When I think back to when I relinquished company command in 2016 (for non-Army readers: completing my 18-month formal command of an Army company of about 120-Soldiers), there is one conversation that still resonates with me and continues to remind me of my “why” for military service. In the closing days of my command, one of my platoon sergeants (senior enlisted leader in the company with 12-years of experience), known as a passionate leader and tactical expert across the entire battalion, made a casual comment to me. He said, “Sir, I just want to thank you for what you’ve done. You’ve reignited my fire and have made this job and the Army fun again. I’ve been missing that for a few years now.”
I still get emotional when recalling that moment, even years later.
But through this and numerous other experiences, I continue to maintain that sometimes, the most important thing I can bring to the team is not some particular skill or ability, but energy and inspiration. Leaders must inspire, both our people today in what our team is doing as well as tomorrow’s future generation of leaders. We do that by being inspired and inspiring others.
But, before we explore ways leaders can inspire through actual behaviors, it’s important to clarify that inspiration does NOT require charisma. Inspiring is not restricted to charismatic, extroverted leaders able to deliver emotional “follow me into the gates of hell” speeches. While that is certainly a method to inspire, there are plenty of ways to stir emotion and inspiration in others that are still authentic to you – even for the introverted leaders like me.
Being Inspired: Who Leaders Are
Inspiring others is not a mere checklist of things to do; I can’t give you your “10-step guide to inspiring others.” Inspiring leadership starts with who we are – our character, attitudes, and priorities. Just like the Army’s old “be – know – do” model of leadership, it must start with being. There are a few commonalities that we see among those that most inspire us in life, work, and leadership. Again, note how none of the below points are monopolized by the charismatic personality.
- Authentic: Leadership is an art. Just like artists, we all have our unique style, approach, perceptions and biases, and preferences. The work of Picasso is vastly different than that of Rembrandt, which is vastly different from van Gogh. One is not necessarily better than the other, but they all bring different capabilities. We cannot inspire by trying to be someone or something we are not. People will see through us in mere seconds as I’m sure many have observed before. To inspire, we must first be clear on, comfortable with, competent in, and passionate about our authentic approach to leading and influencing others.
- Passionate About Who We Are & What We Do: Leaders inspire by communicating perspective. But that must start with a personal and genuine passion for our team, the people within it, what we do, and why we do it. If we, as responsible leaders, don’t demonstrate a personal commitment to our team’s collective vision, values, mission, expectations, etc., how can we expect others to? Leaders bring energy to the team, regardless of circumstances. As Jim Collins talks about in this Learning Leader Show podcast episode, we must take care of the “bus” and people we have now and not focus on trying to just get a bigger bus. During my most recent leadership role, I had the wonderful opportunity of working with a West Point Cadet company whose identity and mascot was the Bulldog. On more than one occasion, Cadets would ask me, “Sir, why do you love the Bulldogs so much?” Still, all I can simply say is, “Because the Army gave me the Bulldogs!” Once assigned to the Bulldogs, I was a Bulldog. I truly believe in the attitude of love the one (team or unit) you’re with.
- Clear & Bold: No one on the team has time or capacity to be inspired if they are overwhelmed each day with myriad priorities because we have enabled a climate where everything is a priority. To inspire others, we must be willing to stand for what is right, needed, and best for the team. Leaders must provide clarity for the team. We embrace and properly manage risk for the team. We are open to change but are deliberate about it and communicate context. We must be clear on what priorities are and are not. Something as simple as establishing and communicating this clarity for the team opens capacity for others. Clear and empowered team members are inspired ones.
- Servant & Coach: What’s not inspiring is recruiting and developing exceptional talent and then restricting those people within tiny boundaries or strict guidance, eliminating all latitude for creative and efficient execution. We need to bring in the right/best people onto the team, continue to train and develop them, and then get out of the way! Leaders are most often inspiring not by what they become or accomplish, but what they help others become and accomplish. A great way to start being a more of a servant-leader and more coach-like is by simply asking, “How can I help?” a little more often. I encourage you to explore more on being a coach-like leader in The Leader Development Handbook and in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit.
Inspiring Others: What Leaders Do
Referencing back to the “be – know – do” model, it ends with do. While role-modeling is the critical foundation to inspiring leadership, it must also deliberately manifest in our behaviors. There are a few common behaviors that enable our ability to inspire others.
- Influence Over Authority: President & General Dwight Eisenhower is famed for articulating leadership as, “The art of getting people to want to do what must be done.” General Colin Powell reflects on his service by claiming, “In my 35 years of service, I don’t ever recall telling anyone, ‘That’s an order.’” How do you get people and your team to do what must be done? Do you resort to positional power to achieve compliance by falling back on your rank, position, or title? Do you threaten with punishments or entice with rewards? Or do we leverage personal power (what I prefer to call influence) like our expertise, earned trust, and relational connection to inspire a commitment from others? Influence-based leadership inspires commitment from others; remember Eisenhower’s statement, “Getting people to want to do.” However, authority-based leadership will merely achieve compliance from others (think of Marshawn Lynch’s 2015 media day script: “I’m here so I won’t get fined.”). Influence inspires. Learn more about the dichotomy of influence versus authority in this part from the Shared Leadership Series.
- Connect & Care: Inspiring is an emotional matter. Thus, leaders need to be comfortable with the emotional side of leadership, more commonly referred to as Emotional Intelligence. We must learn about, practice, get comfortable with, and apply the soft and squishy dynamics to leadership like humility, empathy, vulnerability, and inclusion all to build psychological safety on the team; this safety is what cultivates a climate of mutual trust and respect across the team. These leader competencies will only develop with education and practice. When it comes to earning the right to inspire and influence, I always go back to the lesson my mom taught me when I was young, “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Some places I recommend you turn to learn more are Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, and Amy C. Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization.
- Deliberately Developmental: Leader does not necessarily mean leader developer; steering the ship yourself is very different than teaching others & enabling them to steer the ship. To inspire, we must give leadership space for others to fill as much as we possibly can; we inspire by enabling, empowering, and ultimately working ourselves out of a job. Leaders who inspire make everything our team does and faces as opportunities for development of others. We give trust and empower, but it is not reckless. Trust is earned within the team through a process of training, certifying, empowering, and then trusting. Leaders inspire through routine deliberately developmental behaviors like teaching, coaching, mentoring, and giving feedback.
- Committed to Self-Improvement & Willingness to Learn: Tom Watson, former CEO of IBM, has stated, “Nothing so conclusively proves a person’s ability to lead others as what they do on a day-to-day basis to lead themselves.” Moreover, Jim Mattis claims in his book, Call Sign Chaos, that “Leaders change and make change.” Integrating those ideas into leader behavior means that we must commit to personal self-improvement and demonstrate a growth mindset, meaning a willingness to continue to learn from others. We don’t inspire by solely giving guidance or instruction; nor do we get to the best solutions that way. To inspire and achieve creative, optimal solutions, leaders must be open to feedback and ideas within the team, use developmental language, and leverage intent-based leadership. Our interest in and commitment to continued learning serves as an inspiring role-model for others.
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