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12 Principles of Inspiring Leadership

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April 2014
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This post is an excerpt from “Communicate to Inspire” (February 2014, Kogan Page) by Kevin Murray.

Communicate to Inspire Be yourself better

Authenticity as a leader is crucial. Followers will not commit if they do not trust you and believe that you have integrity. So, even if you are a highly introverted individual, you will have to learn to speak with more passion, talk to your values and stand up more often to speak to your beliefs. Followers must feel your passion and believe that you believe. When you are clear with yourself about the things you really care about, you cannot help but talk to them with passion.

Most leaders have not spent the time articulating those beliefs, yet the ability to draw on and display that passion and commitment, consistently and predictably, counts for more than skills at oratory and communicates more effectively than even the most perfectly crafted words. You have to be true to yourself, but you also have to learn to ‘perform’ yourself better.

Purpose and values

Too often, leaders use financial or numbers-based goals to motivate people. They are more comfortable being rational and objective. Too often, followers say they don’t get out of bed in the morning to achieve financial or other numbers-based objectives. They come to work and want to be inspired by a sense of doing something important, something that makes a difference.

A strong sense of mission can help shape decisions to be made throughout the organization, and is even more empowering when coupled with a set of values that your people know to be true. In this world of radical transparency, values have assumed far greater importance, for many reasons. Values define how people in the organization behave in pursuit of their objectives, and their actions define a business to the outside world. Those intangible values — often dismissed as “soft and fluffy” — translate into actions on the ground, which translate into hard numbers in the books. How the mission and values are expressed is crucial.

Future focus

Every leader I spoke to used the future to drive the present. They knew precisely where they wanted to be in a given timescale, even if they did not know exactly how to get there. They were never satisfied with the status quo, and their restlessness was a tangible force. Every question they asked had to do with how people were progressing to the goals, and they kept those goals under constant review.

They painted a vivid picture of success, often describing the future in both rational terms (the numbers) and emotive terms (how it would feel for all concerned). This bringing together of the rational and the emotional was key to inspiring people. Fusing the future vision (what success will look and feel like) to the purpose (what important thing we are here to do) and to the values (how we do it) was what stirred hearts and minds. This future, though, had to be expressed in benefit terms for all the people with a vested interest in the performance of the organization – customers, shareholders, local communities, suppliers and partners and, most importantly, employees.

Bring the outside in

Leaders have to live outside their organizations, constantly bringing stories of success and failure in external relationships into the organization to keep everyone fixed on what needs to improve. Successful leaders know that relationships are the engines of success; they keep a close eye on the state of all key relationships, and keep their enterprise focused on those relationships as well. You have to set up “quivering antennae,” as one leader described it — a radar system that keeps you in touch with the outside world.

Too often I heard about the “reputation gap” — the difference between the promises the business made and the experience customers or stakeholders actually received. Narrowing that gap, or even managing it away, is the goal if you want to be trusted. And you do want to be trusted. Trust is now the most valuable but most hidden asset on your balance sheet. Leaders are increasingly looking to make trust a strategic goal, measured and managed as preciously as any other key asset.

Engage through conversations

More and more leaders are now measuring levels of employee engagement, and using this measurement as a strategic tool to find the ways to keep people motivated and committed to the cause. Study after study has shown that companies with high levels of engagement among employees outperform their competitors by some margin.

Engagement is achieved through conversations — structured, potent conversations that allow employees to fully understand the big objective and work out with their leaders what they have to do to help achieve the goals. It is in these conversations that the rubber hits the road, where the plan gets traction. Too often, these conversations are neglected, and middle managers are neither trained for nor measured on their ability to hold these critical conversations. Worse, top management doesn’t check on the quality of those conversations, or seek to get feedback from them in a systematic way.

Audience-centricity

Let us be clear: you have not communicated well if people have not heard you, understood you and felt motivated to think differently and act differently as a result of your words. You may have stood up and talked at them, but communication has only taken place when your words have had an impact. In any enterprise, leadership communication is all about achieving big goals. It is about changing behaviours. People listen from behind their own filters — filters that may be cultural or emotional, or that may be in place because of their unique perceptions or even misunderstandings.

You have to talk to people about their concerns, their issues, before you can be understood on your own. Every leader interviewed for this book, without exception, spoke of the need to be audience-centric in communication, and to recognize that, when it comes to communication, it is all about them. You have to set out to achieve change in how they think, feel and act, but that requires you to know how they think, feel and act now.

Listening

Quite often, the people I interviewed treated the subject of listening as if it were somehow distinct from communicating. They rated it an essential skill of leadership, possibly the hardest to perfect. Sometimes the simple act of listening, they said, is an act of inspiration in itself. “You have to give people a damn good listening to.” There is something more fundamental at work here, though, and I call it The Listening Contract — first you have to listen, if you want to be heard.

When you listen and then respond with actions that remove barriers, or pick up on good ideas, you create enormous goodwill and demonstrate you are on their side, particularly when you encourage people to open up and create an environment where people can bring you bad news, express their frustrations and voice their concerns, without fear of repercussions. You have to listen beyond the words into the motives and agendas, into the context, into the performance KPIs and the financial numbers and the mood, and you have to show you understand, even if you don’t agree. You have to ask great questions and learn to unleash your curiosity and interest in people. It really shows.

Point of view

The best leaders have a potent point of view, and it is always the person with the strong point of view who influences the group, who wins the day. As a leader, you are going to have to stand up and give your point of view, time and time again. You will have to take a position on issues, be courageous and stand up for what you believe to be right. Too few leaders think about developing points of view, yet — when well-articulated — they can help you win friends and influence people, and gain a stronger voice in shaping the future.

In a world where people trust the motives, judgement and competence of business leaders less now than just five years ago, shouldn’t we be talking to those issues more often, with more transparency, more conviction and, yes, passion? The ideal point of view should therefore bring together your purpose and your values, highlight your behaviours and draw attention to the benefits of doing things your way. And it should call people to action. Powerful stuff.

Stories and metaphor

Getting people to listen to you is tough enough, but getting them to sit up and take notice, and then remember what you have to say, is a supreme challenge. Every leader uses stories, knowing that we are wired to listen, imaginatively, when we are told stories. Good stories get under the cynical radar and touch hearts. Backed up by facts to cover off the mind, stories have the power to move people.

The best stories tell us about customer experiences, good and bad, or make heroes out of employees delivering the values of the organization, or show up the frustrations of workers unable to do their best because of the system, or vividly portray the future, or reveal aspects of the leader to the audience. They deliberately avoid the tyranny of PowerPoint, and are the more memorable because of it. Some leaders I spoke with were uncomfortable with the word stories and preferred the word anecdotes, saying this was factual rather than fictional as some stories can be. But they all used them, loved hearing them and re-telling them, over and over.

Signals

Actions speak louder than words. A cliché, you might say, but nevertheless one of the hardest truths for a leader to grasp. Being a leader means looking, acting, walking and talking like a leader. Countless times, leaders forget that they are in a fishbowl and are being watched all the time. A look of frustration here, a preoccupied walk through an office without speaking to anyone, a frown of frustration when someone is talking — all of these send powerful signals that staff take away and dissect for meaning.

Great leaders communicate positivity and optimism, and they often do it through a smile, or by walking with energy, or by standing straight and tall. Equally, there is nothing more corrosive than the conflict between saying one thing and doing another: for example, saying that bullying is offensive, but then doing nothing about a high-earning bullying manager. That says one thing, and one thing only: money matters more than staff welfare. Leaders who clearly love what they are doing, who show it in everything they do, in every expression, are hugely infectious.

Prepare properly for public platforms

Many leaders have had their reputations dented or even shattered because they have not prepared properly for public speaking. Yet, the more senior leaders get, the more likely it is they will have to appear on highly public platforms. Done well, such appearances can do enormous good and drive up sales or the share price, calm nervous investors or unhappy customers, or persuade talented people to the cause. Proper training or coaching is highly recommended, but is not enough by itself. Practice makes perfect, and rehearsal is the best practice. Never get complacent — it is just not worth the risk.

Learn, rehearse, review, improve

If you strive to be an excellent communicator, you will become a better, more effective leader. This is why all the leaders I spoke with focused on continuous improvement, fuelled by full and frank feedback on each and every performance. Brilliant leadership can be the difference between outstanding performance and disappointing failure. Great leaders steer organizations to success, inspire and motivate followers, and provide a moral compass for employees to set direction. They spearhead change, drive innovation and communicate a compelling vision for the future. The ability to motivate and inspire others is the characteristic most commonly cited as important when recruiting senior leaders. Communication is the tool that enables inspiring leadership. The simple truth is that you have to get better at it.

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Paragon Strategies will be having a Champion Leadership workshop on Friday, May 31st. Check out http://www.paragonstrategies.com

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