Leadership’s Silver Bullet: The Magic of Inspiration

Published: Apr 11, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By John H. (Jack) Zenger

Everyone recognizes that leadership is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon. Attempts to reduce it to one or two qualities or behaviors invariably are shown to be either incorrect or impractical, and ultimately fail. At the same time, it is also clear that not all behaviors that we have traditionally identified as being important elements of leadership are equal in their impact on key outcomes that we want and need leaders to produce.

Our organization collects data about leaders and their behavior. We have recently amassed over 150,000 360-degree feedback assessments pertaining to more than 11,000 leaders using a fairly standardized instrument. We know how leaders’ behavior impacts the people who report to them. We also know what their subordinates wish their leaders did better. Additionally, we have extensive data about what drives the highest level of employee commitment and engagement.

After an extensive analysis of these mounds of data, one leadership behavior escalates to the top of the pack. It is the behavior described as: “Inspires and motivates to high performance.”

Because this one competency stands out so clearly above all the others, it raises some questions:

  • What makes some leaders inspirational?
  • Can this be learned or are people born with it?
  • Why is this such an important behavior?

What Makes Some Leaders Inspirational?
What constitutes inspiring behavior? Despite the thousands of books and tens of thousands of articles on the subject of leadership, there remains an element of mystery about it.

While much of what leaders do can be objectively described, there seems to be a quality or characteristic that is off by itself. Often you will hear someone say, “That leader is charismatic.” When pressed to explain exactly what this person does, the person providing the description is hard pressed to provide an answer. There is just something in this leader’s manner, behavior, style, or skills that seems to set him or her apart. While some have tried, there is little agreement on exactly what constitutes this elusive quality we label “charisma.”

My colleague Joe Folkman and I decided to approach the question in a slightly different way. We had extensive data about the 11,000 leaders mentioned earlier. One of the dimensions that we had measured was the degree to which they were perceived as being “inspiring and motivating.” This enabled us to separate those with the highest scores from those with average to low scores. There were a relatively large number of behaviors or competencies that were highly correlated with “inspires and motivates.”

We want to quickly acknowledge that because two things are correlated, that does not prove one causes the other. For example, being married has a relatively high correlation with happiness. It would be easy to conclude that in general being married causes people to be happier, but the fact of the matter is that the opposite could be true. Possibly happy people are more inclined to get married.

Some have wondered if inspiring behavior isn’t simply a collection of clever tactics or tricks that some leaders acquire. Is it possible that inspiration merely consists of the following?

  • Pushing or provoking people
  • Pleading for higher performance
  • Shaming by comparing one group to another
  • Cheerleading
  • Rewarding or bribing
  • Appealing to higher motives
  • Instilling fear
  • Creating competition
  • Invoking peer pressure
  • Praising

As we examined the data, we saw that not one of these was described by subordinates as the behavior they sought from their leader. With but two exceptions—praising and appealing to higher motivates—we deem these “negative behaviors.” Both our own and other research evidence clearly demonstrates that positive behaviors are far more inspiring than negative ones.

Indeed, our analysis revealed that there were 10 “competency companions” (or as my colleague Joe Folkman suggested, “behavioral buddies”), clustered in three areas. First, there were three behaviors that appeared to describe a leader’s willingness and ability to understand and fully accept what it means to be a leader. Realizing that you are constantly a role model, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, whether you like it or not, is a key part of accepting that role. Acknowledging that you are now responsible for the organization’s progress and its ability to make change, and that it is your initiative that will drive a great deal of that change, are the other parts of this cluster of “fully accepting the role of leader.”

Second, there is a multidimensional cluster that we’ve labeled “emotion.” This encompasses a leader’s understanding of the role of emotions in how people behave, as well as his or her willingness and ability to both be aware of and comfortably use emotion. Jack and Suzy Welch wrote, “Real leaders touch people. They get under their skin, filling their hearts with inspiration, courage and hope. They share the pain at times of loss and are there to celebrate the wins." There is no escaping the fact that how people are feeling about their work and their employer plays an enormous role in the success of their work. If you want to be more inspirational, understand that you have to become more comfortable in the world of emotions, feelings, and moods.

The final cluster of competency companions has six behaviors that leaders use. These six specific behaviors appear to be like batteries in a battery pack: they can be interchanged, used in many different combinations. Moreover, just as with batteries, the more that are used to fire the action, the greater is the power injected into the system.

Can Anyone Learn to Be Inspirational?
Though the behaviors that are described as competency companions may come more naturally to some than to others, and some people may perform them with far greater skill and finesse, there are no behaviors we have described that are reserved for a special few uniquely talented or blessed people.
Unlike some child prodigies, one is not "born" with the ability to inspire. However, when it comes to behaving as a leader, it helps to be extraverted. There is clear evidence that highly outgoing people exert more influence over others than do those who are introverted. It also helps to have a high energy level and to be comfortable making presentations before large groups.

Why Is This So Important?
There are a host of reasons why inspiration is so important in the leadership process. In terms of his or her subordinates, an inspiring leader can:

  • Enhance self-esteem. People perform at their best when they feel confident. Inspiring behavior from a leader directly enhances people’s feelings of self worth and self-efficacy.
  • Give new meaning to work. The inspiring leader is able to inject a higher meaning to work. There is a classic story about a bystander who asks two workers, “What are you doing?” One worker replies, “I’m cutting stones”; the second worker says, “I’m building a cathedral.” Then the bystander watches the care and the quality of work done by each of them and quickly understands why the second worker produced such quality artisanship and the first did not.
  • Increase cooperation. Inspiring leaders create a culture of cooperation rather than one of competition and rivalry.
  • Encourage higher goals. Inspirational leadership encourages people to set their sights at a much higher level.
  • Heighten creativity. Inspirational leadership can foster a greater willingness in people to attempt new behaviors and to seek ingenious new ways to accomplish tasks.
  • Increase risk taking and exploration. Inspirational leadership frees people to take greater risks, to explore different ways of accomplishing a task.
  • Create higher productivity. An inspiring leader elevates the standard of productivity, how hard people work, the hours they put in, and their willingness to overcome any obstacles.
  • Provide stronger identification with the organization. The leader’s emotional connection with the team members creates a stronger bond between the organization and its people.

Inspirational leadership behavior provides a powerful “glue” between the leader and the group. The culture of the organization is fundamentally transformed and people are motivated to work longer, harder, and with greater focus than before.

Key Points:

  • Inspiration is not a collection of simple tricks, wall posters, or locker room speeches.
  • The big secret about leadership is that there is no one “big secret”—inspiring leadership comes from many elements working together.
  • Inspiration has primarily to do with the relationship between the leader and the group.
  • Emotion has the power to inspire. Emotions are extremely contagious.
  • Inspiration is a by-product of sound leadership practices. It calls for goals to be stretched, a clearly defined vision, excellent communication, collaborative working relationships, efforts to develop people, and openness to innovation.
  • The companion behaviors with the highest correlation to inspiration and motivation involve a leader’s willingness to fully accept the responsibilities that come with the role.
  • The best results come when leaders implement several activities at once; that is, there is a multiplier effect when the leader implements more than one behavior at a time.
  • While the behavior to inspire is contagious, negative behavior is also contagious and long-lasting. A boss’s emotions and behaviors have an exponential effect; that is, leaders cannot afford to have a bad day without doing a great deal of damage.

© 2010 Marshall Goldsmith, John Baldoni, and Sarah McArthur. This article was excerpted with permission of the publisher from The AMA Handbook of Leadership, by Marshall Goldsmith, John Baldoni, and Sarah McArthur. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

John H. (Jack) Zenger is the cofounder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a professional services firm providing consulting, leadership development programs, and implementation software for organizational effectiveness initiatives. He has been inducted into the Human Resources Development Hall of Fame and received the Thought Leadership Award in 2007. He is author of Results-Based Leadership, voted by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) as the Best Business Book of 2000, the best-selling The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders, and The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate (2009).