Thursday, 30 April 2009

Reflections on Inspirational Leadership

The root of the word inspiration lies in the Latin for breathing. Inspiration is the act of breathing in, something we do when are about to say something, make a decision or take action. So perhaps inspirational leadership is something about first breathing in for oneself and then helping others breathe in as well. It is that form of leadership which enables people to take action, but first by encouraging them to draw breath first, to pause, reflect and deliberate on what is the next best thing to do. 

Inspirational leadership is perhaps the opposite of 'expirational' leadership! Expire literally means to breathe out – but has come to mean to die. On this basis – inspirational leadership may be about breathing life into an organisation. Often organisations bring in leaders who can inspire when the organisation has suffered troubled times: a new inspiration, a breath of fresh air, is needed. 

Inspiring people is often a much to do with re-kindling hope. Inspirational leadership can help people to 'aspire' once again. Hope is lost in organisations when there is no clear idea of what the future holds. 

Instead, inspirational leaders regenerate hope in a number of ways:

  • They paint a vision of the future
  • This vision is broad enough and narrow enough so that people can see themselves in it and plot a path towards it.
  • Moreover this vision is believable: it is a vision in which people can have confidence and believe is possible to achieve with determined effort
  • These leaders communicate this vision well, they use stories to bring the vision to life
  • The vision begins to take on a life of its own, it is used to make decisions about priorities. Inspirational leaders use their vision to create collaboration where there may have been conflict and dissent before.
  • Above all, this vision is an attractive one, one that lures people because it resonates with people's deeply held beliefs about what is important and worthwhile. Inspirational leaders invest time in understanding what matters to their stakeholders. 

Inspirational leaders recognise and work with the emotional side of organisations, understanding that change and improvement are rarely about logic alone. They know that change creates feelings and look for ways to harness these feelings in support of overall goals. 

Inspirational leaders shake organisations up. They make the space for people to experiment and try out new ways. They give permission to get things wrong in pursuit of improvement (so long as learning is captured). They do this by including people, by demonstrating that people can help to shape the future. Praise and reward for taking risks is encouraged. 

Inspirational leaders make it possible not only for colleagues to impress each other, but also make it OK, critically, for people to impress themselves. Inspirational leaders build confidence in this way. 

Architects often put 'spires' on buildings to encourage people to look upwards rather than down, to dream of better times and admire what has been built. Inspirational leaders do something similar, they help people make the connections between humdrum and lofty goals – they help people to look up, to look around, to look beyond...

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