What is Inspirational Leadership?
Inspirational leadership is not a style of leadership per se.
An inspirational leader may well adopt various styles of leadership depending on what the situation calls for, without ever sacrificing the inspirational aspect of their approach. It is about using the right methods at the right time, and taking into account the needs and motivations of those you are leading.
In some cases, the highly directive approach will be precisely what is required, and will be what inspires your reports. Other situations will require a less directive approach, where employees are encouraged to take the lead and push for change themselves.
Inspirational leadership, at its core, is about finding ways to enhance the potential of those you lead in a way that works for them, and inspiring others to push themselves, achieve more and reach that potential. The methods by which this is done will vary from person to person, and business to business, but the outcome is always the same – people developing a greater confidence in what they can do, and applying this confidence in a way that benefits the organisation they work for.
Does it differ from traditional leadership?
In the past being a good leader was about pushing the business towards its goals, regardless of the impact on the workforce; being ruthless and determined were considered to be traits of good leadership. This has changed over the years, as we now recognise that the real driver behind a business’ success is its employees and that consequently, in order for leaders to propel their organisation to success, they need the buy in of employees.
This transition has culminated in what is now called inspirational leadership; a focus on finding ways to inspire and engage those you lead to drive change, and more importantly, want to drive change, on their own.
Who can be an inspirational leader?
Anyone has the potential to be an inspirational leader, but it’s certainly not something that will come naturally to everyone.
The key to inspirational leadership is awareness – both self-awareness and awareness of those around you. You cannot inspire others unless you first inspire yourself, which means knowing what it is that inspires you, and using this as a catalyst to inspire others.
Of course, the fundamental purpose of a leader is to lead others, so while self-awareness is essential, you also need to be conscious of what others find inspirational; what is it that motivates your employees?
Effective leadership has always been a cornerstone of success for a business
Inspirational leadership is driven by values, and ensuring those values are clearly demonstrated in the behaviours you display. It is by acting in accordance with your own values that you will inspire others to act in accordance with their own. This obviously becomes far easier if the people you are leading share similar values to you, but leaders can still be inspirational when these don’t align completely.
Those who actively work to understand their own values, motivators and inspirations, alongside those of the people they lead, are most likely to witness success as an inspirational leader.
Once you know these two pieces of information (bearing in mind they may change, and employees especially will have a diverse range of motivations) you can start to understand what ‘inspirational’ means in your specific context.
Why is inspirational leadership Important?
Effective leadership has always been a cornerstone of success for a business, but as the working world has evolved being able to inspire others has become increasingly important in order to achieve desired outcomes.
All businesses and teams can benefit from developing inspirational leaders, but there are certain scenarios in which inspirational leadership is particularly valuable:
Those managing remote workers
With the evolution of technology remote working is becoming an increasingly common way of life for many employees.
As a result managers and business leaders are likely to have far less direct contact with their workforce, meaning they have to find ways to inspire their workers to perform to their maximum, without regular or substantial interaction.
Without this regularity and depth of interaction the direct influence a leader will have over their reports will naturally diminish, and as a result they will be required to encourage and motivate employees from afar.
Leaders with no direct reports
There is a similar challenge for those who are leading departments but have no direct reports.
This is particularly common in areas such as project management, where a project manager may be responsible for the outputs of a range of people, but not directly able to influence them, or have any authority to elicit consequences of their actions.
In this scenario, being able to inspire people to achieve the goals of the project, because they are able to recognise the value in it, and feel inspired by the vision being communicated, will enable positive outcomes that aren’t always guaranteed using a directive approach.
Galvanising a workforce during change
Meet Lucy Finney, MBE
Lucy works with Thales L&D clients to identify and nurture inspirational leaders
Engaging and supporting your employees through periods of change and unease is a hugely important, but often tricky, skill to master.
In uncertain times people typically retreat into defensive mode, and fight against upcoming changes; this leads to resentment, internal disputes, and a great deal of stress for everyone involved.
Inspiring a team to approach change and uncertainty in a more positive light is essential in order to ensure progress can be made, and requires leaders to communicate effectively, support people to understand the benefits of the change, and to get behind the long term vision, in order to achieve cohesion and unity.
In many organisations a gradual shift is occurring from a performance management mind-set, to a performance motivation one.
Businesses are recognising that people perform better when they are given the freedom to explore their capabilities within a safe and supportive environment; part of being an inspirational leader is being willing to provide an environment that encourages this type of development.
Anyone who has felt inspired by another, whether that’s a friend, colleague, boss or famous figure, understands the power that this inspiration has to galvanise action, and sustain momentum.
The influence that having an inspirational figure can have on behaviour and engagement at work can be profound, making it highly important for leaders to develop their skills in this area, not only for the benefit of the employees they inspire and engage, but also for the benefit of the wider business.
Developing the skills to be an inspirational leader of others is a highly beneficial from an organisational perspective; however it is equally important for leaders to also inspire themselves.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being an inspirational leader
If what you advocate doesn’t truly align with your personal values, then you will always struggle to inspire and motivate those around you. As highlighted previously, one of the key components of being an inspirational leader is a strong conviction in your values, and unless you live in accordance with these on a daily basis, and continually inspire yourself to strive for bigger and better things, you will never achieve true inspirational leader status.
What are the key traits of inspirational leaders?
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being an inspirational leader, there are a few key traits that tend to apply across all those considered inspirational, and perhaps unsurprisingly these traits have nothing to do with background, education, intelligence or wealth.
The traits that make someone an inspirational leader are far more powerful.
1. They are authentic
Authenticity is absolutely key for inspirational leaders, as this is the foundation of respect. Even those who don’t necessarily agree with your message will tend to show respect if they recognise that your message is driven by values and in complete alignment with what you stand for.
The leaders that fail to inspire or garner respect are those that continually change their message to abide by the whims of their followers. However, while achieving authenticity as a leader is one of the most vital elements, it also require several other skills and traits within this list in order to do so.
2. They are passionate
It is far easier to be your authentic self, and inspire others around you, if you are aiming to do so in an area you are truly passionate about. Trying to inspire others without feeling genuine passion for an issue yourself is possible, but far harder.
If, however, you first identify your area of passion, and then proceed to lead others in that domain, becoming an inspirational leader will happen almost automatically. Your own passion, if strong enough, will galvanise passion in others, and this is where inspiration will blossom.
3. They are knowledgable
While it’s not expected that you have to know everything to be an inspiration to others, you do need a degree of knowledge on your area of interest in order to demonstrate credibility.
Without this, people will not be able to trust what you say is true, and trust is another key component of inspiring others.
4. They engage people
Engagement as an inspirational leader isn’t only about being engaged with your area of expertise or your particular passion, but also being engaged with those you lead.
This means taking the time to listen to the views of others, spend time to understand their concerns, and engaging with them on a personal level.
5. They are personable
The most inspirational people tend to be the ones we connect with on a personal level; sharing similar values and passions with those you lead is essential, but if you then combine this with an unpleasant approach to interacting with others, this will weaken your influence considerably.
Developing a strong rapport with others, alongside viewing and treating them as important and valuable human beings, is hugely important in becoming an inspiring leader.
6. They have self-awareness
Highly successful inspirational leaders are not only conscious of what their followers value, but are dedicated to developing their own self-awareness.
Understanding who you are, what motivates and inspires you, and having a clear set of underlying values that will guide you; and then living according to these, is the epitome of being an inspirational leader, and that can only come through self-awareness.
7. They are resilient
Being a leader is not an easy task. Some people will defy you or dislike you; plans will go awry, and things will get challenging. The key to being a great leader is to learn to overcome these challenges, but the secret to being an inspirational leader is to also learn and grow from them, and use your experiences to inform and support others in their journey.
Resilience is therefore a key skill to cultivate and develop as a leader.
Want to learn more about inspirational leadership?
Download our free white paper to learn the six must-haves to develop inspirational leaders.