In 1961, President Kennedy set for the US the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. According to an oft-told story, during a visit to NASA, Kennedy happened upon a janitor and asked the man what he was working on. The janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” This man’s role was sweeping floors, yet he was so inspired by Kennedy’s words—and NASA’s mission—that he adopted this purpose as his own.
Inspirational leadership is tremendously valuable…and tragically rare. A recent study by consulting firm Bain & Company found that employees who feel inspired are 56% more productive than those who feel only engaged…and 125% more productive than those who feel merely satisfied. Yet multiple surveys have found that few employees consider their bosses inspiring. This isn’t just a problem among bosses—the people who head community organizations, extended families and friend groups also are unlikely to inspire.
Good news: Inspiring people does not require natural charisma. Inspirational leadership arises from a set of behaviors that anyone can learn. If you put these behaviors into practice, people will want to spend time with you and help you achieve shared goals—whether you hold an official leadership position or not.
Five key behaviors that can help anyone become an inspirational leader…
Model the traits you hope to inspire in others. Whatever you want the people around you to be, first be that yourself. If you want hard work, first work hard…if you want humility, first be humble. If you fail to do this, anything you say on the subject will lack credibility. As the philosopher-physician Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
Example: A CEO who hoped to inspire accountability in his workforce sent an e-mail to the company’s 1,000-plus employees asking them to cast anonymous votes to determine if he should continue as the CEO. A remarkable 97% voted yes, no doubt in part because they were inspired by the accountability he modeled when he put his career in their hands.
Be trusting and trustworthy. Leaders must be trustworthy to inspire the people around them. But what many people miss is that leaders must be trusting.
Look at it this way: Two trustworthy people can meet and fail to form a bond—a meaningful relationship is created only if at least one is willing to extend trust to the other.
This isn’t easy—trusting can feel risky. We worry whether the people we trust will disappoint or betray us. That risk is real, but not trusting people can carry an even greater risk—we miss opportunities to form lasting bonds and to inspire people to reach their full potential.
Think back to when someone trusted you when others might not have—perhaps a parent assigned you an important task when you were young or an employer gave you an account when you were starting your career. You probably were inspired to do the best you could to prove that this trust was well-placed.
When you extend your trust to people, they are likely to feel similarly inspired. They’re also likely to think of you as someone who sees their true potential and value, which can be hugely inspiring in a world where most people feel overlooked and undervalued. An economics professor at University of British Columbia found that having a relationship of trust with one’s bosses is a better predictor of life satisfaction than even good health or high income.
Trusting people does not mean trusting them blindly, however—it’s important to clarify and communicate your expectations from the outset.
Example: After the pandemic normalized remote work, global corporation Siemens issued a policy that read, in part, “We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results.” But this policy also established parameters, noting that employees could “work from wherever they are most productive” for an average of two to three days a week. Siemens trusted its employees to work remotely but made sure they understood that productivity was expected and five-days-a-week remote work would not be the norm.
Figure out what inspires you. It’s difficult to inspire others if you don’t feel inspired yourself—yet many leaders get so caught up in their day-to-day efforts that they never consider this. Reflect on questions such as, What excites me?…What makes me want to get up in the morning?…and What’s my “why”? Your answers might be related to career, family, friends, community or something else entirely.
Encourage others to figure out what inspires them. During private conversations with your employees, children or anyone you hope to inspire, mention that you’ve been working out your own purpose. Share with them the answer you’ve come up with and that identifying this has brought greater direction to your life. Then ask, “What’s your purpose? What inspires you?” Be wary of answers that seem to be what this person suspects you want to hear, such as, “My passion is working for you.” Instead, encourage thought on the subject.
Simply raising this topic might help you achieve the status of inspirational leader in some people’s eyes. By sharing something as deeply personal as your true purpose, you strengthen the connection that people feel with you…and by taking an interest in their purpose, you show empathy that people tend to consider meaningful. If these people have revelations about their true purpose as a result of your conversations, you might forever be linked in their minds with that true purpose.
What’s more, once you learn what people consider their true purpose, you can take steps to help them achieve it. Examples: You might assign people tasks in line with the purpose they shared with you…or give them gifts related to this purpose, such as books on the topic. Even modest gestures will encourage people to see you as someone who truly understands what makes them tick…and as an ally who’s willing to help them achieve their true purpose. That can lead to loyalty that lasts a lifetime.
Foster a sense of belonging and inclusion in groups. Some people mesh naturally with groups, but others need help. If a group member isn’t speaking up, ask for his opinion…if she is sitting on the sidelines, ask for her assistance…if someone is new to the group, introduce him. You can do these things even if you’re not the group’s official leader. A sense of belonging is what transforms groups into teams…acquaintances into friends…and neighborhoods into communities.
Also try to connect the group to some meaningful purpose. Example: If you’re serving a leadership role in a company, you might discuss how the company’s products or services improve its customers’ lives. If you’re a leader in a social club, you might share stories of the club’s community-improvement projects or scholarship program. When people feel connected to a group that’s doing meaningful work, everything they do for that group can seem meaningful. Like that NASA janitor, they will feel they’re sending a man to the moon by sweeping the floor.