“I have a dream,” declared Dr. Martin Luther King from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 23, 1963. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” His words, spoken over a half century ago, continue to inspire people today to join the fight to eliminate racism. Great leaders inspire others to action.
Inspiration ignites our motivation and propels us to accomplish great deeds that exceed our normal abilities and aspirations. Inspiring others is an essential leadership skill that drives the long-term success of any organization. As Ronald Reagan so poignantly noted, “the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”
Inspirational leaders foster high degrees of follower confidence, intrinsic motivation, trust and admiration. Moreover, research consistently finds inspirational leadership is positively related to extraordinary levels of performance by individuals, groups and organizations (Thrash, Elliot, 2004; Waldman, Balthazard, & Peterson, 2011). So how do great leaders get ‘people to do the greatest things’? How do they inspire others to transcend their normal abilities and aspirations to accomplish great deeds? Three factors must be present to inspire others to undertake extraordinary tasks and achieve uncommon goals.
Inspirational leaders begin by clearly and charismatically communicating a vision. A well-articulated vision is purpose driven and increases the confidence and competence of group members in achieving that purpose. A vision for a team or organization needs to be appropriately adjusted to the group. One size, or better put, one speech, does not inspire all groups. An inspiring vision combines an emotional plea with information for action. It must be steeped in strongly and commonly held values that cause people to become invigorated and identify with the mission of the vision. An inspiring vision conveys meaningful purpose by serving the shared interests of the individuals and organization as well at the goals of a greater good. Consequently, the vision is clear in leading to a future with specific outcomes and processes that will benefit followers as well as outside stakeholders. The Starbucks vision statement, influenced by CEO Howard Shultz, exemplifies these characteristics: “Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
Inspirational leaders illuminate a purposeful path and instill the belief that the path can be pursued, and the purpose achieved. These leaders show the way while fueling the desire of others to join the pursuit of a collective good. The inspirational leader guides followers in what they need to do, and why they need to do it. They model and foster the attitudes and actions necessary for achieving the shared goal and common purpose. Consider as an example the vision of UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” He never mentions basketball or winning. But this vision was the foundation to one of the most remarkable coaching legacies in the history of sport.
Inspirational leaders stir emotions and energize people to action. Emotions can amplify one’s desire to succeed, deepen commitment and strengthen loyalty to the vision and the leader. We become inspired to ‘do something’—make a change, accomplish a task, sacrifice or perform at a higher level. Emotions ignited by inspirational leadership are firmly tied to the sense of purpose embedded in the vision. Stirring emotions and energizing actions happens when a leader connects with the followers’ background, targets things they hold dear individually and collectively, and appeals to aspirations for a gratifying future. In other words, we will overcome the challenges of our past and move to a better, brighter future if we undertake this path together. John Kennedy skillfully applied this principle in his inaugural address when he said “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
By communicating a value-laden vision, specifying a success strategy and energizing others to action, inspirational leaders reinforce the shared goals of the team; express confidence in group members to accomplish these goals, enhance the group’s distinctiveness and prestige; and empower group members to achieve well beyond the standard. Leaders who leave the greatest legacies are those who serve as inspiration for others. It is a skill that needs to be a prized and often used tool in every leader’s toolbox.
- Thrash, T. M. and Elliot, A. J. (2004). Inspiration: Core Characteristics, Component Processes,
- Antecedents, and Function, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 957-973.
- Waldman, D. A., Balthazard, P., & Peterson, S. J. (2011). Leadership and neuroscience: Can we revolutionize the way that inspirational leaders are identified developed? The Academy of Management Perspectives, 25(1), 60–74.