Defining "Inspiring"

Steve Coats

Q: Inspiring—just what exactly does that mean?

A: Many people seek the answer to this question. And while we know people expect their leaders to be inspiring, there is a great deal of confusion about the subject and what it really means.

For example, this question took on new interest during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Covering Barack Obama's grand speeches about change, reporters constantly referred to how inspiring he was. Although a number of followers were tremendously excited about what an Obama-presidency could become, he also had critics who referred to him as a Messiah-wannabe. They saw him as nothing more than empty suit of words and were not moved. On the other hand, his opponent, John McCain, was seen by many as boring with many news commentators noting that his nomination acceptance speech was the worst ever given. By the same token, there were millions watching his speech who would tell you that his account of his time in captivity and how it shaped his love for country was one of the most inspiring moments they had ever witnessed.

Yes, partisan politics played a role in these examples. But politics alone doesn't explain the difference in perception.

Over the years, I have learned a few things about this topic and hope that these insights might be helpful in answering this question. While neither perfect nor all-encompassing, these observations have proven to be consistently true in my experience.

  1. More often than not, people are inspired by another's ideas or ideals, not just by the person. Martin Luther King's vision of equality and freedom; John F. Kennedy's promise of a new generation, the Peace Corp, the moon mission; and Reagan's almost biblical City on a Hill are examples of spoken ideas and ideals. Although less publicized, Mother Theresa's daily actions in serving the poor spoke volumes about her ideals and inspired millions.

    As you examine your own ability to be inspiring, take a look at your ideas and ideals. What do you believe in that others find exciting or moving? In today's world of self-centered arrogance, solid character and role modeling are very inspiring to many people.

  2. You will never be equally inspiring to all people. To Christians, Billy Graham has been very inspiring throughout his career. But, I doubt if he has touched as many non-Christians. The same can be said about Michelle Rhee, the chancellor who is revolutionizing the Washington, DC public school system. She is seen by many as a lightning rod of hope and inspiration; to others she is an over-controlling, pending disaster.

    As a leader, you must take stands on issues based on your values and beliefs. There will always be those who disagree with your positions, and trying to convince others that your values are right and theirs are not is usually a losing battle. Instead, others generally view someone as inspiring based not on a logical analysis of facts but on how they feel about that person's ideas and ideals, values and beliefs.

  3. Finally, passion plays a role. It is hard to be inspiring to others about topics you care little about. You just seem to know that Steven Jobs is passionate about –cool and imaginative stuff– and that Howard Schultz is passionate about his Starbuck's coffee. We become inspired by people who truly love what they do.

    When leaders inspire others they form an emotional connection. Rather than trying to change how people feel, leaders reflect back the deeply-held needs and aspirations of others and demonstrate how those needs and aspirations can be met.

    When you demonstrate a passion for the values, dreams, and ideals that others hold dear, they will recognize your ideas, and ultimately you, as a leaders inspiring, too.
Good luck.

Steve Coats, one of the leading authorities on The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. For nearly twenty years, he has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers in several countries around the world. He can be reached at stevec@i-lead.com.

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