Can Leaders Really Inspire People?

06/25/2015 01:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016


The question is: Can leaders really inspire people?

I was going to title this post: "Three Reasons to Ignore Top Ten Lists for Inspiring People." Often, these lists are ambiguous and far too vague. They are filled with fluffy language and lack actionable advice. Consider these typical examples for inspiring people, culled from more than a dozen books, blogs and articles:

  1. Earn people's trust.
  2. Be enthusiastic.
  3. Know what excites you.
  4. Focus on what others want.
  5. Have an uncommon composition of skill, experience, and time-proven personal perspective. Have a unique point of view.
  6. Give people status.
  7. Pull; don't push.
  8. Have and share a vision.
  9. Clarify your values.
  10. Ask; don't tell.

My request: challenge these ubiquitous lists on how to be an "inspiring leader." Consider the first six items in the list. Even if you think an item is legitimate, instead of settling for over-generalized or vague platitudes, ask yourself, "How do I do that?" For example, "How do I 'earn trust'?" "How do I 'be enthusiastic'?" You must go deeper than the shallow, overused axioms.

If an idea resonates for you and you know how to do it, ask yourself, "Why would this inspire others?" For example, "Why are people inspired when I 'clarify values'?" "Why are they inspired if I 'give people status'?" It's time to dig deeper and find the science behind motivation and inspiration.

Most books and articles on how to inspire people provide insufficient advice on how to actually do what they are suggesting, let alone an explanation of why the ideas work. This is what I find missing -- an underlying theory of inspiration. Writers pull together a commonsense list of leadership qualities, characteristics, skills, behaviors and best practices, but fail to define why people are inspired in the first place.

Dictionaries define "inspiring" or "inspirational" broadly as influencing, moving, animating, impelling, spurring, or motivating. These synonyms beg foundational questions such as: Are people impelled to thrive? Why do people do what they do? Why are people inspired? Can inspiration be "done" to someone?

How do leaders inspire people if we don't understand the nature of inspiration?

There is a field of research that has asked these questions and conducted thousands of scientific studies to get to the root cause of why people do what they do. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) provides the evidence we've been seeking about the true nature of human motivation. SDT research has validated three fundamental and universal psychological needs shared by all human beings regardless of culture, generation, gender, or race -- autonomy, relatedness, and competence (ARC). When these three basic psychological needs for ARC are satisfied, we experience positive and sustainable energy, vitality, and well-being. When these three basic psychological needs for ARC are thwarted, we experience low-quality creativity and innovation, productivity, and health -- mental and physical.

Armed with this deep understanding for what inspires human thriving, we can be more discerning when reading Top Ten Lists for Inspiring People. Take three items on the original list and consider them through the lens of motivation science and the three psychological needs for ARC.

6. Give People Status. Neuroscience proponents justify giving people status to inspire them because it lights up the same part of the brain as rewards and pleasure. But, status is the feeling of power over others. Status corrodes a sense of connection and erodes our human need for relatedness. Status doesn't generate or sustain positive energy, vitality, or sense of well-being. Leaders who depend on building people's status to motivate or inspire are doing their people a disservice. To gain status depends on others bestowing it -- undermining autonomy. There is simply no evidence for status as an inspirational strategy -- but plenty of evidence to the contrary.

8. Have and share a vision. This makes sense, but through ARC, we understand why. A clearly articulated vision provides people the autonomy to choose whether they want to share that vision, or not. A noble purpose presents people with an opportunity to contribute to the welfare of the whole and serve the greater good -- components of relatedness. With autonomy and relatedness needs met, people are more likely to have the positive energy to take action and sustained vitality to keep progressing -- building competence over time.

10. Ask; don't tell. This piece of advice sounds good. But, either asking or telling can be appropriate, depending on a person's development level on the goal. Effective situational leaders provide people with more or less direction (more structured and one-way communication) and support (more open-ended and two-way communication) when they need it. A leader's flexibility to use an appropriate leadership style given the situation deepens relatedness with people, builds people's competence over time, and helps people ultimately experience autonomy as they develop.

We began by asking the question, Can leaders really inspire people? The question we need to ask is: Why and how do people thrive and flourish at work?

If you really care about being an inspirational leader, the answer lies in the compelling science of motivation. Notice that when people's basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence are satisfied, you will most likely hear, "That's inspirational leadership."