The day you decide to inspire leadership, everything changes. You now leverage the power of your team—without struggle, without coercion. Instead of "getting your employees to perform," you now set them free to perform at their best.
Inspiring leadership starts with the three keys covered in today's post. (Hint: They're all free, and they all start with "E." But if you don't use these three keys, it could cost you a fortune.)
Inspiring leadership: Why it matters
The answer can be summed up in one word: credibility. Credibility is everything. If you want to be a leader worth following, you need credibility. Leadership without credibility is chaos. And leadership without inspiration spells frustration. This is true whether you’ve been leading for decades or just got promoted to leadership.
The 3 keys to inspiring leadership
Key #1: Example
Here's the lesson most leaders miss, especially when they’re new to leadership: Your team will rarely rise above the example you set.
In fact, your team's conduct will often be one level removed from yours. Which means if you want your team to be great, you need to be outstanding. This applies to everything from how you conduct meetings to how you conduct yourself, to the way you treat other people to how decisive you are.
Few things frustrate a team faster, by the way, than a boss who is indecisive.
“Indecision may or may not be my problem.” —Jimmy Buffett
Key #1 to inspiring leadership is simply this: In all things, set the example. And again, set the example one level higher than you would like your team to be. For more about this principle, please see The Leadership Lesson That Most Managers Miss.
Key #2: Empathy
If ever the world needed more empathy, it’s now. Empathy builds trust. Trust builds commitment. Commitment gets the job done. If you want your team to follow you wholeheartedly, look for ways to build empathy and trust.
Here are some tips to get you started:
- Start with self-awareness. The late Nathaniel Branden wrote, “Empathy for another has its roots in self-awareness.” What does that mean? It means, among other things, that you recognize your worldview as your own. Not everyone else’s. It means tuning into your own limitations so you can recognize and honor the limitations of others. The greater your self-awareness, the greater your capacity for empathy.
- Get around people who are different from you. This includes people who look different, have different backgrounds and different experiences. For example, if you’re attending a conference or a company-wide meeting, don’t just sit with your people. Branch out. You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll expand your circle of empathy.
- Be willing to listen to other people’s stories. Maybe their struggles. Example: One morning when I was an adjunct faculty member at a university, I was meeting one-on-one with one of my star students. Someone whose identity could not have been more different from my own. We started having a heart-to-heart. I asked her questions so I could understand her better. A few minutes into her story, we were both crying.
Here’s the lesson I learned that day, and you can apply this with everyone you meet, starting with your own team: Everyone has a story. Everyone. By the time you hear it, you'll forget all about your agenda. That's a good thing and a beautiful thing. That's how you build empathy and trust. That’s how you set the example for your team.
So far we’ve covered the first two keys: example and empathy. These are simple to say, of course, but they can take a lifetime to build. That’s okay. In the words of Jim Rohn, “You have to stay here until you go.” Why not use your time to build a legacy you’re proud of?
Key #3: Expectations
Too many leaders think a good example is all that’s necessary—as if the team will be so inspired, they’ll naturally want to work just as hard as you do, and be just as much on board with your vision.
But it rarely works that way. In fact, sometimes the “I’ll just lead by example” approach becomes an excuse to avoid confrontation. Or tough decisions.
“What are you pretending not to know?” —Nathaniel Branden, Ph.D.
It’s a hard question. But leadership is hard. It often involves tough questions and tough decisions. But you’re not being paid to be liked or to play it safe. You’re being paid to achieve a certain result or set of results, and for that you need your entire team to be clear on your expectations.
The paradox is, by doing so, you build credibility and commitment—both of which are foundational for inspiring leadership. Who doesn't deep down want to be held to a higher standard? And given the support to achieve it?
Start by painting a clear, compelling vision
And while that may sound simplistic, notice how many employees labor day after day, year after year having no clue what the vision is—or their role in fulfilling it. This is the opposite of inspiring leadership—but it doesn't have to be your leadership style.
Get clear on your expectations
Once the vision is clear, check to make sure you've clarified your expectations for performance and conduct. How are your expectations communicated? Or enforced? I have never advocated for a punitive approach, but there do need to be consequences.
Here’s the good news: Your top performers will applaud you for this.
Sadly, the reverse is also true: If you don’t set and reinforce the expectations, your top performers will tune out. They might continue doing great work, because that’s who they are. But inside they’ll be discouraged and frustrated.
Why? Because they want to work on a winning team, one where the bar is set high and performance matters. Without these standards, when they get the opportunity to go somewhere else, maybe a competitor, they probably will.
I’m not trying to be dramatic—I simply want to see you succeed. I want to see your team succeed. That means embracing the parts of leadership that are hard, so you can rise above them.
Once you do, leadership goes from intimidating to inspiring. Before you know it, you’re inspiring the best work in everyone on your team. That’s the power of example, empathy and expectations.
Inspiring leadership: Want to be better?
A little coaching can go an incredibly long way. I know this, because I’ve coached leaders. I’ve seen rapid results in as little as 21 days. If you’re ready to invest in your success, I invite you to reach out to me. Together we'll determine if I'm the right coach for you.