Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Case for Inspirational Leadership

There are hardly any leadership or management books out there that do not talk about inspirational leadership. So why another post on the topic of inspiration? Around 2.6 million jobs were eliminated in 2008. In October, a CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe another 1930s-style depression is very or somewhat likely. A separate poll for Condé Nast Portfolio shows that people working in the finance business are even gloomier: 77 percent of them say their industry is in a state of crisis, and 50 percent say the economy is the worst it has been in their careers.

Thus given the circumstances it is even more important that leaders at every level keep their teams inspired, motivated and focused. There is evidence to support the idea that companies with inspiring leaders perform better. According to DTI, in a survey of more than 1500 managers, people were asked what they would most like to see in their leaders. A whopping 55% stated ‘inspiration’. When asked if they would describe their current leader as ‘inspiring’, only 11% said yes. We have an inspiration gap here!

Here are some of the things that you could do to inspire your team:

Create sense of pride:
Employees don’t get up in the morning and say that today I am going to increase shareholder value by 15%! Instead what would drive them is to know how what they do at work is affecting the big picture. So leaders need to reach out and connect to their emotions, create sense a pride and invoke a passion in them. The story below demonstrates the point:

One of the quarry workers was asked "What are you doing?"
"Can't you see," the man replied. "I'm chiseling stone."
Another stonecutter, when asked the same question, said, "I am just trying to make a living."
A third man was asked, "What are you doing?" His answer was, "I'm building a great cathedral!"

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras have summarized in their book 'Built to Last': “Contrary to business school doctrine, we did not find ‘maximizing shareholder wealth’ or ‘profit maximization’ as the dominant driving force or primary objective through the history of most of the visionary companies. They have tended to pursue a cluster of objectives, of which making money is only one — and not necessarily the primary one.”

Spread positivity and enthusiasm:
There is enough doom and gloom in media and negativity at workplace conversations which is robbing your team off its productivity. Enthusiasm and positive attitudes spread just as quickly and can affect performance just as much—in the right direction.

Show respect:
Equality is at the heart of respect — the treatment of each individual as important and unique without regard to characteristics, such as gender, race, income, title or even perceived performance or contribution to the organization. This should start at the top, only then it will be emulated across the organization.

Provide for two-way communication:
Leaders should encourage two way communications between management and employees. Most of the time major announcements are made and no feedback is collected. There needs to be an avenue where employees can provide feedback and express their concerns about a new development or to even submit general feedback. It is necessary to provide counter-feedback to the concerns raised so that they know that their opinions are being heard.

Show that you care and say thanks genuinely:
John Maxwell said “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Visit employees unannounced; make time to meet them one on one to understand what they need to be successful at work. Discuss with them their professional goals and career path. Show commitment to helping people develop and grow. When time permits, during a difficult situation be in the trenches with them. Maintain dignity and show compassion at times when you will have to make tough decisions to lay off employees. Because the employees left behind after the lay off can see how their fellow employees were treated during the process.

Create a culture of informal recognition founded on sincere appreciation. Say “thanks” to your people for their efforts and find different ways to recognize them. Make new hires feel welcome and important. Employees will go the extra mile for you when they see that you genuinely care and that their hard work is being recognized.

Empower and equip to achieve your vision:
A Chinese proverb goes “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” Research shows that participative management is the best way to go. Participative leadership is an active style that stimulates involvement. This spreads a sense of ownership on the decisions being made in the company instead of a feeling of being the bearer of the news of a decision made at the top.

Empower your employees by giving them responsibilities and support your staff in their decisions. It can bring about amazing improvements in quality and productivity while simultaneously improving morale. As much as it is important to have a vision that is bold and ambitious, it is also important to articulate on how you plan to achieve it. Spend time understanding what your employees need to help attain your vision and equip them with the tools.

Walk the talk:
No amount of PowerPoint presentations or posters will affect the hearts and minds of the employees until they see the top management walk the talk. If you genuinely want to see change, then copy-pasting the CEO’s message and re-publishing it to your teams is not going to cut it. The culture that you preach will soon lose its currency when your employees see you act differently from what you preach.

Now what if you work for a management which doesn't value good leadership? You have little control over folks higher up in the food chain. However I would argue that you do have control over how you want to lead your team. Remember, you don't need anyone's permission to inspire someone in your team, be it recognizing their good performance (at minimum verbally) or displaying courage by telling the truth or showing that you genuinely care.


Update 1/09/09: Guy Kawasaki tweeted this blog post!!!


  1. Leading others is tough. Many people don't lead themselves that well, so it makes it difficult to lead others. I agree that we need to walk the talk because otherwise the followers will stop following. The best way to do this is to "know yourself." Understanding what you will and will not stand for and applying this on a consistent basis will do wonders for your reputation.

  2. Some great info here. Well done and I look forward to following your blog in the future.

  3. Forgive the punn - but this is truly inspirational, and moreover practical. I was led here by a Tweet from Guy Kawasaki.

    This only strengthens his lecture (among those of many leading thinkers on Leadership) on "Making Meaning":

    (Maybe relevant to startups more than established companies, but critical nonetheless)

    Another video on focusing your company towards a key ethos, a mantra that the whole company can understand:

    My favourite excerpts are:

    "I'm chiseling stone."
    " I am building a great cathedral!"

    Also the chinese proverb:

    “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”

    Thanks for this Roshan.

  4. Great post Roshan, I would only add that we should learn to recognize and reward leadership in others when demonstrated, it's the positive feedback that helps others go from understanding to executing.

  5. Great post. FYI, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” is from Benjamin Franklin.

  6. Never understood why MBA programs emphasize maximizing shareholder wealth as the primary goal. Thanks for the post.

  7. Great stuff Roshan

  8. I should send this to my leaders

  9. Clarification on the Ben Franklin quote. “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” is indeed from Benjamin Franklin. But the Chinese proverb that I have used differs in the last 2 words. It goes as "Involve me, and I'll understand."

    On researching more I found out that it also has been credited to be a Native American proverb as well. Perhaps Ben Franklin popularized the Chinese or Native American proverb in his own words.

  10. Thank you Karl for that insight about "know yourself". I agree with you.

    Thank you Anthony, Jeremy, Jane, Pavan and Antoney for your kind and supportive comments. This will definitely encourage me to write good stuff.

    Dale, great point about rewarding good leadership. I think it doesn't happen that often. May be there should be some internal polling mechanism within the company to vote for the best leader in a department and awards associated with it.

    Last but not the least, a BIG THANKS to Guy Kawasaki for tweeting my post once again!

  11. Excellent post, Roshan!

    It moved me to write on "Inspirational Leadership and Affiliate Program Management" in my blog today.

    Thank you.