It’s that time of year again: the air is crisp, leaves are falling, and political candidates are arguing. Even as we just left the polls this Tuesday, we’re really preparing for the Big One, as this is the oh-so-lucky year before the presidential race. We get twelve more months of this, so gear up!
Of course, unless you’re a political consultant, you’re probably not too excited about listening to the candidates (and their ads) for months on end. Most political leaders — like their corporate counterparts — simply aren’t inspiring. We’re not even sure they believe what they’re saying.
And boy do we need some inspiration about now. The Harvard Business Review recently featured a downright depressing blog post on America’s pull toward mediocrity. The worst part was that we’ve heard this message before, and it’s a widely accepted viewpoint. We don’t even have the energy for outrage. (Especially since it was a major theme in the last presidential campaign with little progress.)
Inspirational leaders seem to be able to ignite a magical light in others, both a call to action and a breath of optimism. We need it in government, our community, and in business. One could easily argue that being able to inspire others is the leader’s job. A leader can never manage, direct or cajole enough to achieve great success, but must inspire self-motivation.
Especially in times of uncertainty, authenticity is paramount and palpable. You can’t phone in inspiration. To inspire a feeling in others you must have it in you first. It is impossible to get others excited if you are burnt-out or unsure. Nor can you get others to take something seriously if you don’t think it’s a big deal yourself. But if you believe down to your soul, and demonstrate the actions to back it up, doors will fly open.
If you’re looking to hone your inspirational skills, try these practices of great leaders:
- Get intentional about your actions, and the desired reaction.
Inspiring leaders aren’t accidental, they work at it. In fact, every great leader I’ve ever worked with has believed that inspiring others is a craft that needs to be constantly honed. Inspiring leaders are intentional about what they want to communicate AND what emotion they want to impart. They have an acute ability to bottom line a situation and communicate straight to that objective.
- Be self-aware and authentic.
Motivational leaders have a keen sense of how they are perceived by others. They pay attention to their own body language to make sure their intent is clear. Many actively seek out advice in order to constantly improve on their skills. Finally, they don’t try to be someone they aren’t. They know who they are, and what personal characteristics draw others to them. They try to be more of themselves, rather than more of someone else.
- Relate on an individual level.
We are drawn to people as individuals, not as concepts such as business owner or boss. Great leaders take the time to really know others – whether customers, employees, partners or friends – in order to foster strong individual relationships. They are the ones who remember your kids’ names and ask about your weekend softball league. Even when talking to large groups, they make a connection based on shared interests and set a tone of commonality.
- Be open to viewpoints and listen attentively.
Listening is a gift that you give to others, and takes very little to do. Yet most leaders do too much talking and not nearly enough listening. Inspiring leaders make people feel heard – whether or not they agree with them. They give people the courtesy of their full attention. They don’t make you compete with their Blackberries or scan the networking event while you are talking.
- Share your failures and struggles as leveraged experiences.
Business leaders often feel the pressure to be perfect – to be stoic, have the right answers, and hide weakness. However, we’re drawn to each others’ weaknesses – it’s what makes us human. Back to the election, we look at candidate’s backgrounds to find what they are made of – where they have struggled and overcome. The same is true of business leaders. Inspiring leaders don’t hide their failures; they admit them and use them as learning experiences. They share struggles openly when it makes sense to leverage them for moving the company forward. They aim not to be on a pedestal, but on common ground.
- Learn to be a story teller.
People are overloaded with data and rarely retain it. What we do remember are stories. Humans are story tellers by nature, and use them to create understanding for ourselves. Stories transport us and form a connection that is lasting. Great leaders share their stories openly to make their points come alive and to motivate others.
Heads Up: Cautionary Tales Coming Your Way
In the next year, there will be ample opportunities to learn from the mistakes of others about what doesn’t inspire (and hopefully a few that can demonstrate what does.). View it all through your leadership lens. When someone inspires or motivates you, think about what caused it. How did they affect you? What made you remember them? How can you apply that learning to a pressing business issue you have?
Never forgot that your team wants — even hopes — to be inspired. By you.
Herein lies a leader’s great challenge and greatest possibility.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.