How the Best Leaders Energize People
If you want to be a great leader, you must be a great communicator. The Inspiration Code: How the Best Leaders Energize People Every Day explores the link between leadership and communication.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach specializing in executive communication. You may have read one of her articles in “Forbes” or encountered her other book, The Power of Presence . Her extensive research and survey into what inspires people was fascinating. I recently asked Kristi about her latest work on inspiration in the workplace.
4 Factors to Enhance Your Inspirational Effect
Tell me more about the four factors that enhance our inspirational effect, what you call the Inspire Path.
The Inspire Path puts a structure to the research I found that uncovers what communication behaviors inspire others. It’s a guide to increase inspirational impact. While we can’t force someone to be inspired—and if we try to push, it backfires—we can create the conditions that foster inspiration. People are most often inspired through certain types of conversation with others. If we want be more inspiring, we should focus on being:
PRESENT: investing our full attention and letting conversations flow
PERSONAL: speaking genuinely, listening generously, and acknowledging the potential of those around us
PASSIONATE: exhibiting sincere emotion and exuding energy attuned to the situation
PURPOSEFUL: helping others find meaning and see their place in the bigger picture
How do you train Type-A, driven, device-obsessed executives to be more present?
This isn’t easy for anyone today, even Type-Bs! We’re so used to checking multiple devices and platforms that the days of feeling overwhelmed with just email seem quaint. All of this distraction kills inspiration. Attention feels like respect. When someone speaks to us without giving their full attention, it lessens us—and the conversation. Research out of Virginia Tech shows that even a silent phone on the table reduces empathy in the conversation.
When I work with executives, I first help them to understand how distracted conversations are undermining their impact. (This isn’t all that hard because we know what it feels like on the receiving end.) Then I offer a simple tool: before a key conversation, tell the other party that you are going to focus your attention on them because the meeting is important to you. When you make that commitment, it changes the dynamic and helps you hold yourself accountable.
One of your exercises is the pre-mortem. What is it and how it is used?
We’re all familiar with the post-mortem; we’re very good at figuring out what went wrong. Pre-mortem, a term coined by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, is a tool to help yourself to behave a certain way in advance. I write about how to consider what biases or judgements you have before you go into a conversation, so you can prepare a plan to check them.
For example, if you’re about to have a tough conversation with a colleague who you know spins you up, then you’d prepare to take a few deep breaths when they say something that makes you tense. You could decide ahead of time that if they raise their voice, that you will calmly let them know it bothers you. Everything you prepare is done beforehand with a cool head, rather than it being an emotional reaction in the moment.
Leadership Tip: inspiring people starts with giving them full focus and attention.
Recognize and Tap Hidden Potential
Recognizing someone’s potential is one of your focus areas. Tell us more about the power of it and how it should be used by leaders.
Sincerely and specifically highlighting someone’s potential is one of the most inspirational moves we can make. When it comes from someone we respect, it’s hard to overstate how much of an impact it has.
The funny thing about potential is that we all notice it in others. Leaders are keenly aware of their team members’ strengths. Yet, too often those thoughts stay in the leader’s head.
On a regular basis, leaders should be calling out the potential they see. It doesn’t have to be an eloquently worded statement. A simple “I see this in you,” or “You have a real talent in X,” is all that needs to be said.
Inspirational leaders grow talent. They help people achieve more than anyone thought possible. Highlighting potential helps people see something larger in themselves reflected back by someone else.
“Even when a phone is in sight, sitting silently, our conversation is diminished.” -Kristi Hedges
Energy is contagious. Tell us more about the power of energy and what the research is saying.
There’s a body of research around emotional contagion, which means that we catch the emotions of others. Groups even tend to gravitate toward each other emotionally. This is why a few negative people can bring down an entire team.
People pay most attention to the leader of a group, so the leader’s emotion can be caught faster and more deeply than anyone else’s. Leaders should be very intentional about bringing the emotion they want to see from others. If you want excitement, you need to show up excited. Want a positive crew? Bring optimism.
Learning to calibrate your emotion and energy to the situation is a powerful and important facet of leadership. Too often this is overlooked. Leaders focus on saying the right thing, but not supporting that message through their presence.
“When you’re a leader, people are watching you more closely and you’re more prone to overlook them.” -Kristi Hedges
Conviction is tricky because we have to see it to believe it. A leader can have the most carefully crafted message, but it’s the delivery of that message that tells us how much that leader cares, and thus, how much we should care.
To show conviction, first you need to spend some time with a message and determine what you truly care about and want to convey. Most people skip this step at their peril. It’s this emotional connection that makes the message resonate.
Then the leader should align their physical delivery to that emotion. If you’re delivering a message to get people to work hard and commit to a deadline, then you can’t deliver it closed off and appearing detached. Part of this work is around alignment – making sure the how you deliver matches with the why.
Finally, remember, in-person is always best. If you can’t do that, use video. The more we can see a leader, the clearer the message will be.
Make Your Conversations Purposeful
What’s a purposeful conversation?
These are conversations that help us to understand our purpose. They’re very inspiring by their very nature. We all want more purpose! No matter your level, from nonprofits to Wall Street, everyone craves meaning.
Leaders can be tremendous guides in these conversations by helping us to see our contextualized purpose: how what we’re doing today fits with a larger picture we have for ourselves. You don’t have to get into someone’s grand life plan to have an impact. Simply putting some threads together is helpful.
“Many of our best insights happen when another person creates the space for us to truly think.” -Kristi Hedges
Toward the end of your book, you have a section on courage. Tell us more about courage and its interrelationship with all of the other practices.
Managerial courage is a term that gets thrown around in leadership development circles – organizations want to cultivate leaders who can take risks and make the tough calls to do the right things. That same behavior is inspirational to those around us. We are drawn to those who operate from a place of values. We know where they stand, and we know they’ll stand up for what they believe is right.
Being a force for inspiration is in itself a courageous act. The path of least resistance is to simply show up and do our jobs. But deciding to put yourself out there in a way that’s in service to others, while honoring your own core values, opens up so many opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
“Authentic communicators blend a mix of competency with vulnerability.” -Kristi Hedges
What are the most common behaviors you see leaders making that fail to energize and ignite employees?
One is being overwhelmed and distracted. The normal distraction of our day makes inspiration all but impossible. We have to make a decision to show up differently, or we’ll never be inspirational.
The other is focusing too much on what we want to say, rather than creating the space for someone else to have their own insights. I talk a lot about curious listening and powerful questions in the book as those are two key tools to foster inspiration. In your typical workplace meeting, someone comes in with an agenda, tries to influence, and half listens. That’s okay for some meetings. But we should also be making time for open conversations that help to foster thoughts and creative ideas. That’s when inspiration is most likely to happen.
The #1 Inspirational Behavior of Leaders
What are some of the most surprising findings from your leadership research?
There were many! I was inspired constantly while writing the book. I will say that I was very surprised that listening was rated as the #1 most inspirational behavior in my research with The Harris Poll. That was a humbling finding for me, as someone who has focused much time and energy on helping people speak.
The other wasn’t a surprise but a reinforcement. The research really underlined the importance of role models as inspirational figures. They’re important because they’re the trigger that allows us to see something different for ourselves. We see someone do something and think: I can do that too. So we need to focus on getting diversity in leadership—I see that more than ever.
Further, if we’re feeling uninspired ourselves personally, we need to look around. If we’re not inspired by those around us, then we need to find some new people to bring into our orbit. You can’t wait for inspiration to happen; you have to seek it out.
For more information, see The Power of Presence and The Inspiration Code: How the Best Leaders Energize People Every Day .