Inspirational Leaders Inspire Others to Make a Difference | Leading from the Library

It takes inspiration to be a visionary leader. Leaders want to inspire others to emotionally connect with their vision–or to simply be more engaged in the workplace. How do great leaders inspire others?
Steven BellIt takes inspiration to be a visionary leader. Leaders want to inspire others to emotionally connect with their vision—or to simply be more engaged in the workplace. How do great leaders inspire others? You know that feeling when you have a really good idea, something that should excite your colleagues? You’ve done the research, considered the possibilities, and established a rationale for why everyone should get behind the concept. You are eager to share it, but when you do, the reaction is mostly meh. That was hardly the expected outcome. What went wrong? Sometimes it’s just the timing. Introducing an idea at the wrong point in the semester or program year may leave colleagues feeling overwhelmed. Other times you are ahead of the curve and need to give others time to get to where you already are. When this happens to me, I question whether I failed to provide the necessary inspiration. As a leader, why was I unable to rally my colleagues around an idea, to inspire them to grasp it enthusiastically, to make it their own and see it through to completion? Was I too passive? Should I have exhibited more enthusiasm? What if I’m just naturally uninspiring? There may be a few things leaders can do to become that lightning rod of inspiration to which they aspire.

Workers’ Perspective

To become a more inspirational leader, it helps to know what the research says about workers and their expectations for inspiration. Bain and Company conducts employee surveys to learn more about the qualities that matter when it comes to inspiring workers and whether it is possible to measure the degree to which a leader inspires others. According to Bain’s model, there are 33 qualities, divided into four quadrants, that contribute to inspirational leadership. Inspiring others comes from a balance of:
  • one’s inner resources: (e.g., emotional intelligence, optimism, flexibility)
  • connectedness with others (humility, listening, empathy)
  • setting the tone (unselfishness, trust, transparency)
  • team leadership (vision, empowerment, servanthood)
The bad news is that few of us are going to capture all 33 of these characteristics in our personal leadership style. The good news is that Bain found leaders can inspire with a more limited number of these qualities. It takes only four “distinguishing strengths” to double your chances of being inspiring. A distinguishing strength is one where you’d place in the 90th percentile among peer leaders. Bain’s assessment instrument identifies them, but self-aware leaders tend to know their strengths. The important point is that leaders who seek to inspire can enhance their ability to do so by improving in a relatively small number of skill and quality areas.

Differentiating Behavior

Eric Garton, a Bain executive who participated in the inspirational leader studies, gives additional advice for those who want to be an inspiring leader. Garton believes there is one leadership trait above all the others that differentiates those who inspire. He calls it “centeredness”, and describes it as “a state of mindfulness that enables leaders to remain calm under stress, empathize, listen deeply, and remain present.” That fits well with what we know about other frequently-cited leadership qualities such as calmness during a crisis, emotional intelligence for self-awareness, transparent communication, and having presence. If all leaders can manage those basics, what enables some to excel at inspiration? Garton says they behave differently, but in what ways and to what purpose? According to his examples, leaders inspire when they break the organizational culture out of a rut that has left it adrift. Rather than just setting out on a path of disruptive change, inspirational leaders understand the organization’s core cultural values and get staff back on that track. Imagine a leader whose messages connect employees to what is great about their organization and culture. Their vision then emanates from and is centered by these core values. When change happens, it means getting things back on track to move forward in a new direction. Done well, leaders inspire staff to make the journey possible.

Inspiring Others Makes a Difference

There’s little point to learning how to inspire as a leader if it fails to inspire employees to grow within the organization. Garton urges leaders to move their staff up a pyramid where the base is satisfied, the middle is engaged, and the top is inspired. A satisfied employee feels safe in the workplace, is well trained to do their job, does it efficiently, and is paid fairly. Engaged employees add autonomy and self-motivated learning to that base. What differentiates those at the top is that their inspired mindset draws from the organizational culture and is reinforced by a leader who challenges them to go beyond satisfaction and engagement. What’s the difference? Productivity. Research found that employees characterized as inspired were twice as productive as those who are merely engaged. While satisfied and even engaged employees may resist change or at least settle for the status quo, inspired employees not only support change but take the lead in making it happen. Whether leaders are born or learn the role is among the most frequently debated topics in leadership literature. While most experts lean towards the “it can be learned” school of thought, hence the proliferation of library leadership development programs, some are born to lead. The same born vs. learn debate extends to inspiration. Some leaders are born to inspire, others not so much. Just as with leadership, people can learn to be more inspirational. As we learn more about the qualities that differentiate leaders who inspire from those who merely run their organizations efficiently—or worse, simply act the role of inspirational leader with words and actions that sound good but ring hollow with little conviction behind them—more leaders can evolve from good to inspirational. When they do, what they’ll likely find is that those they lead are not only more likely to grasp those new ideas for change, they’ll embrace them because they too want to make a difference.

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