If You Want to Be an Inspiring Leader, Try Empathy First

Kirsten Maas Helvey

COO, Cornerstone OnDemand

There are many leadership styles: the authoritative leader who imposes their will, the transactional leader who trades reward for result and the consultative leader who listens and involves direct reports in decisions (to name a few).

But the most effective leadership approach, according to Claudio Feser, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, is inspirational leadership. In his book, When Execution Isn't Enough: Decoding Inspirational Leadership, Feser argues that inspirational leadership is the best way to help organizations make significant (and efficient) change and improvement. It is the most powerful way to lead—as inspirational leading creates more energy, excitement and commitment in people than any other style. People push beyond their usual boundaries to deliver on the vision of an inspiring leader.

But putting inspirational leadership into action is difficult, requiring competence and confidence—which means it's also rare to find. Feser says the style is only used in two percent of all leadership instances.

We spoke with Feser about how inspirational leadership can be used to engage and motivate employees in order to transform and build great organizations.

What does it mean to be an inspirational leader?

An inspirational leader isn't one type of person. If you ask 10 people who they think is an inspirational leader, you are likely to get 8 to 10 different names. Even when you do get two people who give you the same name, they'll list different reasons for why they find that person inspiring.

I've found that when you ask someone this question, you tend to learn more about that individual rather than the person they find to be inspiring. Inspiration is in the eye of the beholder. When someone considers a leader to be inspiring, they see something in the leader that speaks to their values or addresses their emotions.

When you start to accept that, the next question is, if you are a leader, how can you engage others [by] recognizing what matters to them and what emotions they might experience

How can leaders inspire individuals?

If I can do something that's important to you because it reflects your values, or if I can address emotions that you may experience, then you're likely to perceive me as an inspiring person. For example, a leader at a company might say something like, "I know diversity is important to you, I'd like you to run this project on diversity for us." Or, a leader may say, "Given all the changes that are going on, you must feel anxious. Let's work together to find a solution that addresses your concerns."

How does this differ if you're trying to inspire a group of people?

Just like individuals, organizations also have values and emotions. Values are embedded in the culture and mission of the organization. Also, in a group, people can develop and experience the same emotion through a process called emotional contagion. If you're with people who have a certain strong emotion, you tend to feel that yourself.

For example, if there's a high level of anxiety in an organization that's going through a turbulent time, a leader may recognize this group feeling and say, "Look, I understand that we're going through a difficult time. I know everyone is feeling pressured and that you're concerned about the future." Then, a leader may appeal to the group's shared values as motivation and say, "As a company, we value the lives of people and work hard to create better products. We can continue to achieve our mission by doing a, b and c."

I often find that most people can identify with their company's mission. A mission typically represents a set of values that resonates with a larger part an organization. I once spoke with an ambitions CEO who wanted to transform his organization into the best in the industry. He was unbelievably excited about his vision, but had trouble mobilizing the people in his organization. This was because building the biggest and most respected company was his dream, not the dream of the people he was leading. It mattered to him, but not to them. He realized that linking his vision to the mission of the organization—to save lives—would engage a much bigger group of people. As he also believed in that mission, he was able to use it to inspire his employees authentically.

What common mistakes do leaders trying to apply inspirational leadership make?

Pretending is the most common mistake. Pretending to address others' emotions when a leader in fact doesn't care about others. Or pretending to care about the values of others.

For example, a leader may get people to accept a pay cut to improve the state of a company, but when information that the company leader is not personally taking a pay cut becomes public, the organization will react with cynicism, resentment and resistance.

For inspirational leadership to be effective, the leader must be authentic and "walk the talk." Being authentic means truly caring for those whose emotions you are addressing, and being prepared to do what you are asking others to do. In short, if you don't care about others—their values and their emotions—then you don't really care about inspiring them and you shouldn't try inspirational leadership under false pretenses.

To become an inspirational leader, where can leaders start?

Spend time trying to figure out how your people think and feel. Being inspiring has so much to do with other people's emotions and values; you have to train to be empathetic. Think about how your people might experience a situation.

Also spend time trying to understand yourself, what you value and what emotions you experience as a leader of an organization.

Photo: Creative Commons

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