Right before the pandemic, I received a call from two very senior technology leaders. They called because they were just informed that they needed to be more inspirational in their leadership style. They requested a framework, a roadmap, a book, a method, or some kind of guide that could help them with their quest to be inspirational leaders. We discussed that inspirational leadership is like executive presence. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. I asked for a day or two to come back with something and they agreed.
I sat out to conduct research, spoke to some of my coach colleagues, investigated known models, spoke to some of my clients, reflected on my time as a leader, and thought about my time as an employee. What exactly are the behaviors we need to exhibit, I asked myself.
As I conducted research, I found a lot of different models and frameworks from well-known companies like Bain & Company. They conducted research a few years ago to define inspirational leadership. From their research, they developed the Bain Inspirational Leadership System. If you search for the term “Inspirational Leadership” on the internet, you will most likely find articles and blog posts that reference Bain’s study. Their system considers 33 elements they identified as “statistically significant for inspiring others.” The number of elements is a bit overwhelming. There must be a simpler answer out there. So, I decided to go figure it out on my own.
My sense is that many of you are probably thinking the same thing, “what is inspirational leadership?” I hope to be able to answer this question for you today.
Motivation Vs. Inspiration
Some people confuse motivation and inspiration. “Motivate” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “to provide with a need or desire to cause a person to act.” The dictionary defines “Inspire” as “to spur on; exert an exalting influence on; to draw forth or bring out.” The actions that cause the reaction are very different. Motivation requires an incentive while inspiration comes from within, things we say or do with others that create the outcome.
Most of us have been part of an incentive-based process. We are taught that if we do “X” we will receive “Y” in return. Do you recall your parents telling you that if you got straight A’s you would get a prize? That’s the motivation to get better grades. We do this in performance management all the time. A bonus or commission is a motivation to deliver results.
Inspiration, on the other hand, does not require an incentive. We have the opportunity as leaders to draw inspiration from those we work with. The self-starting stimulation based on our action affects “Y” without the need for “X”. They both can have positive outcomes, but one can be long-lasting while the other has a relatively short horizon. The incentive would have to continue indefinitely, or the effectiveness will wane. Together, motivation and inspiration are powerful leadership actions.
Short-Term Vs. Long-Term Inspiration
Inspiration can have short-term only impacts as well. When I ask people to define inspiration most refer to an inspiring person, a speech they heard or an event they attended that left them inspired. I then ask, “How long did that last?” Most of them acknowledge that by the beginning of the following week, work had taken over and the inspiring moment is an only too distant memory. This points to the fact that inspiration is not a one-time event but a series of actions that we take with our teams to keep that inspirational feeling alive.
Seven Attributes of Inspirational Leaders
Building inspirational skills with long-term impact is the secret of many inspiring leaders. As John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” With this in mind, here are seven attributes you can adopt to become an inspiring leader.
Trust – Best-selling author Stephen R. Covey states that “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” Without trust, close relationships are impossible. Without trust, we can’t be inspiring leaders.
Trust goes beyond treating members of our team with respect. When we trust our team, we let them do the work we hired them to do, we forgive their mistakes, we are not judgmental, we collaborate openly, and we leave our egos at the door. In doing so, we will earn their trust in return.
Humility and vulnerability play a big role in building trust. Patrick Lencioni says in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” that “teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” Inspiring leaders know they need the courage and humility to acknowledge their mistakes and apologize for them.
Connect – For those of you that have children you know that each child is different, and you probably adjust your style to connect with them. To connect with your team, it is important to understand their personality and cultural preferences and adapt our approach based on that. Inspiring leaders are also great communicators and great listeners. They actively listen. They are not distracted; they do not multitask, and they ask engaging and provocative questions. They engage in communication that draws dialog from the people on their team in a very comfortable and natural way. They are responsive to requests, and they prioritize communication for their team in a way that is proactive and preemptive.
Care – An inspiring leader is one who takes an interest in each team member’s future and who is committed to helping them achieve their long-term goals. This can only happen with deep, trusting, personal connections. Inspiring leaders set aside their personal interests and selfish motives. They challenge each member of their team with provocative questions that help them think through their future goals. This is followed closely by development, encouragement, and support.
Develop – Inspiring leaders invest in the development of each member of their team. They help assess their team member’s skills, identify their gaps, and provide them with the needed development actions to close those gaps. They mentor, guide, and teach based on their wisdom and experience. They provide the needed resources to enable the learning process. In some cases, that learning process involves challenging them to do bigger and better things. They also identify opportunities for them to showcase their skills. Leveraging trust, they provide positive and constructive feedback and use it to fine-tune the development process.
Advocate – How many times have you been asked if you have a sponsor within the company? I always find this interesting. That sponsor and advocate should be your leader. Inspiring leaders are selfless and they do not shy away from sponsoring a member of their team for opportunities within the company that align with the team member’s career goals. This helps attract new talent and turns the leader into a talent magnet.
Appreciate – Most people want to be appreciated and recognized for the work they do. Not everyone wants public recognition. Some want to stay low-key while others want pomp and circumstance. Inspiring leaders know that one size does not fit all and they identify the recognition preferences of each team member. Sometimes a “thank you” or a hand-written note goes a long way to show appreciation. Most importantly, inspiring leaders give credit to the team for their accomplishments vs. taking credit for themselves. They use “we” far more often than “I”.
Include – One of the most powerful things that inspiring leaders do is ask for input and advice. When people are brought into the decision-making process they become more engaged and have a higher sense of ownership. When a team member is asked for guidance, they feel important, valued, and inspired. Inspiring leaders know that their team members have a wealth of knowledge and that tapping into it will bring forth better outcomes. This approach will build trust, and it will inspire them to think and act differently.
Principles of Inspirational Leadership
I would like you to think about these seven attributes as an ecosystem of leadership. All these attributes are linked together, and they all feed off each other. It is important to exhibit all seven of these attributes on a consistent basis with each member of the organization.
As I mentioned earlier, individualization is important. You must adapt your leadership style to each member of your team to inspire them.
Effort matters when trying to inspire your team. Putting forth genuine effort makes a big difference. I know when I want to show my spouse that I really love her I can achieve that goal by simply uttering those three famous words. But, if I really want to make an impact, it takes effort, and that effort is greatly appreciated.
Most of us want to be recognized as inspiring leaders. To do so, we must recognize that trust is paramount, show that we genuinely care, invest in development, advocate for our team, recognize them for their hard work, practice engaging communication, and be inclusive with our style.
I hope this article was helpful and that you will find nuggets that will help you become an inspiring leader. Drop me a note in the comment section below or through the Contact Me page if you have any questions.
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