Three Ways Leaders Can Inspire

To succeed, you need to find something to hold on to, something to motivate you, something to inspire you.

Tony Dorsett

Inspiration.  We all need a regular dose of it to flourish.

As leaders, the people we lead feed off the energy that we put out:  for better or worse.

Emotions are contagious, and the emotions of leaders are particularly catchy.  Tony Schwartz, the founder of The Energy Project, describes leaders as “CEOs”-Chief Energy Officers.  It’s our job to create the optimal climate for our people to thrive.

The leadership skill of inspiration is in high demand.  The DDI 2015 Global Leadership Forecast states that one of the most important abilities that today’s leader needs is:

Inspiring others toward a challenging future vision.The data that inspiration is vital for leaders is probably not a surprise to you. However, here’s the challenge: If I were to ask you to “Go to your team and inspire them”, what exactly would you do?Are you going to light a bonfire, and hold a pep rally?   Would that really work?  Probably not.

It’s easy to think of people that inspire as having some innate gift; they have that “special something”.   Which would mean that inspiration isn’t something that you do, it’s something that you are.But where does that leave the rest of us who want to learn how to inspire?

It turns out that like happiness, inspiration isn’t an action; it’s the result of other actions.So what actions can a leader do that result in inspiring others?I got the chance to explore this last week, and discover three roads that lead to inspiration.

Thursday morning, I was consulting with a group of senior leaders at a large bank. Their organization is in the middle of going through a company-wide cultural transformation.  We were discussing the subject of beliefs:  how beliefs are the filter through which facts pass to become stories.

I had just asked the question “Can you think of something you once believed that you no longer believe?” to point out that while a belief might feel rock-solid certain, it can change.

Before Thursday, I’d asked this questions many times to multiple groups.  The most common answers I usually hear are “Santa Claus” and “The Tooth Fairy”.I’d expected to hear one of these common answers.   But it was not to be.

Glenn, one of the participants at a table in the front, raised his hand.

Yeah, I never really liked people a whole lot.I thought to myself, “Where’s this going!?”Yeah, I guess you could’ve called me a curmudgeon.  And as a manager, I was a real SOB.  All I cared about was that people made their numbers, and my family.Now I was concerned the whole session was going off the rails.

But then Glenn shifted.

But all that changed two years ago.  You see, my wife was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer.  People out of the woodwork, people I didn’t even know, neighbors, people from the kids school, just started showing up.  Helping.  Making meals, arranging play dates for the kids, doing drop-offs and pickups.  It completely restored my faith in humanity.

And at work?  I started realizing that the people on my team—they had families too. They had challenges too.  I started asking them what was going on outside of work.  Talking with them.  I’d like to think I’m not the same SOB I used to be.

When Glenn finished, I looked around.  A number of people had misty eyes.  I had a lump in my throat.  Glenn had clearly moved his colleagues in the room.  What had he done to inspire them?  Three things:


Glenn was willing to be real, flaws and all.  He didn’t worry about what people might think of him or his story.  He spoke from his heart–which is where the courage comes from.  (The french word coeur translates as heart).


Glenn changed and softened.  He went from being a (self-described) uncaring person to someone who became much more connected to the people around him.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Glenn showed the human capacity for transformation. Sharing stories of overcoming obstacles and transforming for the better are incredibly compelling.

Vulnerability Glenn was willing to admit how powerless he was in the face of his wife’s illness.  In doing so, he demonstrated a leadership paradox:  admitting vulnerability actually conveys strength.  Because it takes a lot of power to speak up and admit to your own powerlessness.

Courage, Transformation, Vulnerability.  What other roads lead to inspiration?  Share your stories and examples in the comment section below.  

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