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Can Leaders Really Inspire People?

Can Leaders Really Inspire People? post image

Are you as confounded by the idea of inspirational leadership as I am? After reading more than a dozen blogs, books, and articles on this topic, I am going to be highly presumptuous and propose a different approach to “inspirational leadership.” First, I ask you to consider typical recommendations for inspiring people culled from a variety of sources:

  • Earn people’s trust
  • Be enthusiastic
  • Have and share a vision
  • Know what excites you
  • Clarify your values
  • Have a unique point of view
  • Focus on what others want
  • Pull; don’t push
  • Ask; don’t tell
  • Have an uncommon composition of skill, experience, and time-proven personal perspective

I could keep going, but the items on this list have one or two things in common: they don’t tell you either how or why. How do you earn trust or be enthusiastic? Why does it matter if you clarify values or have a unique point of view? Why focus on what others want if they don’t really understand what they want? Writers pull together a commonsense list of nice-to-have leadership qualities, characteristics, behaviors, and best practices to describe inspirational leadership, but provide little, if any, understanding of how to do them or why they work.

What I find missing from the “10 Ways to Inspire People You Lead” attempts is an underlying framework of what we mean by “inspiring.” Dictionaries define “inspiring” or “inspirational” broadly as influencing, moving, animating, impelling, spurring, or motivating. All of this begs questions that don’t seem to be addressed in most attempts to describe inspirational leadership:

  • What is it that people find stimulating and motivating?
  • What is it that impels people to thrive?
  • How do leaders tap into it?

There is a field of research that has asked these questions, conducting thousands of scientific studies to finally demonstrate why people are motivated and thrive. Self-Determination Theory has validated three fundamental and universal psychological needs shared by all human beings on the planet regardless of culture, generation, gender, or race. These needs are for Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence (ARC). When these psychological needs are satisfied, they lead to positive and sustainable energy, vitality, and well-being; when they are undermined, they result in less creative, innovative, productive, and mentally and physically healthy people.

When leaders understand the true nature of human motivation, they are better equipped to be inspirational. For example …

  • Trust is a by-product of people’s needs for ARC being satisfied.
  • A clearly articulated vision gives people the Autonomy to choose whether they want to share that vision.
  • A noble purpose gives people a sense of contributing to the whole and serving the greater good—components of Relatedness.
  • Both asking and telling are necessary depending on an individual’s development level—understanding how to be a situational leader who gives people the direction and support they need when they need it, builds Competence over time.

When individuals understand the true nature of their own motivation, they are better equipped to ask for what they really need. People can’t ask for what they don’t know they need. People interpret the longing they have into traditional and, unfortunately, less effective, “asks.” Thus, instead of asking for Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence, they ask for more money, power, and status as substitutes for what will really help them thrive.

My proposition is this: When leaders focus on helping people satisfy their three basic psychological needs, people will respond with, “That’s inspirational leadership.”

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