Inspiration! The word itself is infused with optimism and a sense that the sky’s the limit. When I think of inspiration I think of creativity, positivity, and hope. When it comes to managers and leaders, I’ve found there are two main camps. Those who desire above all to inspire their followers to greatness, and those who feel that ‘inspiration’ is a bit silly, or at least unnecessary, to successfully attaining performance goals.
Now before you start thinking bad things about the leaders in the second camp, I think it’s helpful to understand why they might feel this way because it’s there that we’ll find the most helpful clues as to how to be an inspirational AND effective leader.
There are only a handful of reasons why someone would dismiss the ‘inspirational’ part of leadership. One that we can take off the table is the folks who actually don’t like people or care about their success. They see people as mere tools (or ‘resources’) to accomplish their goals. These people are likely sociopaths (or narcissists) and while they certainly can show up in senior leadership roles (for reasons we’ll table for another day), they’re really not who we’re talking about, because there are other, far less sinister reasons to mistrust the more intangible aspects of leadership. These reasons have everything to do with one’s perception of oneself, and one’s perception of the leadership role.
If a leader does not see him or herself as a particularly inspirational person, they are likely to eschew that aspect of their role. This can happen if one is introverted, or just doesn’t see oneself in that light. The introverted leader has probably felt for the most part that they have been effective due to perseverance and technical excellence, and sees inspiration as the territory of his/her more flamboyant peers. As Carol Dweck so excellently explains in her book Mindset, the Psychology of Success, we tend to avoid activities that conflict with the labels we have assigned ourselves (or have had assigned to us). ‘Non-Inspirational’ leaders in this camp usually care very much about the success of the people who work for them, but feel that the best way to lead is to ensure they are hitting their goals. Goal achievement is reward enough, and the other ‘fluff’ isn’t that important (they tell themselves). These are the managers that the high achievers respect, but that many would also describe as cold and unfeeling at worst; lacking warmth at best.
But there’s another reason to feel skittish about inspirational leadership. We’ve all encountered that person who could charm the stingers off the bees with their personality. These leaders always make you feel good and motivated. You feel like they really care about you, and you’d follow them to the ends of the earth. Except they’re not going anywhere! This is the person who is great for rallying the troops, but underwhelming when it comes to actually achieving any type of organizational goal (and make no mistake, even non-profit organizations have goals). These folks (correctly) assume that people are the most important part of a business relationship and invest their heart and soul into validating, encouraging, and inspiring their people, which is wonderful. But without direction, those very people who are being inspirted will eventually grow frustrated and stagnant.
I’ve seen both types of leaders fail to fulfill their true potential simply because of their preconceived notion of what their role can or should be. The best leaders, who change lives and companies, are both inspirational and organizationally effective (and I know many people will disagree with me, but this has been my observation over twenty years, and backed by research). Of course a leader can’t be ‘in the weeds’ doing the work instead of overseeing it, but they simply MUST have the tools to enable their subordinates to be effective in their roles. They must understand not only WHAT leads to success, but also HOW to perform those tasks, how to measure them, and how to reinforce them.
At the same time, it IS true that when people believe you sincerely care about them, as people, and are rooting for their success, it brings out the best in them, not to mention elevating their morale and engendering loyalty. You show you care by getting to know them as people, learning their stories, finding out what they really want in life – and helping them attain it. Old school managers worry that by being ‘too personal’, people will take advantage, but you can rarely go wrong by looking for the gold in people.
A solid performance management system releases you from the fear of being taken advantage of, and allows you the freedom of truth. It allows you to clear away misunderstandings about performance and, when there’s a mis-fit between position and aptitude, you can handle the situation with dignity and compassion and, because you know the person, often find a better suiting role.
So don’t be afraid to inspire! And at the same time, don’t be afraid to manage performance. Mastering both will allow you to become a legendary leader!
Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based consulting firm providing comprehensive organizational development solutions for companies who are growing and who truly value their people. With certified Executive Coaches, Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) practitioners, SPHR-certified HR professionals, and Organizational Development Specialists, Carrie’s team brings a unique perspective and a cross-functional approach to providing workplace solutions that work. Carrie can be reached for consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org