Are You an Inspirational Leader?

Every year there is one commencement speech that seems to grab everyone’s attention. Usually it’s a college graduation keynote given by someone of importance, a leader of some sort, often a household name. However, this year the big names and prestigious institutions were drowned out by high school teacher David McCullough, who gave the commencement speech heard around the world.
McCullough sparked a bit of controversy by telling his graduating class: “You are not special. You are not exceptional.”

If that wasn’t shocking enough, he drove the point home: “Even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you … And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system; your solar system is not the center of its galaxy; your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it.”

Most Leaders Are Not Special
If McCullough was speaking to U.S. business and political leaders, his message might be, “You too are not special. You are not inspirational.”

Statistics seem to confirm this. Mercer’s “What’s Working” survey released in 2011 reported that more than 50 percent of U.S. workers are unhappy and 32 percent are considering leaving their jobs.

“An unhappy workforce is an uninspired workforce, and we must blame leadership for this wide-ranging malaise,” said Maxine Paul, a managing director at Quantum Leap Associates, a Los Angeles-based leadership development firm. “Leaders often make the mistake of assuming they are inspirational by virtue of the positions they hold.”

Often leaders fall into the “center of the universe” trap McCullough warned his high school seniors to avoid. When leaders see themselves as a center spoke around which the team revolves, it’s impossible for the team to feel inspired because the leader is central to everything the team must deliver. As a result, independence is squelched, the team does not perform to its fullest potential and any inspiration is zapped.

Most leaders do not consider inspiration when managing their teams, but it’s a core reason why so many in the workforce are unhappy. Inspiration cannot be found in directives, motivational speeches or offsite retreats. Higher compensation, a nicer work environment or a better benefits package may not create it either.

For leaders to experience optimal long-term success, they must authentically engage and inspire their teams. Leaders have no hope of inspiring a team until they recognize and embrace the fact that inspiration is created, not directed.

The only surefire way to deliver inspiration is to enable others to do their best together as they deliver on a meaningful and clearly understood shared purpose. The leader must be able to convince the team to rally around a burning imperative and deliver against it with focus, persistent energy, confidence and accountability. Inspiration is best achieved when leaders see themselves as performance enablers by ensuring the team has what it needs to deliver results. In other words, set the stage, get out of the way and let the team deliver.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu expressed this well more than 2,500 years ago: “The great leader speaks little. He never speaks carelessly. He works without self-interest and leaves no trace. When all is finished, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” — paraphrasing the 17th verse of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

Inspiration Action Plan
In some ways an uninspired team is a team in crisis, and it is easier solved the sooner it is addressed. Whether a leader is moving into a new role or trying to jumpstart an unhappy team, the following 100-day action plan can lead to inspiration.

Step one: Harness the team’s passion and energy by embedding a strong burning imperative. A burning imperative is a dynamic mantra co-created by the leader and the team. More than just a pithy statement, it is sharply defined, intensely shared and purposely directive. It is the reason the team exists, and it should clearly articulate the group’s objectives, goals, strategies and the specific plans on how the imperative will be delivered. Every team member should understand it, and it must reference the organization’s larger mission, vision and values.

The imperative is right when there is an action-oriented tagline embraced by the team, and backed with specific commitments and responsibilities for each team member. Once in place, the imperative should drive everything that everyone does every day, until it is delivered. More than any other single factor, a well-crafted burning imperative is what differentiates inspirational leaders from those who fail.

The burning imperative should be created as soon as possible — no later than 30 days after the start of a new role or initiative — to provide clarity, confidence, a sense of purpose and to instantly build momentum.

Step two: Value accountability and performance with meaningful milestones. Nothing kills inspiration like lack of accountability. A team member who is not accountable is not engaged. One unengaged team member almost always leads to others. True accountability only can be achieved when progress milestones are clearly articulated and specific individuals are assigned responsibility for their delivery.

Milestones are the building blocks that mark a team’s progress toward delivering on its burning imperative. Consider them checkpoints along the way to a defined goal. As the team details the plans it will undertake to deliver on its strategies, specific performance measures, accountabilities and decision rights allow its members to do their jobs without unnecessary interference. The team is well positioned to make fact-based judgments on performance versus expectations, and will be motivated to adapt, make improvements or seek assistance as members run toward the goal without the leaders’ involvement, as long as the milestones are being reached as planned.

Milestone meetings must be a team ritual, and they should start immediately after the burning imperative is set. Initially, the leaders should deploy a mutually supportive, team-based follow-up system to ensure the team knows what is expected of it. The leader will focus on the most important issues and work to ensure the team has the necessary resources to deliver on those expectations. The process enforces accountability without undue pressure. It provides the independence that team members crave, allows them to monitor their own milestones daily and engages the leader on a regular, but less frequent or as-needed basis.

On the 100-day program, the milestones and the first team follow-up meeting should be held no later than day 45, and no later than two weeks after the burning imperative is established.

Step three: Celebrate and show gratitude for early wins. For a team to be inspired, it must feel appreciated. The most appropriate time to celebrate and show gratitude is when the team has delivered a meaningful result. To keep the fires of inspiration stoked, leaders should make sure to identify and enable an early win.

Pick one that makes a meaningful external impact and models behaviors that are important for the team’s success. Once an early win is identified, the leader should focus on supporting the team’s needs to ensure it delivers on that win. When it does, the leader should make it a point to celebrate and express gratitude in a team setting. Accomplishing and celebrating an early win will generate well-deserved credibility, confidence, momentum and excitement, all of which lead to a happy team.

Time frames for early wins can vary greatly, but it is called an early win for a reason. It should be identified at or before the second milestone meeting, and it should be achieved within six months.

Step four: Honor team members’ strengths. There is nothing more magical for a team or individual than when a person is put in a role that truly leverages his or her strengths. Moving a team member to a better-fitting role or actually altering the role itself to better suit an individual can have a powerful impact.

When it comes to sorting people and roles on a team, the leader should have a long- and short-term perspective. Initially, the leader must ensure the right people are in the right roles to deliver on the burning imperative. This process can be painful as team members without the required skill set or detractors from the team’s burning imperative may have to be jettisoned to more appropriate roles elsewhere. Also, new team members will have to be effectively on-boarded to ensure successful transition.

Once the right team is in place to deliver the burning imperative, inspirational leaders will leverage performance standards, personal observations, valid assessment results and 360 feedback to assess each team member’s strengths, motivations and fit as the basis for individual development plans. A fully engaged leader should be able to accurately categorize every direct report into one of four categories that will indicate how the individual development plans should take shape (Figure 1). The development plan details will differ by individual, but identifying the overall assessment and development category should take place within the first 100 days.

Inspirational leaders help team members live up to their highest and often untapped potential by placing them in the right role and tailoring specific development actions for continued growth. That approach will deliver what is best for the individual and the team. People will notice and will be engaged, committed and inspired.

Step five: Work at it. As McCullough said, “Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.”

Inspiration does not come from the leadership title, but from the leader’s focus on leveraging passion, energy, accountability, gratitude and team members’ personal development. Leaders become inspirational when they embrace selflessness and recognize that they can only inspire by focusing on the team by setting the stage for members to find their inspiration.

Lao Tzu would agree.

Jayme A. Check is co-founder and managing partner at the executive on-boarding group PrimeGenesis, and co-author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan. He can be reached at