Business Leadership Today

What Is an Inspirational Leader?

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Ciara Ungar, Contributor

With so much discussion and pressure around how to develop teams and keep good talent focusing on the impact leaders have on their teams, it can be a challenge to look beyond the low-hanging fruit and instant gratification that crafting benefits packages and perks offers. 

However, there are more important aspects to building impactful teams that are more deeply rooted in inspiration—regardless of role, position, or department—and drive effectiveness, productivity, collaboration, and growth. And, it starts with leadership.

What is an inspirational leader? While there are several key characteristics of great leaders, there are five specific attributes of inspirational leaders that set them apart. The five attributes are a clear vision, an aligned purpose, steadfast resilience, an embodiment of empathy, and unwavering integrity.

This article will explore the critical role these five attributes play in becoming an inspirational leader, building a trusting, impactful team, and creating a supportive culture that moves the company forward.

The Great Mistake: Inspiration and Motivation

Often, inspiration and motivation are mistaken as one and the same. When we talk about motivating teams and inspiring teams, we use the terms interchangeably, and, likewise, the strategies interchangeably. This is a costly mistake. 

One’s motivation and inspiration come from different places in the human experience—physiologically and psychologically. As I tell the founders that I’m coaching, motivation ebbs and flows with the energy of the day and the mood of the quarter. It’s the part of us that tends to be more visible and is more easily impacted by the tide. We can be motivated in many ways, most (not all) of which point back to external needs.

Inspiration, however, is steadfast. It flows from our identity, a sense of meaning, and our core values. Regardless of what comes our way, inspiration is a deep sense of self and direction that stands strong against the changing tides. Cultivating this is what enables a leader to inspire those around them toward better outcomes. 

Whether in their personal or professional lives, people need both inspiration and motivation to move forward. Inspiration is the spirit, motivation is the body. How well a leader cultivates their inspiration determines how well they can inspire those around them, and therefore, also lead their teams toward success.

Since we know employee motivation and satisfaction are inextricably linked to purpose, meaning, and fulfillment, we should look to better understand what an inspirational leader is and how we can harness that inspiration to drive greater performance, which impacts profitability and growth.

When leaders and employees both are inspired, they are more likely to do their best work. But it starts with cultivating inspiration as a leader.

Inspiration as a Business Construct

If we know that motivation and inspiration serve different functions, then it makes sense why we see much more research on motivation in the workplace. And as Daniel Pink warns, focusing on driving motivation—usually in the form of measurable offerings like rewards, compensation, benefits, or promotions—can be nearsighted. 

Motivating employees is great for getting them to complete routine or repetitive tasks, but it doesn’t connect to creativity and, therefore, doesn’t offer a sustainable solution. If we are to truly understand an inspirational leader who inspires those around them, we have to better understand inspiration as a business construct, just as we’ve come to understand motivation. 

Luckily, having a background in psychology, I’ve spent significant time studying and understanding the components of inspiration as a standalone feature of who we are as human beings to better understand how it plays a role in our lives as leaders. 

Thrash and Elliot remind us that, in its most literal sense, inspiration is a process of breathing or inhaling, when we look up its definition in the dictionary. More relevant, however, it’s an infusion of purpose and awakening into the mind that energizes and redirects behavior. 

According to their thesis, “inspiration is evoked rather than initiated directly through an act of will… and involves a transcendence of the ordinary limitations of human agency.” 

This understanding of inspiration matters to us as leaders, because it creates an entirely different construct of what it means to be an inspirational leader. It means we can’t buy inspiration or create it in the form of rewards and benefits. Unlike motivation, inspiration is inner work that requires time and intentional development.

In examining inspiration, we tend to see two themes emerge that are most relevant to our discussion:

  • A process of transcendence. It is not a handout or a single moment in time. It’s an ongoing state of seeking growth and awakening to a better version of ourselves. It’s a transformation of our soulset, mindset, and heartset.
  • An internal force. Inspiration is derived from our purpose and meaning. It requires us to walk in alignment with our internal compass to stay on course. It’s our identity, values, and sense of self.

While inspiration can be explored from several angles, these two themes direct our understanding of inspiration as a business construct. An inspirational leader is one who establishes a foundation of alignment and a process for transformation, which manifests in five ways.

The Five Attributes of an Inspirational Leader

While motivation and benefits will always play a role in effective leadership and team success, they’re just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to what an inspirational leader is and how they inspire those around them.

I’m going to focus here on the five ways we see inspirational leaders present themselves in the day-to-day activities of the workplace to help teams feel inspired, cultivate creative cultures, and build trust to create impact.

Cultivating Purpose

An inspirational leader is someone who can motivate and inspire others to achieve their potential. If we know inspiration is derived from an internal compass, leaders must help others cultivate that compass. An inspirational leader is one who helps others understand their own purpose and fosters opportunities for them to step into it. 

Cultivating purpose is something that takes time. It requires that we identify what our values are and what’s deeply important to us, and create opportunities for our teams to do the same. 

As you uncover this about yourself (and likewise your teams), it’s important to pause, reflect, reframe daily experiences, processes, roles, and activities through your new lens, and act with that purpose in mind.

Creating a Vision

One of my favorite authors, Donald Miller, reminds us that if your team doesn’t know where you’re taking them, there will be no point in their story. Our role as inspirational leaders is to motivate and guide our teams toward a clear and compelling vision for the future—a clear story, with a clear plot. We also need to communicate that vision in a way that gets them to believe in it so they’ll want to join in our pursuit of that vision.

Business leaders often come to me with the perception that creating a vision is about writing a two-sentence vision statement that goes in their culture deck and on their website. However, creating a vision is so much deeper than that. 

A vision is a future we see of the world, of the company, and of each person’s role in getting there. A vision stems from having clarity of purpose, which is why it’s second on this list, and it looks at the future five years, 10 years, and 15 years down the road. 

Embodying Empathy

Empathy gets a bad rep in today’s environment, particularly for more traditional firms that have been forced to adopt this ideal to stay relevant. But for good reason. Inspirational leaders are able to understand and connect with the people they lead. I call this the “one-on-one game” in Leadership Lessons from a Team Captain

Embodying empathy is a process of listening and understanding the strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations of your team and using that knowledge to develop individual potential and facilitate growth.

Empathy is making its way to the forefront of conversations, but we’re still a long way from truly embodying it. Particularly, because we’re taught that some people have an empathy muscle and others don’t. Or, we’re taught that it has no place in the work environment. 

However, empathy creates a space where people feel understood and empowered, and, therefore, more connected and inspired to live in alignment with their purpose, which directly correlates with their productivity, creativity, and effectiveness. 

Just like anything else, empathy is a muscle that we proactively build and becomes a mindset we adopt. It’s about being curious, stepping out of your comfort zone, and being open to feedback. A critical step in building empathy is examining your own biases, which requires difficult, yet respectful, conversations so you can better understand what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.

Resilience

Inspirational leaders are able to remain steadfast through setbacks and failures. Despite the weather of the day, they remain persistent and determined to continue toward their vision and elevate others on that journey. This is because they’ve proactively built their resilience, not simply weathered each storm. 

Put another way, resilience is a lot like playing sports. You train in the off-season to build technique and muscle composition so that you’re prepared to handle situations as they arise come game time.

It’s worth clarifying that resilience is not about withstanding toxic environments. It is about continuing the pursuit of growth and change despite obstacles. It is one part taking care of your psychology and one part taking care of your body. Building healthy relationships that help you grow as a leader and intentionally creating balance and mindfulness are some of the best ways to begin building your resilience. 

Alas, the Inspirational Leader

One of the greatest distinctions between a motivated leader and an inspirational leader is the proactive nature in which they build their inspiration muscle. In this article, I discussed inspiration as a process of transcendence and an internal force, neither of which happen by chance or having an epiphany. 

Several things are true of an inspirational leader. They’re someone who can motivate and inspire others to achieve their full potential and work toward a common goal. They have a clear vision of what they want and can inspire others to share their enthusiasm and passion. 

Finally, they lead by example and create environments that enable others to show up as their best selves to achieve more than they thought possible. This type of leader creates a culture of positivity, collaboration, and excellence, and they do this by proactively and intentionally showing up for themselves and others.

In this article, we explored the five attributes of inspirational leaders. For each, we also looked at how we can build those muscles. That’s because an inspirational leader is built through a balance of inner development and external reflection, but only when they embark on the journey to transcend. 

Much like we know a good growth strategy requires that we transform our offerings, processes, and technologies with new markets and demands, so too we know becoming an inspirational leader requires us to continue to grow and evolve to transform our understanding of ourselves and the teams around us. When we do, we become inspirational leaders and can more effectively lead our teams toward a successful vision. 


Ciara Ungar is a New York City-based Author on Leadership, Certified Business & Leadership Coach & Consultant, an Award-Winning Strategist, and an International Speaker. She is also an Innovation Women Speaker, Instructor with Columbia University Immersion Programs, a Mass Challenge Advisor, a Startup Council, and Forbes Coaches Council member. She has a blended academic background with degrees and certifications in Communication, Psychology, Integrated Strategy, Entrepreneurship & Business Strategy, and Cultural Diversity from Purdue University, Georgetown University, and Wharton Business School. She applies her robust 16 years of professional expertise working with Fortune500 companies, high potential startups, top global agencies, and Angel/VC Investors to entrepreneurship, leadership development, business strategy, and professional growth. A disciple of “Start With Why,” her purpose is to guide others through transformative thinking as they build businesses, teams, and personal purpose that inspires change.

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