-driven surveys that help you to understand how your people feel and why, at key stages of the employee lifecycle.

Master Engagement Throughout the Employee Lifecycle