Andrew had just taken over as CEO for a major organization. He was following in the footsteps of a larger-than-life personality and, as the former CFO, Andrew had very different qualities. Thoughtful, quiet and considerate, he was renowned for his savvy business reputation. I had been coaching him through the transition to become CEO, and his first assignment was to address his top 100 senior leaders at the company annual conference that would see the passing of the baton.
Andrew started to work on his speech. I gleaned from senior leaders that the expectation was his opening words would be about the numbers and moving the needle on business performance. Sure enough, when Andrew gave me his first draft it was almost in the form of a spreadsheet! I asked him what outcome he wanted as a result of the talk. His response? To inspire. I had to break the news that this draft would not inspire, in fact it would probably do the opposite, as well as casting a shadow over how his tenure as CEO would play out.
I asked Andrew to reflect upon what inspires us. He recognized that in order to inspire others he would need to be inspired himself. I suggested that he reflect upon moments of inspiration from his own life and leadership, which could form the basis of his presentation. Andrew took time to identify key moments from his life that had inspired him and how they had gone to shape his leadership. He proceeded to create a simple outline using images from these experiences to share with his leaders.
When it came to the day, Andrew was relaxed. He recognized that to try and emulate his predecessor would be a big mistake and that the way to inspire was to be his authentic self. He put up a photo of himself as a child working in his parents’ shop and shared about his work ethic, passion for customers and counting the money out the back!
His next image was of backpacking around the world, encountering different cultures and how it shaped his global view. He shared a photo of his children and his passion for nurturing the next generation. He finished up with a photo of climbing Kilimanjaro and his love of overcoming obstacles and exceeding expectations. The feedback from the senior leaders who attended – inspired. People were surprised by Andrew’s candour and greatly appreciated his human touch.
In June 2013, the Harvard Business Review article entitled “What Inspiring Leaders Do,” written by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, showed how based on extensive 360 feedback data, gathered from approximately 50,000 leaders, who had been assessed by nearly 500,000 colleagues, confirms that the ability to inspire creates the highest levels of employee engagement and commitment.
The question is, how to inspire? Does it require you to have Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual focus? Steve Jobs’s obsession for making a dent in the universe? Elon Musk’s determination to revolutionize different industries? Angela Merkel’s ability to lead Europe’s largest economy? Greta Thunberg’s power of youth and activism?
Here are 4 concepts to understand about yourself, which act as sources of inspiration: purpose, vision, values and strengths.
Put Purpose 1st
What is your purpose? This is probably the single most important question you can ask, and your answer will shape your destiny. However, it’s not straightforward. We are led to believe that our purpose is connected with how much we achieve, the accumulation of possessions, or attaining status in society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your personal purpose is your internal compass. It is your big why. It is the meeting point between your passion and your talent.
When you are on purpose you are in flow. When you are on purpose you unlock the necessary skill set to thrive in today’s complex and unpredictable world. Ultimately your personal purpose is an aspirational reason for being. A deep conviction about what is most important. It shapes your mindset, behaviour and actions. It has a timeless quality, which is beyond circumstance. It provides the meaning and direction of your life.
As Andy Cosslett, Chairman of Kingfisher plc and England Rugby Football Union shared in an interview:
Purpose asks the big questions. Why are we here? How do we enrich people’s lives? What matters most? As Chairman of England Rugby I see clearly the power of purpose and the impact of sport in people’s lives. It combines a unique blend of building resilience and character within a team environment. It helps people to make more of themselves through a physical challenge in a democratic framework and develops friendships for life.
Purpose captures a special thing which means that people give more of themselves. Our primary needs are changing. People want to work for companies where there is a resonance. People have a wider range of choices to make which means companies need to be clear on their purpose as it impacts areas like recruitment, engagement and impact on society. Leaders need to tap into a deeper understanding of what a company can be. Given the fact that technology is changing everything, opinions and reputations can be made and destroyed overnight, protecting purpose is crucial.
Be vision led
Vision is what you want to see. It’s about the creation of possibility. The essence of a vision is inspiration. It moves you toward an intended future state. In an interview with Paula Stannett, Chief People Officer Heathrow she said:
We live in uncertain times where change is a constant. Our socioeconomic and political climate means that leaders need to excel at leading change, which starts by creating a compelling vision of the future to provide organizational clarity. The absence of clarity triggers anxiety, which can become a real interference to leading change at pace. Articulating a compelling vision helps to build a foundation of trust, which reduces the impact of anxiety. Having a compelling vision connects the different aspects of change present in an organization and simplifies the landscape.
You need to ask yourself, what is your vision? In my experience it is rare to come across leaders who have invested the time in formulating and articulating a compelling vision for themselves. Although they might have done it for a company or team, there is a tendency to leave themselves out. If you’re telling yourself that you are not a visionary, I understand. This is not about developing grandiose or inflated ideas. It is about investing precious time in imagining a better way that enthuses and lifts you up. The ultimate criterion for vision is to inspire. If your vision doesn’t inspire you, create one that does.
Live your values
What are your values? I find that people are often clear about what is most important to them, i.e. their values, but they haven’t taken the time to work out what shaped their values and why they are so significant. Values form an essential element of leadership. The way Paula Stannett put it was:
The role of a leader is to inspire people to go on a change journey. This requires you to be values-led. For instance, if the company believes in doing the right thing and treating people with respect then you cannot just think about yourself in terms of your own position. You need to listen to understand how people are feeling, sense the emotional environment, and make sure you are connecting on a level of values.
Personal values come from learned experience, usually times of adversity. Tracing the critical events from your life, lessons learned and conclusions formed gives you the way into your values. Once you are clear on your values it’s useful to articulate them with your team and close colleagues. One of the most profound experiences I have in organizations is to set up storytelling sessions with leaders and their teams where they have the opportunity to share what has shaped them, lessons learned and what they stand for in terms of their values.
I recently facilitated such a session for an executive committee who espouse the company values, but who had not invested the time in understanding each other’s personal values. The CEO was reluctant to proceed as the storytelling requires honesty and vulnerability and there were some tricky dynamics in the team. He took the plunge and we agreed to schedule two hours as part of a one-day workshop. Seven hours later the team were completely absorbed in the process of storytelling which led to a deepening of understanding and the opportunity to reset the team’s level of trust, transparency and appreciation of each other. They have gone from strength to strength in applying a values-based foundation to working together.
Play to strengths
A critical element of being yourself and inspiring others is to play to your strengths. Strengths are underlying qualities that strengthen and energize you and that you are great at (or have the potential to become great at). To identify your core strengths, reflect upon activities that strengthen and energize you. There are various ways of defining your strengths. I categorize them into four main areas:
- Emotions. These strengths are linked with understanding, processing and expressing emotions. They include courage, resilience, optimism, enthusiasm, self-regulation and vulnerability.
- Relational. These strengths are linked with building and maintaining great relationships. They include empathy, compassion, influence, collaboration, developing others and trust.
- Intellectual. These strengths are linked with gathering and using information to process and make decisions. They include creativity, critical thinking, strategic thinking, detail orientation, seeing the bigger picture, problem-solving.
- Execution. These strengths are linked with delivering results and high performance. They include decisiveness, drive, pace, adaptability, focus and efficiency.
I encourage leaders to do strengths check-ins with their team members. On a weekly basis ask the questions: ‘What strength can you use this week to keep you energized?’ and ‘How can I help you play to your strengths?’ You will become known as an inspiring leader if you focus on managing energy. Get your team to optimize their strengths by completing tasks that energize them, rather than focusing on those things that drain their batteries.
The most powerful way to make this change happen is to role model what you want to see and to reinforce it. Keep your battery charged by playing to your strengths and celebrate your team members for remaining energized and being in a flow state. This is how to be inspired and stay inspired.
Being Inspired Toolkit
- Put purpose 1st. Make sure you have clearly defined your purpose, so you have absolute conviction about your reason for being.
- Be vision led. Invest time in developing a compelling vision that inspires you and creates a sense of possibility taking you forward.
- Live your values. Be clear about what is most important to you and demonstrate your values on a consistent basis to build trust and belief.
- Play to strengths. Focus on what energizes you and stretches you to grow and be a better version of yourself.
Commentary by Ben Renshaw. Here’s what you’ve missed?
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