The Transformative Power of Inspirational Leadership

April 18, 2019

Inspirational Sales Leadership

Editor's Note: This guest post was contributed by Hayden E. Stafford, Corporate Vice President-Global Microsoft Business Applications, and a version of it originally appeared on LinkedIn.

What does “great leadership” mean? I believe it’s about generating energy, creating clarity, and delivering results. A great leader can do all three, a good leader might do two, a bad leader might be able to pull off one. When you create clarity, your teams know exactly what to do. If you energize people, they want to do more. And if you do both of those well, I’m certain you will deliver the results.

Leaders are often described as being inspiring or intimidating — leadership through inspiration or intimidation. While an intimidating leader is not necessarily a bad leader, I strongly believe that an inspirational leader is far more successful and leaves a legacy. No one builds a legacy alone, and that’s why inspirational leaders have an advantage in the energy they generate. People want to grow with them, want to follow them, and want to share their success.

Lead by inspiration

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is one of the most inspirational leaders I’ve worked for, and look what’s happened. I don’t measure his leadership only in terms of stock price and valuation of the company, but also by our rapid movement as a company forging into new areas, collaborating more, and living a growth mindset. The speed of change, speed of innovation, and speed of results are all increased when you have an inspirational leader.

Resilience is another outcome. Why does inspirational leadership foster both innovation and resilience? When people believe in you and your organization, they’ll go the extra mile. They’ll put in longer hours, and they’ll back you through tough times and change. In contrast, intimidating leaders tend to lead by using authority and control, which can instill the fear of getting punished or fired. People do what they’re told, but not much else. Creativity gets stifled.

My hypothesis is that inspirational leaders don’t just attract and retain talent, they grow fans and advocates of the business. And when you create fans and advocates, word gets out quickly especially in this world of social media. That makes recruiting easier, it makes revenue attainment easier, and it makes building a partner ecosystem easier. That’s the ripple-effect and legacy of inspirational leadership.

Lead from the front

I’ve talked a bit about energy and innovation, but what about creating clarity? People who lead from the front, or by example, demonstrate what they want done, and in so doing, inspire confidence. There’s more unity and less confusion—people don’t have to guess your intentions or where you want the business to go.

But that’s only one benefit. Leading from the front also enables better agility. Consider the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated, and world history changed. The Duke of Wellington, who led the British army to victory, put his officers on the front line to achieve this result. Not only could officers get their soldiers to follow them better, but they were also able to rapidly feed information back to Wellington. As a result, he and his allies could react and change tactics quickly. Of course, every great triumph has consequences—Wellington’s officers had an especially high mortality rate, and he risked his own life as well. But as he said, “By God! I don’t think it would have been done if I had not been there.”

Of course, we don’t want our business leaders to risk their lives! But I want to make the point that while leading from the front can be hard and even risky, the end often justifies the means. Lead from the front, by example, and you’ll make fast, effective decisions that drive success… and perhaps leave a legacy too!

Create transparency

Note that people aren’t likely to be transparent and share pivotal information with you if they feel intimidated. If people are afraid to tell you what they’re really seeing, you’ll only have access to knowledge that gets entered into reports and databases. To achieve transparency, people need to trust in your empathy and willingness to listen, without expecting negative consequences. Otherwise, they might hold back and you’ll miss out on the tacit information that only they may know. As I always say, “bad news is best delivered fresh,” enabling you to pivot and shift the business as needed.

If you lead by intimidation, people are less forthcoming and you inevitably create silos. But when you open communication channels and empower your team, barriers become bridges, those walls start to come down, and you achieve more transparency and collaboration.

Build a legacy

Great leaders have a vision for the culture they want to create as well as how to be successful in their business, and they need their people to buy into both. My last blog, Why Culture is the Cornerstone of a Sales Organization, talks about this more. When people act in alignment with their organization’s culture and they feel empowered, they don’t need to defer to a leader to make the right decision. If you lower the center of gravity as far as you can, to the least common denominator—the customer and your account representative—you’re going to get faster, better decisions. You’ll have a flatter organization with less management and likely higher profitability. That’s a great outcome, and it’s sustainable because decisions can be made faster by the people who are closest to the customer and these decisions can be made with the most insight.

Inspirational leaders transform; intimidating leaders enforce. When intimidating leaders exit an organization their business processes immediately start changing and no legacy remains. Inspirational leadership leaves a legacy because it’s organic and empowering—it lives on in the culture and business processes of an organization even when the leader is gone.

Inspirational leadership isn’t a novelty or a trend—it’s a necessity on today’s world stage. The marketplace changes quickly, and thanks to social media, there’s no curtain to hide behind. If you lead by example, with energy, clarity and transparency, people will see it—and your business will flourish as a result.

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