The Oxford English dictionary defines inspiration as “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”
It’s easy to see, then, why the concept of inspirational leadership has captured the imagination of academics and human resource professionals who earn a living understanding what makes the best workplaces tick and offering advice on how to be one.
At the heart of the matter is profitability. In today’s corporate world the bigger the profits the more successful the company. That’s not a bad thing. Companies need profits, so they can keep doing what they do, and so they can keep paying the people they rely on to do what they do.
But the difference between a good profitable company and a not-so-good profitable company is how they make those profits, both directly – in the way they produce and sell stuff – and indirectly – in the way they manage their human capital.
And that’s where inspirational leadership fits in.
Not just another business buzzword
Inspirational leadership looks very much like it fits neatly alongside ‘low-hanging fruit’, ‘synergistic gains’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ as one in a long line of business buzzwords that have clogged up the corporate imagination over the last few decades.
But research published by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests inspirational leadership can be the real difference between an ordinary team and extraordinary team.
“Inspired employees are themselves far more productive and, in turn, inspire those around them to strive for greater heights,” wrote Eric Garton, a partner with Bain & Company, in the HBR article.
Bain & Company surveyed 2000 people as part of a research program into inspirational leadership. From that they identified 33 traits – grouped into four clusters – that make up the Bain Inspirational Leadership Model:
- Developing inner resources – such as emotional self-awareness
- Connecting with others – such as demonstrating passion or listening
- Setting the tone – such as showing appreciation
- Leading the team – such setting group and individual expectations
Not rocket science … but still less than half the respondents in an HBR employer survey conducted with the Economist Intelligence Unit said they ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that their leaders were ‘inspiring or were unlocking motivation in employees’. Even less felt their leader ‘fostered engagement or commitment’.
The good news according to the HBR research is that you need only one of the 33 traits to double your chances of being an inspirational leader.
‘Inspiration is 27% more predictive of high performance than employee engagement.’ That’s the conclusion from the ‘The How Report’, a long-term research project in organizational effectiveness produced by LRN, an adviser to multinationals on leadership.
Inspired employees are authentically dedicated, deeply accountable and fully responsible, says Michael Eichenwald, global advisory practice lead for LRN.
But, he goes on to say, most leaders struggle because “they lack the playbook to inspire today’s workforce — especially one that is increasingly populated by millennials who are more insistent on the need to experience meaning and values at work”. And the bigger the organisation the worse it gets.
The problem is that the old school style of management, that invokes hierarchy and subordination, and focuses on time spent rather than results, is the one that many Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers running things these days were taught on their way up the corporate ladder.
So, how can I be more inspirational at work tomorrow?
New skills take time and practice to learn, and can feel odd at first, so keep it simple. Pick one thing from the inspirational leadership handbook to try on for size.
If you usually let the team get on with things until they come to you with a problem, then set up a weekly team meeting. Or if you have a regular meeting then talk less and listen more.
Time it if you need to. Use meetings set the tone, listen, create group expectations, and give positive as well as constructive feedback. Include the team in decision-making.
Identify and take acceptable risks by giving the team tasks and projects that allow self-management and the leadership of others. Show trust and give them a chance to grow, develop and set their own standard of accountability.
If you spend all day in your office, start to walk the floor. Check in with the team and have informal one-to-ones that let you get to know them … and their strengths / weaknesses … a bit better.
And it doesn’t hurt to read a few management articles to get a better idea of what makes an inspiring leader. Ultimately your boss will thank you when productivity spikes and the team will thank you when they start enjoying their jobs.
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