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What Happens When You Try To Be An Inspiring Leader — And Fail

by Srikumar Rao March 16, 2020

The deadline is approaching for one of your most critical projects of the year. You’re standing before your team, all of whom have been working day in and day out to get it done for the past three weeks. They know that this project is important for the company — that executives, clients, and the media are watching.

But this last week, you’ve noticed a stall. Certain people on your team are coming in later, clocking out sooner, and missing their targets.

You don’t address them personally because you think it might de-motivate them. Instead, you’ve gathered all of your team members together so that you can boost their morale and re-galvanize them.

You give a short speech to inspire them and remind them of how important this project is, hoping to motivate them to double down on their efforts so you can roll out the project in time.

It doesn’t work.

You can tell, even as you speak, that they’re not feeling what you’re saying. By the end, even more eyes seem glazed over and more bodies disengaged than before you started.

What happened?

You wanted to inject more life into your team, not suck it out.

Where did you go wrong?

The answer is simple:

You tried to be an inspiring leader.

Become An Inspiring Leader By Default


Being an inspiring leader is not something you set out to do. The best kinds of inspiring leaders don’t try to become an inspiring leader. They become an inspiring leader by default because they have a grand vision they are anchored in that brings a greater good to a greater community.

Becoming an inspiring leader is something that happens as a byproduct because you are personally inspired and then you learn to communicate that vision.

Let’s look at Gandhi.

Gandhi didn’t set out to be an inspiring leader, an influencer, or a leader. He did not set out to have millions of people follow him.

So how did he become one?

After growing up in India and completing his education in England, Gandhi traveled to South Africa to practice law. During his time there, he encountered racism, segregation, and South African laws restricting the rights of Indian laborers. Later, he recalled one momentous incident, where he was removed from a first-class railway compartment and thrown off the train.

From that day on, he had a powerful vision and a desire to fight for the rights of Indians through non-violent practices.

Gandhi inspiring leader
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When a new law in South Africa tried to control and restrict the entry of Indian and Chinese people into Transvaal, Gandhi moved to Transvaal to protest. He believed that these laws were unjust and would not let them stand. He used his oratory skills as a British-trained attorney and whatever talents he had to organize support for his vision of the removal of such unjust laws.

Later, he went to India and eventually led the fight against the colonial British. He believed that the British should leave and that they must leave as friends. His visions were born of deep conviction and he was rooted in them. And he communicated them simply and constantly.

In the process of doing that he did, in fact, become an inspiring leader.

He inspired tens of millions of people all over the world. And even now, 70 years after his assassination, he’s still a source of inspiration to many.

Why Most Motivation Is Mere Manipulation


Despite what many think, it is not the function of a leader to motivate followers. It is the function of a leader to find out what is demotivating followers and systematically get rid of it.

This is not semantic hair-splitting. These are two profoundly different intentions that birth two profoundly different results.

Many times when people consider themselves coaches, leaders, or mentors in corporations, they’re teaching people to do what they would like them to do. Because if their teams do what they want them to do, they meet their numbers and are able to shine.

inspiring leaders women

Therefore, much “motivation” is actually sophisticated manipulation designed to help the manager, leader, or coach “succeed” and appear better in some manner.

But such manipulation is unnecessary. Human beings are inherently motivated. No one ever starts a new job intending to be a disgruntled, disengaged employee.

That is something that happens to him or her over time. It is a sign of systemic failure. This failure could be in selection, training, supervision, company culture or a host of other factors in combination.

I’m not saying that meeting your numbers is unimportant. But I am saying that a genuine leader looks at the persons who follow him or her and asks, “Is the person reporting to me flourishing? Are they developing as a human being?”

That is what a leader looks like.

So when a true inspiring leader is talking to their subordinate, they are not doing so from the perspective of, “Well, I’ve got to get the subordinate to do what I want him to do.”

They’re coming to it with the perspective of, “I want my team members to have the same vision that I have. Because when they have the same vision that I have, their lives will greatly improve. And I want their lives to improve. I want them to feel inspired. I want them to feel drawn to their work and excited about their projects.”

And in order to accomplish that, it is your job as a leader to communicate that intention.

Communicating the vision and your intentions

You can communicate this by conveying to your team members that they not really doing this for you or for the company. They are doing this for themselves. When they do the best possible job they can, they feel good and fulfilled. And it is their life that improves.

Care about those who report to you and let them know that you do. Ask each member of your team, “What is one thing I can do to make your life better?” Promise them that you will consider each request carefully and implement it if you can. If you cannot, you will explain why and ask them to pick another thing they would like you to do.

Such questions promote trust, develop relationships, and encourage your team members to care about the work and your vision.

inspiring leader

The Function Of The Leader


In an age where a lot of people who want to be leaders are chasing shiny objects — that title, that following, that corner office — they’ve forgotten what it means to be a leader. Being a leader means holding onto the principles, the values that help you serve your community.

They’ve forgotten that the function of the leader is to serve.

Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase servant leader in an essay titled, “The Servant as a Leader.” In it, he postulated that the leader is not there for personal aggrandizement.

The leader is not there to get a bigger paycheck, a corner office with more windows, or their name splashed across all of the papers.

The leader is there to be of service to the people. These people then become followers.

That is crucial.

You can see this principle embodied in a military policy: the officers eat last, after all of the enlisted men have eaten.

Yes, this ideal is not always matched in organizations across the world.

Yes, you might have seen your own leaders fall short.

But to any person reading this article: You should aim to be of service to the people who are following you.

Your job is to align the structures, the processes, and the procedures to enable your team members or followers to serve the grand vision that you have come up with and that you, yourself, are anchored in.

When you do that, the people who report to you do that, and the people who report to them do that, you end up creating a cascading chain of leadership to accomplish your vision.

That is a sign of inspiring leadership.


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