Monday, 23 July 2012

What keeps leaders inspired?

A simple question with many answers

I have just published a new blog which startes with a simple question: what keeps leaders inspired? This blog will be all about the answers that people give to that core question. It is through these intriguing and always very personal answers, that the simple aim of the blog will be realised. It is my hope that my new blog will prompt you to consider what inspires you as a leader.

Everyone who has contributed to this blog was asked this question:

What book, poem, film, speech, painting, quote, story, passage, or person (or whatever) continues to inspire your leadership?

And then I asked them a second question to go a little deeper and tell more of their story:

What is it about this piece that inspires you and helps sustain you as a leader? In other words, tell me the story behind your selection.

As you will read on the blog, the answers were rich in thought, reflection and feeling.

Of course, we all have many sources of inspiration and people were asked to select just the one. But in so doing, I believe that people chose the one story / film / book / idea (etc.) that really mattered to them.

How would you answer?

The importance of inspiration and 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, or make a decision or take action. All leaders need to breathe in. All leaders need inspiration. Inspiration is what can make people become breathtaking leaders.

Perhaps inspirational leadership is also about first breathing in for oneself and then helping others breathe in as well. This is leadership which enables people to take action. But this is leadership that first invites people to draw breath, to pause, reflect and deliberate on what is the next best thing to do.

Being a leader is often hard, very hard. Inspiration keeps us going when the wind is against us or the next goal is not quite just round the corner. Our inspiration can guide us when we are not quite sure what to do next or when we are facing a tough choice.

We can use our inspiration to infect others when they too are facing hard choices or stretching goals. Indeed inspiring people is often a much to do with re-kindling hope in the future. Leaders with inspiration can help people to 'aspire' once again.

Inspirational leadership is perhaps the opposite of 'expiring' leadership! To expire literally means to breathe out – but has come to mean to die. And so on this basis – leaders with inspiration can breathe life into an organisation. All organisations need leaders who can inspire, especially when those organisations are suffering troubled times. Leaders can bring new inspirations when a breath of fresh air is needed.

A key theme that emerged from several of the contributions I have had so far was the way in which inspiration helped people connect the past with the future, not just for themselves but also for the people they worked with. This connection provides both hope and stability: a sense that an inspirational past experience can provide a hopeful foundation for the future.

Inspirational leaders nurture hope in the future in many ways: Drawing on their past experience, they paint a vision of the future. They make this vision 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 by using their own stories to bring the vision to life. As a consequence, the vision begins to take on a life of its own. The vision is used to make decisions about priorities. Inspirational leaders use their vision to create collaboration where there may have been conflict and dissent before.

Crucially, the leaders make the vision an attractive one, one that inspires 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.

Inspiration gives leaders the strength and substance to 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. 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 and foundations for the future 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...

These are all the reasons why inspiration is so important to leaders. On this blog, you will read about how leaders like you are using their inspiration to make things happen. These are breathtaking leaders.

The core themes: be inspired

This blog will be a rich mix of stories, insights and ideas about leadership and inspiration. Do be inspired to dip into this blog and read the contributions. So with this as a purpose, here is a trailer for some of the key ideas contained in the chapters to come.

For several people, being an inspired and inspiring leader means having the courage to be your own person. This is partly about a combination of boldness, confidence, knowing oneself and keeping on with an idea when you are surrounded by doubt… and partly about something that cannot be bottled or perhaps even described. It is about being sure sighted and sure footed, being rooted in a solid sense of one’s own map of the world. When you have read a number of the blog posts, you will spot this theme cropping up in many places.

Many analogies are drawn about leadership and this blog is not short of few more. There is one that shines through in one chapter but which is implicit in several others: the leader as sculptor. In this analogy the role of the leader is to draw out the form that is hidden within the stone, to create a smooth and elegant shape that draws attention and thence action. It is about taking a mess of ideas and materials and bringing forth structure and direction. And with this direction a path is found and people follow and a leader practises their art.

An idea that has inspired me particularly over the years is the role of leaders as people who expect more and delight in more when the people they lead deliver more. I have a video in my head of Tom Peters talking in his breathless and passionate way to an Albert Hall full of managers. He entreats them to want people to develop, to want people to grow, to spend time helping people learn and thence to enjoy the fruits of those actions. I can hear him saying “if you don’t get a buzz from seeing your staff grow and develop… don’t be a manager, be something else!”

And so it is no wonder that you will find in a number of the blog posts, lots of similar ideas about how critical it is for leaders to see potential in people, to expect more (and get it) and to delight in how this yields people who are extended beyond what they thought was possible.

Other ideas you will discover include the value of knowing where you stand, the importance of people being more likely to remember how you made them feel (rather than what you said), the need to act not just think, the difficulty but the necessity of being able to cradle contradictions. You will read how determination continues to help people be leaders, how taking responsibility also means letting go, why plans are better made of loose knots than fixed rivets, and how humour lubricates and enthuses.

This blog is an emerging cornucopia of snippets about what it means to be a breathtaking & inspirational leader. On these pages, I suspect, you will find ideas that you already know and have made part of your practice. There will be other ideas that may leave you cold. And still there may be other ideas that hit you like a hammer and perhaps make you question all that you think you know about being a leader. You won’t know which they are until you read them.

The central thread

At its heart, this blog is about keeping on keeping on.

In other words it is about leadership as being essentially about defiance: defying the rocks and stones on the path and keeping on. It is about bracing and moving through desolate times when support is difficult to find. It is about breathing in and focusing on the goal even when you look back and your followers are somewhere in the distance. It is about keeping the people with you inspired, even when there are many trying to do the opposite.

It is about proudly, solidly and compassionately staying inspired even when you feel just inches away from a trough of cynicism, despair and hopelessness.

It is the stuff that great leaders have, the famous leaders we all know about and admire. But they have it because of who they are, not because they are famous. The fame came after their ability to remain inspired in courageous defiance of the many pressures and challenges they faced. We can all be that inspired. We can all be great, breathtaking and inspirational leaders!