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Follow the leader
How to be an inspiring leader
Several years ago, I got feedback that I needed to focus on being a more inspirational leader. Initially, this feedback was perplexing: "What exactly does that entail?". Over time, however, I began to understand that inspirational leadership is unique to each person. For me, it involves:
Crafting a compelling vision that motivates people.
Demonstrating decisiveness when necessary.
Acknowledging and learning from mistakes.
Advocating for your team.
Sharing your personal journey.
Let's discuss each of these elements in more detail.
Where are we going?
One of the most critical things for a leader to do is to set a vision for their team as to what they’re there to do and how each team within your organization contributes to that vision. I’m not talking about a lofty and abstract vision like “Elevating the world’s consciousness”. I mean where is your company and your department trying to be in the long term? What are you disrupting? What is the impact that you’re trying to have? Once you’ve identified and communicated that, bring it forward to the current quarter and the current year. Articulate what you’re doing this quarter and this year and how that aligns with your ultimate goal.
Once you’ve done that, your job is to repeat yourself ad nauseam to ensure that everyone is aligned toward that vision. If individuals are not aligned on that vision, then spend the time to get them on the same page. If that’s not possible, then consider other places within the organization where that person might be a better fit.
It’s not only crucial to determine and communicate what your departmental and company vision is, but it’s also just as important to ensure that there’s alignment around it. If you do not have that alignment, then your journey to that end goal will be far more challenging than needed. I don’t mean to say that changes and pivots will not happen—they’re inevitable—but alignment through each of those turns is of the utmost importance.
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This is what we’re going to do
I must admit that indecisiveness is one of my pet-peeves. Decisiveness, though, is a high art. It requires a great deal of finesse to make sure you are incorporating your team’s feedback and so that people don’t feel shut down by you when you head in a different direction. Nonetheless, in my experience, your reports look to you to help set a clear vision as to where you’re heading. That involves making decisions big or small on a day to day basis to clear the path forward. Being indecisive means that you are not effectively clearing the path to your team. You are creating a chaotic culture where no one knows what they’re doing or where they need to pivot to on a daily basis because you’ve changed your mind. I believe that that creates an unproductive and ineffective environment. As a leader, you will need to make decisions that might end up being wrong as you aim to be decisive. That’s part of the job. Admitting your wrong though is just as important.
I didn’t make the right call
There’s nothing more frustrating than someone who refuses to admit they were wrong. As a leader that makes you not only seem arrogant, but also horribly inaccessible and out of touch. Admitting you were wrong about decisions big or small has a ton of benefits in my experience. First of all, it creates an environment where people are not afraid to make mistakes. This ultimately allows your company to fail fast. People can make mistakes and move on from them quickly. People are willing to take risks that will push your organization to the next level. Those risks might not always pay off, but the effort and safe space to take the risk in the first place is what will eventually lead you to strike gold.
Second, admitting your mistakes makes you more approachable. Your team sees you as a human being that makes mistakes and learns from them. By letting your guard down, they relate more to you and are willing to more readily follow you into the metaphorical battle.
I got your back
An inspirational leader needs to demonstrate on a daily basis that they not only have their teams back, but that their team’s growth is important to them. What does that look like?
You championing for your team as appropriate.
You give your team constructive feedback that helps them grow.
You demonstrate the behaviors that you want to see your team emulate in order to help them be better every day.
You facilitate career growth opportunities for people in your team regardless of whether they report directly into you or not.
You care for your team personally—understanding and valuing who they are as individuals and tapping into what they want out of themselves.
You go out of your way to be approachable and accessible to everyone in your organization.
All of these actions build trust in your organization and in you as a leader.
This is me
I find it very important for your team to know who you are. What was your story to get to where you are today? While I think it’s important for you to authentically represent yourself in the workplace, I don’t think you need to reveal all of your personal life in order to do this effectively.
By sharing with your team your professional trajectory and your struggles and tribulations, you create proximity while also sharing the valuable lessons you’ve learned over time. This, in turn, helps your team understand that their careers are not meant to be linear in nature (specially at start-ups!), but also helps them aspire to shape the career they want by seeing what someone else’s path looked like. When your team feels like they know you, they work harder for you.
Everyone’s leadership style will look different, but relating to your team, building trust and setting a clear vision will always be components of inspirational leadership.
What other elements do you think are key to being an inspirational leader?