what does it take to be an inspiring leader?
Is being inspiring a necessary talent to be a successful leader? And, if so, what does it really take to be inspiring?
It’s not uncommon for me to come across high-achieving, senior clients who don’t think they deserve the title of “leader” because they don’t consider themselves inspiring. They may admit that they can motivate people, but they don’t feel that’s enough. When I ask them what being an inspiring leader means to them, they come up with words like “visionary”, “charismatic”, “outgoing”, “great public speakers”.
A distorted aspiration?
When I had a conversation like this with a client the other day, I asked them to think of a specific person they had personally experienced as being an inspiring leader.
Interestingly, they came up with different descriptors from the ones they’d given me to start with : “smart, understands things quickly”, “a good listener”, “appreciated my contribution”, “gave me the context and explained the vision”.
None of these has anything to do with being outgoing or a charismatic public speaker.
Are we confusing inspiring with charismatic?
A dictionary definition of inspire is “to fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative”. If captivating an audience were enough to inspire action, there would be an awful lot more of us attempting to conquer Everest or save the world after hearing the latest inspirational speaker!
When I think of inspiring, real-life leaders I have known (and I’m afraid to say they are a handful), they certainly make me want to contribute and achieve in service of a higher goal. But often that’s because of how they behave on a daily basis – exuding passion for what they do, wanting to create success for others as much, if not more, than they do for themselves, demonstrating humility and, sometimes, self-doubt.
Here’s a list of what I’ve found inspiring about those leaders…
What I’ve found inspiring about real-life leaders I’ve known
- They really care about what they do and bust a gut to make a difference. They’re not allowing themselves to be swamped by corporate edicts from above or doing whatever it takes to nail their next career move.
- Putting their people at the top of their priority list. Pushing back on their leadership in service of the greater good when necessary rather than towing the company line for fear of the consequences.
- Making decisions. Full stop. Not vacillating, procrastinating or plying their organisation for endless requests for data because they’re afraid of how they will be perceived if they get it wrong.
- Having tough conversations, especially ones which involve people’s performance.Too often, I’ve seen leaders “delegate” this task or avoid it which is detrimental to the organisation – and unfair to the individual.
- Being intentional about how they spend their time and energy in service of delivering on a meaningful vision. Not using “busy” as a way of looking important and productive.
- Being humble and curious. Canvassing the input of their team, sitting in “not knowing” rather than holding on to “being right”.
- Being consistent in these behaviours even when they and their organisation are under severe pressure. Not making their team work 24/7 when they’ve been supporting the latest work-life balance initiative, or deprioritising time with their people, or hauling them over the coals when things don’t go to plan.
What’s your inspiring?
None of the list above involves “doing” inspiring. Rather, they’re all about “being” an inspiration. For me, being an inspiring leader is not about focussing on how you inspire others so much as embodying qualities that have the effect of inspiring others.
It might be doing what you really care about, admitting that you don’t know the answer, listening to others, living up to your values, doing the hard stuff, not letting “busy” get in the way of what matters.
Now that’s inspiring.
What do you think?
Alison Reid helps new Directors focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.