Leadership is neither a destination nor a finite skill set. It is a constantly developing journey of awareness and elevation. Some choose leadership and others arrive there without realising the role they had agreed to would require them to lead. Even those who choose it are seldom fully prepared for where it takes them. Leadership, even leadership of self, is a constant evolution of perspectives and pressures, trial and error, learning and reconfiguring.
Inspiring others is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of leadership, as energising those who form your team often requires an injection of energy not already present. Sometimes it is a subtle energy that empowers an underlying buzz, and sometimes it is a greater energy that will carry a team towards a higher level or a greater goal. Either way, inspiring or motivating others is a required leadership skill.
Before we go into it, let’s first define the difference between inspiration and motivation.
Many people talk about motivation – as in motivational speaking, or motivating a team etc. I don’t personally believe that you can motivate people for very long. You can pump them up and point them in the right direction, but motivation is an outside force, and what is needed to drive people for the long haul comes from within. Motivation has been described as existing in one of two ways – stick or carrot. You can either entice someone towards motivation, or you can threaten them into it, neither of which are very powerful. Inspiration, however, comes from an entirely different place and has completely different results. It’s imperative not only to understand this but to know which one you’re aiming at.
Personally, I think most people opt for motivation because it’s the quicker, easier route. It gets immediate results even if it doesn’t last very long. So, if you’re a leader looking for quick results and you’re willing to keep expending your own energy coercing your team back to action every time they flag or encounter another hurdle, then read no further. No doubt the frequency of that energy expenditure will have you well practised by now. However, if you’re interested in a different kind of burn – if you want to light a deeper, more enduring kind of fire that burns slow and then builds to something self-sustaining that can’t be extinguished… then inspiration is what you’re after.
So how do you inspire others? I’ve mentioned that motivation is the quicker, easier route – even if it doesn’t last as long. That would make inspiration the harder, slower building route – which is why few leaders are truly up for the challenge. Inspiration is about building layers of understanding that connect to the people you’re trying to inspire. Inspiration is about telling a story that others buy into – and no, I’m not talking about sales. Most sales rhetoric is about as far from inspiring as it’s possible to get because… it lacks authenticity.
Inspiration is the meeting point of authenticity, values and belief. In order for people to be inspired, they must feel that the cause is genuine, they must value it personally on some level, and they must believe that it is possible together, even if it seems impossible alone. Inspiration is internal, whereas motivation is external. Intrinsic vs extrinsic. Inspiration comes from the core of you. It belongs to you. It’s deeply entrenched in your own values and beliefs. It’s something you would go to war for. When was the last time you felt that way about something?
To say that inspiring others is one of the most common challenges of leadership assumes that others aren’t inspired. It also assumes that leaders have something to be inspired about that they wish to convey. The problem seems to be that most leaders don’t know where to start, or where to go once they do. For lack of an answer to either of these problems, most leaders resort to some degree of jumping up and down, baiting or threatening. After all, isn’t that how most of us were raised?
Inspiration quite literally requires telling a different story. Here’s a 3 point “How To”:
1. Create and share the story
Whatever team you’re leading, be it a small team inside a bigger one; be it a sports team or a choir; be it a school, a business or a family… there’s a story behind that team. Every family started with a story. Every business was someone’s dream in the first place. The problem is that discussing and writing the Vision and Mission statements that tell our stories has become a box-ticking exercise devoid of depth, heart and sincerity. If you had a story to start off with, you can’t expect it to live on unless you give it life. If you don’t have a story, then create one. Why is it you’re doing what you’re doing? What is it that sets you apart from any other family, team or business? What is it you’d like to be recognised for? The bonus of refreshing or rewriting your Vision and Mission is that you can invite the input of your team, thereby involving them in a story they may never have heard or may be able to help you write.
What this personal involvement does is allow everyone to see how the story fits them personally. They get to try it on for size and examine how it resonates with them, how the values of the family or business overlap with their own values and beliefs and consequently figure out to what degree they buy in. It’s possible not everyone will buy in and that’s okay. Those that don’t fit won’t ever be inspired and it’s in everyone’s best interests to know the fit is wrong. But those who can find common ground with the story, the vision, now have something to aim at. Not a string of numbers on a spreadsheet that represent the required year-end results, but something that they can take into their hearts and fight for when the going gets tough. Something they can go to war for when competition challenges, or when they’re questioned as an individual brand ambassador. Involving your team in the story makes each one an advocate for the cause, rather than just an employee, and allows that story breadth outside of the few lines of a Vision statement.
I hope it’s clear so far that inspiration comes from story, and story is an emotive thing. It’s a living, breathing, authentic reason to do something that people can overlap their own values with. Story is also an evolving thing. Your story becomes a journey. When was the last time you updated it?
2. Point out the progression
Once you’ve created and shared the story and your team is on their journey, the next thing to do is point out their progression. It’s inspiring to know you’re moving towards your goal, whether that goal is specific or whether it’s more of a culture. I’ve written previously about how instrumental people’s values are to the way they operate and consequently how important it is to establish a set of values for your business and team.
These values represent a compass to navigate by; a True North if you will; as well as a box within which to operate so that you know your parameters. When you know the values of your business and your team buy into and support those values, then you have guidelines for everything you undertake. Without these guidelines, any journey or decision can be very confusing. When you create and share a story, those listening see parts of themselves in that story – things they feel from their own experiences and are willing to respect and support. Therefore there are two types of progression that need pointing out once an inspired journey has begun.
Firstly, any goals that have been specified must be measurable so that you can tell when you’re accurately moving towards reaching them. This must be communicated within the team and kept at the forefront of everyone’s minds. This way, everyone can see the progress and help each other with stumbling blocks. Share and celebrate every win to keep the energy going.
Secondly, every time there is an authentic example of the agreed-upon values being demonstrated, point it out. This allows everyone to stay on the same page and to feel their success in small ways. This sense of achievement can overwhelm challenges that would fell a less energised and unified team.
3. Keep the main themes fresh
A leader’s job is just that – to lead. Not with a carrot – that would be motivation; but with the encouragement, support and affirmation that your team has what it takes, and your story is worth it! Any way that you can find to keep the main themes of your story fresh, to reward their presence where you see them in your team, and to remind everyone why they’re doing what they’re doing is valuable. It’s natural for energy to flag, and some parts of the journey can be arduous. It’s in these times, more than any other, that we need reminding about our story; reminding what we’re aiming at and why.
The key here is authenticity. I’m not recommending you start to sound like a cheerleader. That would be plain cheesy. What I’m suggesting is a genuine, deeply felt demonstration of the story, principles and values yourself; and genuine encouragement of those that show similar.
There is very little more inspiring to humans than purpose, and yet there is very little clear purpose discussed in life. Everyone seems to be searching. We all want the same things – certainty, uncertainty (or variety), significance, love & connection, growth and contribution*. When you invite your team to meet these needs within your story, you have a true recipe for long-lasting inspiration.
The absolute bottom line here is that inspiration requires authentic leadership. If you don’t demonstrate, believe and buy into the story and values of your journey then you can’t expect anyone else to. If you DO authentically demonstrate the story and values then you don’t even have to be that great a storyteller. You can demonstrate it, and your team will help to tell that story themselves. You’ll also provide a living legend for people new to your team to get to “grips” with. Telling your story isn’t a one-time thing – it has to live.
The more inspiration you create with the story and buy in to the common value system, the more your team will start to feel the energy of heading towards something worthwhile. Once they’re on the (energetic) move, you can start to challenge them to hone their practices so that they can direct that energy efficiently towards best practise. It’s always worth pausing to consider how something can be done better, even if it’s been done that way for a thousand years. Especially if it’s been done that way for a thousand years.
Question everything. Ask whether it fits your updated story. Ask whether it aligns with your renewed values and goals. Ask how you could tweak things to redirect energy better used for the completion of your mission. Create solutions rather than blame. Conversations create connection. Connection creates inspiration. Inspiration fires drive and direction. Go get it!
* 6 Core Human Needs
by Christen Killick
March 28th, 2022