These days it’s widely recognised that many of the enabling tools and techniques of Human Resources need to be two-way to have any chance of being effective. A top-down, dictatorial style is no longer working (if it ever did in the first place). Communication and engagement are things we do together with our people, not to them or at them. In an ideal world anyway. Yet one of the key concepts of the latest management theories, inspiration, works very differently.
The Internet appears to have imbued inspiration with something akin to magical powers. Mere mortals are reduced to waiting, like the residents of Hamelin, to be herded by some inspirational pied piper. It’s certainly a rare quality, otherwise leaders and managers wouldn’t be constantly bombarded with lessons on how it’s done. But we’re certain it exists. I’ve read articles by inspirational people. I’ve seen inspirational people speak at conferences. I’ve probably even met a couple of inspirational people in my time. But I’ve never known anyone call their boss “inspirational”.
The ability to inspire isn’t a skill per se. It’s not something someone can boast about on their CV. It’s more like a complicated combination of skills, abilities, traits…a unique mix that takes practice before it comes naturally. A lot of practice. And which leader without some kind of natural ability in this field has time to learn their individual staff members’ motivation preferences and craft a message that presses all those buttons whilst gauging and adjusting in accordance with non-verbal cues received during delivery? That’s a lot of pressure, to constantly act as an inspirational example.
And that’s the thing about the inspirational leadership concept. It is focussed solely on the magnetic abilities of one individual. Problem is, they’re not the only variable. Fair enough if you’re talking about a new business, or an existing one, with a strong culture that all new hires are assessed against for fit. It must be much easier in those types of environments, where everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, to inspire. The task becomes much more difficult in a long standing organisation with a more disparate culture. That’s where you’re more likely to find the employee who’s never feeling inspired. Not by work anyway. Parachuting in Richard Branson himself (or similar “inspirational” leader) couldn’t move that type of worker.
And that is my point. Inspiration isn’t just about an individual, or even a few individuals, it’s about everyone. It’s the culture and vision of the organistion. It can’t be the vision of one, it needs to be the vision of all. Only once these building blocks are in place can inspiration begin to happen. When everyone believes in a common purpose they can feel inspired on the journey to reach that purpose – but only if they know their part in that. We’ve over simplified inspiration and that has blinded us to creating the opportunity for it to take place.
In solving this dilemma we need to dispel the myth of inspiration as a sickly sweet office wall poster. We need to stop treating inspiration like a management privilege that other staff are expected to follow but not understand. It can come from any number of different sources, both negative and positive. Inspiration might not be about an individual, but being inspired is a very individual thing.