What does inspirational leadership look like in your organization? Let me ask: what impact do inspiring leaders have on performance, both organizationally, and at an individual level?
Consider this: while an employee’s mindset is important to their overall performance, without support from their leadership, even the most committed and motivated employee may not reach their potential. This became very clear during the pandemic, as studies now find. When uncertainty and anxiety are high, employees must have clear expectations and emotional support.
Unfortunately, some leaders have risen to the top through marketing or hype. They sway others to do as they ask (or command) with a lack of genuine concern for their well-being. As a result, there is a large degree of distrust and reluctance.
Conversely, inspiring leaders take action because of their care and concern for others. You see, inspirational leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in our charge. While rank or title may indicate leadership authority, they are not indicators of leadership ability.
Inspirational Leadership Can Be Developed
Inspiring leaders are often described by their innate traits, strengths, or title. Fundamentally, inspirational leadership is the ability to positively influence and/or motivate others. In today’s world, inspirational leadership is about connection: connecting with those you lead in ways that are meaningful to them.
You see, the relationships you create determine your abilities as an influencer. If you build trust and practice empathy in your relationships, you’ll create higher-quality connections. This may sound simple, but it poses certain challenges that require nuance and practice.
Fortunately, we can develop inspirational leadership. At the core is our ability to see those around us.
Why We Need Inspirational Leadership
In a 2017 survey recently published in Harvard Business Review, 85% of 14,500 workers across a variety of industries said they were not working at full potential. We know that external incentives or benefits alone are not enough to motivate workers. Great leaders inspire their people with why they do what they do, instead of the what and how.
When employees believe their work matters; when they have a purpose that aligns with the mission of the organization and their leader, they are more creative and productive. They care because their leaders skillfully communicate genuine care.
Engage the Heart and Mind
Great examples of this in action are those leaders who engage both the heart and mind. Consider the entire speech of Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963. He didn’t begin with “I have a plan.” Nor did he open with the changes that needed to be made. He began by telling us why: why all people need to bond for a better future.
When we begin a communication with why, we engage the part of the brain most responsible for decision-making. It registers subconscious thoughts, lacks language, uses gut intuition, and is heavily influenced by feelings and drives for survival. When leaders share a greater cause and higher purpose, listeners are sifting, sorting, and deciding whether and how much to trust, and ultimately, commit. Then, leaders can focus on the how and what.
How Leaders Inspire (or Not)
The pressures of the pandemic have affected our communication. We’ve reverted to old school communication styles that are less effective: define the problem, analyze it, and recommend a solution.
If you want to inspire and motivate others, this approach does not work. Worse, it can create more problems. Employees who disagree, have other ideas, or ingrained habits won’t respond well to a perceived command and control order, or a lecture on beliefs.
Communication That Inspires
Leaders inspire their audience when they pay careful attention to communication details and understand the importance of:
- Word choice
- Patterns of words
- Order of patterns
In addition to words, the language of leadership is most effective when you:
- Can share intelligent stories and narratives
- Display appropriate, congruent body language
- Demonstrate an understanding of the audience’s story and context
What Your Audience Wants to Hear
Most of our communication is done electronically (email, phone, video-conference, etc.) and people aren’t necessarily listening. Inspiring leaders understand this, and use four methods to grab focused attention.
- Sharing a personal story or message – sharing “why”
- Triggering emotion – sharing “how”
- Presenting trustworthy data or reliable source – sharing “what”
- Using concise language, without relying on jargon (i.e. industry specific terms, abbreviations, etc.)
The Role of Positive and Negative Messaging
Personal stories that trigger emotion are more than twice as likely to resonate with your audience. Negative messages are also more effective when they illustrate the seriousness of a problem, the trajectory, and how it was and can be overcome. However, negative messages can de-motivate people.
Positive messaging creates a desire to change and sparks imagination. Clear examples of how others are making a difference appeal to the heart, and the mind. This enables your audience to see the possibilities and create their own conclusions.
What Your Audience Needs to Hear
Inspirational leadership relies on the establishment of an emotional connection, as well as sound reasoning.
The Importance of Connection: At its core, inspirational leadership is about connection: connecting with those you lead in ways that are meaningful to them. The relationships you create determine your abilities as a motivator. For example, if you are empathic and establish trust in your relationships, you’ll create higher-quality connections.
Encourage individuals to speak truth to power. Create an environment where there is safe-space to share ideas, including disagreement and dissent. This enables greater collaboration and innovation.
The Importance of Compelling, Sound Reasoning: Any desire or willingness to change will wane unless it’s reinforced by compelling, sound reasons. Appeal to your audience in story forms that communicate:
- Why: why the change is needed
- What: what the change is and how it will impact them
- How: the change will be implemented
- Why this change will work: the sound reasoning
Inspirational leadership creates a scaffolding—a catalyst for a creative process—that enables an audience to see the world for themselves, view their relationships in a new way, and make progress in reaching their full potential.