Are You An Inspiring Leader?

Recently I’ve been intrigued by the question, “How can leaders inspire their people?” Maybe it’s the holiday season, maybe it’s something else, but I have spent the last few weeks trying to answer this question.

When I was running my second company, we had a team of outside sales reps. You wouldn’t have heard me use the words inspiring, but I wanted to be an inspiring leader. I remember spending thousands of dollars trying to inspire my people to higher productivity by sending them to sales training, often attending with them. The investment felt worth it, because our people and I came back energized and excited. However, these effects didn’t last long. They would fuel our drive for a bit, but they dwindled with time and it wasn’t long before we settled into our ordinary ways of doing things. I noticed that the energy of the team followed my own. I imagine that each of you have had a similar experience, have attended some event that you were energized by and wondered why that energy quickly dwindled or didn’t result in powerful outcomes. As a leader, you’ve probably wondered, “How can I inspire my people?” Maybe you’ve tried, but have not been as effective as you hoped. As I look back on my own experiences, I wonder, “Was I an inspiring leader?” and candidly the answer is no. So the next logical question is “How can I be an inspiring leader?”

After a lot of research, pondering and perhaps a little inspiration, I’ve learned a few things. Specifically there are three components that we can all use to be more inspiring leaders. They are Perspective, Belief and Energy. These are important because when we understand what they are and how they happen, we don’t have to rely on big events or spend thousands of dollars to inspire our people; we can create our own inspiration, we can be inspiring leaders everyday. The biggest benefit of inspiration is its positive correlation with intrinsic motivation, the kind of motivation that comes from within and drives more productivity than all the bonuses and rewards we can offer (extrinsic motivation).

Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot’s research into inspiration support the three factors of Perspective, Belief and Energy. As you continue reading this, consider a time you felt inspired and you’ll begin to see how these three things are a part of your own experiences.

When we consider moments of inspiration, they start with a change in perspective. Perspective is a new way of seeing things, it’s about thinking differently. In our daily efforts we can get caught up thinking about the same things and don’t take enough time to see our work and activities in a different more compelling way.

“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.” – Douglas Adams

The first step to being an inspiring leader is to offer your people a new and compelling view. You can do this by putting your people in a place that invites such a perspective. This can be literally or figuratively. Have you ever wondered why offsite meetings and events are so popular? Well, if heads are buried in tactical work and we don’t stop to put things in perspective, it’s awfully difficult to be inspired. To see things in a new and compelling way, it helps to get away from the things that create current perspectives.

You literally change perspective by changing the environment, for example going somewhere else or rearranging things. You figuratively change perspective by forcing thoughts somewhere else, for example read an article, watch a TEDTalk, hear someone else’s opinion, etc. Either way, move minds and thoughts out of the daily grind. A new or different perspective is the foundation of inspiration. People are not capable of focusing attention on two things at once, so if we expect to be inspiring while our people are focused on daily routines, we are badly mistaken. We have to take them out of routine and away from the daily grind to free their minds and enable them to think differently.

In my personal example, I didn’t offer a new and compelling perspective – in essence I said, “attend training, sell more and I’ll be happy”. Not new, not compelling. The training was useful because it got them out of their typical environment, but I hadn’t changed anything for when they returned to it. I didn’t direct or focus my people, I just said, “Hey lets get out and sell”.

Inspiring leaders offer a clear and compelling perspective that directs and focuses their people.

Sharing a new perspective also involves bridging the gap between the new and old perspectives so your people see the connections and purpose.

This alone though is not sufficient, because we’ve all read something that was fascinating and maybe even compelling, but didn’t come away inspired…we didn’t come away motivated and energized.

The second component of inspiration is belief. For our purposes belief is defined as, “a sincere and deeply seeded confidence in something”. The new and compelling perspective needs to be matched by belief.

“Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally saves their lives.” – Tony Robbins

Matched by a sincere confidence that the perspective will have a positive, valuable and worthwhile impact. Think again to when you’ve been inspired, was it just the idea that inspired you? Or did those with the idea truly believe that it would have a positive, valuable and worthwhile impact? If you want to be an inspiring leader, you have to believe and communicate in such a way that others cannot doubt your confidence. This is where too many leaders fall short. They create perspective, but don’t fully believe it will have a positive, valuable and worthwhile impact. This personal doubt ends up undermining their message.

When leaders don’t believe, a few things can happen. The leader can over-rely on data and information to demean alternative perspectives, they can share their doubts either overtly or covertly or they might rush to energizing their people without being able to sustain it.

I personally lacked belief, not for lack of desire; rather I didn’t know how we would increase sales. And while I felt obligated to push my people to sell more, deep down I was complacent with our performance. This uncertainty and complacency showed through in my communication and efforts.

Inspiring leaders clearly demonstrate and communicate their belief in the positive, valuable and worthwhile impacts.

This brings us to the third component of inspiration, which is energy. When people are inspired, they are energized – they’re given capacity and power to act.

“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. – Albert Einstein

We can have a compelling perspective and believe in the impact, but unless we do something different, that perspective and belief have little value. Your people need energy to perform and create value in the organization; they need the capacity and power to act. One goal of inspiration is to direct that energy toward the new perspective and to shift it from extrinsic to intrinsic. Inspiring leaders energize their people by literally giving them the capacity and power to act in alignment with the new and compelling perspective. They offer and direct efforts by clearly articulating what actions can be taken to achieve the positive, valuable and worthwhile impacts.

Inspiring leaders energize their people by giving them the capacity and power to act.

The interesting thing is that many leaders confuse energy alone with inspiration. They spend thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on events that energize their people, but when these events don’t address perspective or belief they often result in vigorous and aimless action that is quickly spent and creates little to no value. This is the result of being energized, but not knowing where to direct it. Energy without perspective is aimless, while energy without belief is short-lived. Perspective will focus and direct the energy and belief will sustain it.

I was the epitome of the leader who equates energy with inspiration. This is why I sent my people to training, but why the long-term impact was minimal. I thought vigorous action was inspiration. I did not give my people power or capacity nor did I give them specific guidance for where to direct their efforts.

One important note…small mix of all three components will always be more inspiring than a large some of just one or two. In fact when leaders are lacking one of these components they tend to over-rely on the other two.

If you want to be an inspiring leader, focus your people’s attention and energy by offering a new and compelling PERSPECTIVE, sustain their energy and focus by BELIEVING and ENERGIZE your people by giving them the capacity and power to act.

I would love to hear how you approach each of these areas, please share how you feel leaders can offer new compelling perspectives, demonstrate their belief in the value and energize their people.

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