Being an inspiring leader sounds like something that is out of reach of many of us.
After all, who are we to be inspiring?
If you’re reading this, there is a good chance you are probably not one of the leaders that shows up on the front cover of Time Magazine. Or giving a keynote speech in front of thousands of people.
But that type of thinking is a trap. We often idolise celebrity leaders that we see in the news. But the reality is, they don’t make the real impact.
No, the real impact is happening inside the millions of regular companies. The impact is caused by leaders like you who are taking on the day to day challenge of leading and motivating a team out there in every country and city in the world.
In this post, I’ll take a look at some very simple ways that you can be an inspiring leader, even if you don’t really see yourself that way!
But first – why do we need to be inspiring anyway?
People Are Looking For Inspiring Leaders
In the book The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner showcase some of the research they’ve been working on for over 30 years.
They carried out a series of surveys and gathered leadership stories from around the world. This was framed around the question:
“What do people most admire and expect from their leaders?”
From these, they compiled the top 20 leadership characteristics that people are looking for in their leaders.
In the 7th Edition published in 2023, Inspiring came in at number 3 on the list, and it has featured near the top of the list for the entire time they have been publishing the book.
When I first saw this, I didn’t think it was very useful. How can we expect regular leaders to be inspiring?
I consider myself to be a reasonable leader, but I don’t see myself as inspiring really.
So then I started to ask the question of my training participants, to see what sort of things they considered to be inspiring.
It turns out that what many of us consider to be inspiring is actually within the reach of the everyday leader. It’s not about giving a big speech, publishing a popular book or having millions of fans.
Simple day to day actions can make the difference.
Inspiring Leadership Actions for the Everyday Leader
Whether you like it or not, you are a role model for the people you lead.
But fear not, because being an inspiring role model is not as hard as you might think. Let’s look at some simple things you could do to try to be more inspiring for your team.
1. Maintain a Calming Presence
When I ask people about what inspires them in a leader, remaining calm is one that comes up quite often.
In situations where the pressure is on, strong emotions are at play, a deadline is near or a crisis has hit, it can be very reassuring to see a leader who is able to maintain a calm demeanour.
Some people are fortunate to have a naturally calm presence, seeming to be able to keep it together most of the time.
People often comment to me that I “always seem calm” which I find amusing. Much of the time my mind is racing, I’m worried and I’m wondering what to do, but on the outside it seems like I have everything under control!
When leaders are calm, they give the impression that they have the situation under control. The leader who is running around madly, constantly being “busy” and firefighting does not inspire confidence.
How to Stay Calm
Well, it’s a big question… how do we stay calm in stressful situations?
Here are some simple ideas to help you appear calm… even if you don’t feel like it!
- Get organised. Being unprepared and unstructured is never reassuring. It can also lead to greater stress. Do your preparation and create a backup plan if you think something could go wrong.
- Maintain a buffer. Many leaders are working at 100% capacity all the time. This provides no room for error or unexpected events, leading to extra stress and pressure. If you were able to, say, work at 90% and leave 10% of your week free, that might provide you with the space to react to situations as they occur, or even simply provider greater support to your team.
- Develop some go-to calming strategies. Deep breathing, meditation, reframing negative thoughts. Whatever it is, see if you can find some techniques that work for you, and use them. I’ve included some links to related articles below that might help, too.
- Maintain a positive outlook. Leaders who are able to acknowledge the issues while also seeing the positives come across as calm and constructive. Constant negativity and focusing on problems gives the opposite perception.
Feel free to check out the resources below for more information.
Learn More: How to Stay Calm at Work: 5 Tips for Leaders.
Learn More: How to Manage Your Emotions For Better Leadership.
Learn More: The Impact and Importance of Emotions in Leadership.
Learn More: Worrying About Work? Tips For Thoughtful Leaders.
2. Inspiring Leaders Stand Up For Their Team
Another aspect of leadership that tends to inspire occurs when a leader stands up for their team.
Why? Because when a leader stands up to someone for their team, they are putting their own credibility on the line.
Standing up to attackers takes courage, but it is also optional.
Leaders are not obliged to go toe-to-toe with the CEO to show support for their team. It’s not technically in the job description.
So when it happens, it shows the team that the leader believes in them. It also demonstrates that the leader believes in what the team is doing.
Standing up for the team might be necessary when:
- Team members are being blamed by unreasonable stakeholders
- Team members are being treated disrespectfully
- You need to secure scarce resources for your team; or
- Excessive workloads are being pushed to your team from elsewhere in the organisation.
Standing up for your team can also help to set the precedent that your team should be treated with respect.
What could you do to stand up for your team?
Learn More: 6 Great Ways to Support Your Team.
3. Looking After Yourself (While Getting Things Done)
In the often-chaotic world of work, leaders are under pressure to do more with less.
This can mean burning the midnight oil to get things done. Over time, this can add up to excessive stress and potential burnout.
However, there are those leaders who are able to get things done and safeguard their own wellbeing at the same time.
For many, these leaders are a source of inspiration because it’s not an easy feat.
This sort of leader knows that prioritisation matters, saying “No” is paramount and working a reasonable amount of hours is key for sustainability.
You might believe that putting yourself last and putting in excessive hours is inspirational.
What I’m noticing is that people no longer find that sort of leadership enticing, and many people don’t want to work like that.
The real inspiring leaders are those who can achieve career success (whatever that means to you) without necessarily sacrificing their life for it.
Learn More: Wellbeing at Work: How Leaders Can Support It.
Learn More: Compelling Reasons to Say “No” Today.
4. Inspiring Leaders Show Vulnerability
Vulnerability is a hot topic in leadership these days, spearheaded by the research and work of Brené Brown.
In the “olden days”, leadership was more about showing you had everything under control and being careful not to admit your mistakes.
These days, there is growing acceptance that leaders aren’t perfect. It’s becoming more common to see vulnerability in leadership, but it’s still a brave thing to do.
Showing vulnerability can be inspiring, because it shows that you have the confidence and self-esteem to admit your mistakes. It can also entice other people to share their own struggles too.
Opening up about your own challenges or fears can feel confronting. However, it can build trust because it displays honesty and courage.
(Remember the research I mentioned earlier by Kouzes and Posner? Well, honesty is the #1 leadership characteristic people are looking for!)
The last thing you want is a team where everybody is fearful of admitting their mistakes or shortcomings.
Instead, why not role model vulnerability to help people open up about their own challenges?
Learn More: Start Being Trustworthy For Your Team: Here’s How.
5. Inspiring Leaders Have a Vision
We have all heard of “visionary” leaders who have a dream of a better future. You might be thinking… “I’m not really one of those”.
But having a vision does not mean that you need to invent something, or come up with the cure for cancer.
For me, a vision is simply a representation of a better future.
Future-focused leaders are inspiring, because they strive for continuous improvement, try new approaches and they don’t just accept the way things are. They instead challenge the status quo.
By their very nature, leaders who work towards a vision are constructive. They are looking to improve things, not to become bogged down in the challenges of today.
Here are some questions to help you identify your vision (you can use them with your team):
- What would you like your team to be better at?
- Are there new services or products your team could offer, that don’t currently exist?
- Do you find yourself saying “It would be really great if we could…” – and could you do it?
- What’s broken that you and the team could help to fix?
- Where is the untapped potential in your team, that if harnessed could do something interesting?
On the way to achieving your vision, team members will learn new skills and gain experience that can lead them to bigger and better things.
And you are helping them to get there.
What’s not inspiring about that?
Being an Inspiring Leader Is Within Your Reach
You don’t need to wrestle a bear or fly to Neptune.
Many people are inspired by far simpler things.
Taking time out to support a team member when you’re really busy is inspiring.
Negotiating your team’s workload with a demanding boss can be inspiring too.
Your actions don’t have to impact the whole world. It might just start with a single team member who looks to you for inspiration.
How do you inspire your team? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments!