When the authors of The Work of Leaders asked 13,000 people to rate how inspiring they thought they were on a five-point scale, fewer than one in five gave themselves the top score.

Clearly people who think they’re inspiring are in the minority, yet many leaders also over-estimate their ability to ‘rally the troops’ – that is, to inspire their teams.

Maybe there’s a problem with the definition. ‘Inspiration’ sounds like something esoteric and guru-like, but it comes from the simplest of words: it’s Latin for ‘breathe in’.

In this article we invite you to think more simply about inspiration, and about how you might harness its power and use it in your leadership style to breathe life into your work and the work of those around you. If you want your teams to get on board with anything from day to day tasks to the organisation’s goals and vision, inspiration is a crucial part of your job.

So what might inspiring leadership look like? In our Work of Leaders Program we break inspiration down into two parts: being expressive and being encouraging. It’s sending the message, through what you say and how you say it, “You matter and this matters.”

Being expressive (high energy)

This isn’t about loud cheerleading, it’s about expressing your thoughts and feelings in a genuine way, so that you convey and create emotional engagement.

In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman—a pioneer in Emotional Intelligence—notes that employees tend to perceive the business environment through the eyes of their leaders. What that means is that the moods, opinions and actions of leaders will rub off on employees. A leader who expresses cynicism, uncertainty or pessimism will find those low energies reflected in the group.

So does that mean you should be wildly positive at all times? No. Some leaders fear being ‘too optimistic’; they feel they are putting their credibility on the line or setting themselves up for a fall. Some feel that being low-energy is more dignified, controlled—more businesslike.

But there is a difference between being blindly optimistic and being inspiring. A leader who expresses optimism with confidence—even if it’s just in the idea that things can improve—will find themselves surrounded by a much more inspired, can-do team.

Being Encouraging (positive energy)

Noted research psychologist John Gottman is able to predict whether couples will stay together with over 90 percent accuracy just by analysing a three-minute video clip of a conversation between them. How? Because his research showed that couples with healthy relationships have a 5:1 ratio of positive exchanges to negative exchanges. Below 2:1 and the relationship almost always fails.

We say being encouraging is like putting deposits into the emotional bank account of your staff. Meeting pressing deadlines, tough projects, jumping through hoops of systems and policies—these are often withdrawals from the emotional bank account. Without a high enough ratio of positive exchanges (deposits) to negatives (withdrawals) you will notice disengagement, loss of commitment and people will opt out. People work better if there are carrots, not just sticks. How often do you deliver five positive messages to every negative?

Tips for inspiration

• To be an inspiring leader you first need to be clear in your own mind about why you do what you do, and about just how amazing the results will be when you and your team reach the goals you have set.
• Be aware of your body language and mood—what’s rubbing off on your team?
• Think about your own tendencies—are you naturally optimistic or sceptical? If you tend to be sceptical, can you lift your game when energy is required
• What does your passion feel like? Can you describe it? What sparks it?
• Do you express optimism and encouragement? People aren’t psychic and some don’t know they’re appreciated unless they’re told. Remember, feedback is reactive, encouragement proactive.
• Set the agenda: find talking points that engage people emotionally, provide a common aspiration and come up with a rallying cry.
• Consider your audience creatively: what encouragement can you give that your people really care about?

True leaders know when inspiration is required and how to use it to lead. Being an inspiring leader isn’t about being some guru on a mountain, dispensing platitudes. It’s about finding your own passion, and then breathing it out so others can breathe it in.

More information

If you would like an audio clip on being an Inspirational leader contact us.

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