During my monthly women’s alumnae circle one of the participants raised the question on how to be an inspirational leader. Her manager was “incredibly inspirational” and she wanted to be seen that way, too.
“Inspirational” seemed to be this nebulous, possibly unattainable characteristic that was floating above us all… hard to achieve and only bestowed on the select few.
It forced me to think about inspiration. What is it? What does it mean, and is it some “secret skill” that some people are born with?
When I was young in my career, I, too, thought that inspiration was a sort of “magical power.” But the more I worked with inspirational leaders, the more I realized that it is often much simpler than that. It’s basically the same elements every time.
Whenever someone inspires you, this is what they’re doing:
They conceive of, and communicate, a big vision. They’re also able to articulate what the world will look like when this vision has been accomplished. Often, they are painting with a broad brush and using words that connect with you. By doing that, they show you how the world, or the company, or all of our lives will be better when this vision has been realized.
Then, they can explain why OUR team is the team that can make this happen. It may be hard, but we are the right ones, the capable ones, and goddammit, we will do it.
They break down the journey into digestible, logical chunks that will help the team execute. The BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is broken down when they show you which stream of work YOU will own. This is where they make it clear you are valued and how your contribution is important to the goal.
Throughout the process, they motivate you to become the person who can accomplish the goal. You may hit roadblocks, because what we are trying to do is hard, but you are not alone, and they will help you become the person who can accomplish this.
Doing this well requires a base of trust. In the absence of a personal history together, they can say certain things to establish some kind of trust. Those things are basically:
- We’re in this together
- We may fail, but I won’t hang you out to dry if we do
- You won’t be punished if we don’t get there
- I’m going to help mitigate the consequences of this risk that we’re all taking
If they succeed in their effort to inspire you, you become a motivated member of their squad. You are excited about the vision. You trust this leader knows how to get shit done, and get you from point A to point B. You also feel motivated to work your ass off to do your part, and if you hit a roadblock, you trust that the leader will help you solve it and support you in your efforts.
Finally, you believe you’ll be better off in the new vision, than in the current state of the world. That’s successful inspirational leadership.
These are the tangible actions that a good leader takes to be inspirational. What’s unsaid is that at the base of all this, the person has to be a good person, who genuinely cares about the people. As Jerry Colonna says, “I believe that better humans make better leaders.”