By EVELYN TEH
If you could pick someone as your most inspirational leader, would it be Winston Churchill whose tenacity brought England through the war? Or Rosa Parks who stood up against racism?
Perhaps Steve Jobs whose radical approach changed the landscape of consumer technology? Or Barack Obama who became the first black American President? Or someone who is perhaps less famous than the aforementioned?
The question of why and how certain people are inspirational is a topic that eludes most leaders, especially since standout leaders come in all shapes and sizes.
Being inspiring has progressed from a nice-to-have characteristic to a key leadership trait within a leader’s repertoire. Before we learn how to be inspiring to others, it probably makes more sense to understand what inspiration is from the receiving end.
What is inspiration?
A search in the Oxford English Dictionary tells the origin of the word ‘inspiration’ from the Latin root word of inspirare, roughly translated to mean ‘breathe in’. Back in the days, it was used to describe the process of something divine imparting a truth or idea upon someone.
While we have moved beyond divine sources of inspiration, let’s imagine inspiration as akin to oxygen that we consciously (or unconsciously) breathe in. Whether we are breathing in an idea, vision or thought, inspiration changes something within us.
Fortunately, psychologists have researched this phenomenon for generations and have conceptualised inspiration in more “tangible terms”. Two such psychologists are Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot who propose that inspiration is made up of three components:
- Inspiration is evoked spontaneously and not premeditated
Nevertheless, inspiration often has a point of origin (i.e. nature, people, personal thoughts) that precedes this evocation. Newer research by Scott Barry Kaufman also shows that inspiration favours the prepared mind. So while it is generally spontaneous, we are still able to create conditions to foster it.
- Inspiration manifests beyond our animalistic and self-serving concerns
The transcendental nature of inspiration results in us obtaining clarity and expanding our mindset to encompass more possibilities. Interestingly, such moments of vivid clarity may involve “seeing” things which have always been there as opposed to something absolutely new. The insightful moments of “Aha!” and “Eureka!” would be examples of inspiration being manifested.
- Being inspired is frequently associated with an approach motivation in which we strive to transmit, express or actualise new ideas or vision
Visualise this – an individual who is keen to perform well at work because he/she believes in the mission of the company (approach motivation) as compared to another individual who performs to evade a bad performance appraisal (avoidance motivation). When we are inspired, we are also empowered to act because we see alignment within us. Consequently, this leads to a person with stronger mastery abilities, higher absorption rates, perceived competence and optimism. Plus, being inspired is often touted to be a springboard for creativity.
Extrapolating all these actions to the workplace, we are likely to see a positive increase in job satisfaction, organisational commitment and the ability to innovate.
It is not a wonder then that most leaders would seek to be strong inspiration figures to their followers.
Why do we inspire? – The character
While we can all agree that there would be slight variation of how we manifest and perceive inspiration, chances are we have all been inspired at one point or another.
Therefore, assuming that we are all capable of being inspired, the exciting consequence would be to look at preceding factors that produce this phenomenon.
Given that inspiration is breathed in, instinctively, humans are able to sniff out less-genuine inspiration.
Following this train of thought, research shows that inspiration needs to come from an authentic source – purpose, social connectedness, accountability, trustworthiness and curiosity.
- Purpose and social connectednessTo start with, leaders need to have a sense of purpose. While great leaders can always bring their troops to greater heights (i.e. striving to always be number one in the industry), the most inspirational leaders bring them to a vision that has a greater good beyond themselves. This ties in to the concept of gemeinschaftsgefühl, a German word roughly translated to mean a sense of social connectedness and understanding of greater good.Leaders who seek to inspire need to realise that while inspiration comes from within them, it is for others. A leader who has a purpose tied to social connectedness also reflects authenticity because of their capability to practise gratitude in a way where their success is not just personal ownership.
Alain de Botton suggests a contradictory view to the current individualistic view of success in which he attributes success to various external circumstances (i.e. living conditions, random happenings).
Rather than undermining individual effort, this view seeks to encourage better appreciation of individual effort as part of humanity’s collective effort.
When leaders make themselves relatable at a human level, we are also more open to accepting their view as one that is true of them; thus, more likely to feel truly inspired by these leaders.
- Accountability and trustworthiness Authentic character also involves being accountable and trustworthy. A worldwide survey commissioned by BBC World Service in 2005 showed that politicians are the least trusted in occupation – at least based on the opinions of 50,000 people in 68 different countries.Interestingly, religious leaders are the most trusted occupation – a reflection of being inspired by those with a greater purpose?While this can be brash generalisation, we know politicians who tend to spin stories that contradict themselves, or brazenly focus on only their needs – all of which do not inspire accountability nor trustworthiness.
On the other hand, leaders who ensure that alignment pervades their words and actions tend to vibe consistency. For example, a leader who treats everyone in similar manner, whether it is his/her family, colleagues, friends or the janitor, is more likely to be perceived as trustworthy.
Thus, when we say we are inspired by both a charismatic speaker and a calm speaker who exude authenticity, perhaps it is a reflection of not just how they speak but what they speak of.
- Curiosity As inspiration often comes in the form of new ideas and concepts, Gwen Moran suggests that leaders who seek to inspire would need to be a provider of such knowledge. To be such would require the leader to be genuinely curious and constantly learning rather than to become a know-it-all. Similarly, if leaders are able to provide advanced knowledge, recipients are likely to be more open to it.
How do we inspire? – The persona
To be a walking source of information, we need to learn how to communicate what we would like to inspire. An authentic character needs to be at the core of inspiration but it is still key to find the best way to personify our inspiration.
Kevan Murray, world famous communications expert, suggests in his book Communicate to Inspire that there are key aspects in our communication which lead us to be better inspirers.
Murray propagates to first listen if we want to be heard, and also have the courage to own our point of view. As leaders, it is not just acting the way we want to, but to also inspire our followers in ways that makes sense to them.
At the same time, this audience-centricity is not to be taken to the extremes in which they dictate everything we say. It is a fine balance between bringing in the audience’s voice and combining it with our unique point of view.
More importantly, Murray advocates leaders to “be yourself better”; be true to oneself and also learn to perform ourselves better.
Emergenetics International’s Mark Miller echoes this point of view as he believes that all leaders are unique and the best of them share one common characteristic – high levels of self-awareness.
This is in line with the manifestation of being authentic in finding our own leadership style by combining our strengths and personality.
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman who both own a leadership consultancy and are contributors to the Harvard Business Review ran an interesting experiment through a reverse engineering exercise.
What they did was to work retrospectively in matching leaders who are high in the ‘inspiring’ competency and performance level of their followers to find out how they motivate people to perform at their peak.
The research focused on 1,000 of such leaders who matched the criteria. While most leaders would equate an outgoing persona in being inspirational, extraversion is not necessarily a preceding factor.
They found that leaders who have higher competency in inspiring tend to set stretch goals to motivate high performance but they do it in different ways (see Diagram 1).
The aforementioned approaches would need to consider other environmental factors such as team capabilities in determining its success.
This is further supported by Professor Ning Li (University of Iowa) who suggests leaders to be aware enough to take the pulse of their team in identifying which leadership style is the most inspiring.
Most of all, we can be inspiring through our own unique approach, but it needs to be combined with our authentic character. To elaborate, the concept of “carefrontation” is one that encourages leaders to both challenge their followers to achieve their best potential, yet to carry that out upon a foundation of care.
Regardless of the different approaches to setting goals in being inspiring, it should manifest in authentic characteristics if we were to truly be an inspiration to others.
What helps foster inspiration? – The environment
Inspiration is a multi-faceted communication as the environment is also key in allowing seeds of inspiration to blossom.
While there are many factors within the environment that are beyond a leader’s control, there are also certain aspects that can be leveraged in order to enhance one’s inspiration factor.
Taking a page out of studies on neuroplasticity, our brain is continually forming new connections and neural pathways even into adulthood. It is constantly restructuring and our memory is associative.
Thus when we speak of inspiration as “seeing” things that are already there, it really is the plasticity of our brain joining the dots together.
Therefore, leaders need to create an environment to challenge their people’s brains. This could mean friendly competitions, brainstorming and mind training exercises which constantly challenge the plasticity of the brain in accepting input.
Furthermore, Eric Ravenscradt mentioned that we are more vulnerable to inspiration when we are more relaxed. While that does not mean a leader should be passing out alcohol every time they are seeking to inspire, they do need to be wary of choosing the best time to inspire.
Perhaps it can be some time early in the morning before the hustle of work starts, or during a team dinner when people are more open or relaxed. Kaufman believes that inspiration is not purely passive as people who are more open have higher potential of being inspired.
Must we be inspiring?
Not necessarily. Geoffrey James concedes that there are uninspiring leaders who can be motivating – through greed and fear.
These “expiring” leaders in Lee Colan’s words exhibit characteristics such as painting vague visions, avoiding personal accountability, evaluating for mistakes, overly focused on profit and minimising communication.
Unfortunately, they encompass a large number of leaders in today’s society.
Being inspiring has never been formally ascribed in a leader’s job description, yet it is a key in enabling potential. It is not just rah-rah enthusiasm but a radical approach that transforms people into doing things they did not think was possible. Fellow leaders, are you not dealers in hope?