Knowledge Center: Article
The hard business benefits of inspiring leaders11/4/2020 Karen Rosa West, PhD and Megan Herbst
Inspiring leaders can sometimes be seen only as charismatic front men for their organizations. But inspiration, and the related ability to influence colleagues, has many forms, and when done well contributes far more to lasting business success than initial engagement alone. For example, as many companies have had to lay off staff in recent months, CHROs and their teams have been struggling with the considerable emotional burden of having to have so many difficult conversations. One CHRO of an oil and gas company found the wherewithal in herself to inspire and was able to unite her team around a common purpose: treating their colleagues with the dignity and respect that they deserved through the layoff process. This leader used that purpose to encourage her team to set aside their negative emotions and do what they had to do with grace. By inspiring and influencing, this leader not only created meaning and purpose but also encouraged her team to look to the future. The CHRO wanted people to be able to look back and say, “It was a difficult time and we had to make difficult decisions, but we did it right and with the respect and care that our employees deserved.”
More broadly, we know that purpose and meaning play key roles in organizations’ and leaders’ success at all times. At the organizational level, Heidrick & Struggles research has shown that people in organizations with a strong and clear purpose assess their organizations’ performance as more than twice as strong as do people at organizations without a strong purpose. (For more, see “Bringing your organization up to speed.”) At the leader level, the data shows that people who are engaged in work that has meaning and purpose report greater work satisfaction, stronger intrinsic motivation to work, and greater meaning and well-being in general.1
To understand how that works, we looked deeper into our data on leaders’ ability to inspire and influence others, drawing on assessments of more than 3,000 leaders from a variety of industries and functions worldwide. “Inspire and influence” is one element of our META framework, which identifies behaviors that differentiate high-performing organizations, teams, and leaders as they mobilize, execute, and transform with agility.
Leaders seen as better at inspiring and influencing co-create meaning and purpose with colleagues, engage and energize their organizations, and lead through influence, not just through authority. And leaders’ ability to co-create meaning and purpose is particularly strongly related to their overall leadership impact, potential to succeed in future roles, and ability to create inclusive environments for others.
Furthermore, leaders’ ability to inspire meaning and purpose in others not only affects their own effectiveness and the effectiveness of the organization but also has a notable positive effect on their team members’ effectiveness and ability to think about the future, which also builds organizational capacity.
We found that leaders whose managers scored highly on “inspire and influence” tended to be rated higher on their ability to value diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. This suggests that when team members are inspired by their leader, they are more likely to be open to and see the value in diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.
We also discovered relationships between a manager’s score on “inspire and influence” and their team members’ scores on other leadership capabilities: “shape strategy,” “lead innovation,” “put customers first,” and “adaptability.” Though these four leadership capabilities may at first seem random, upon closer inspection, the combination of these capabilities paints the picture of an inspiring manager engaging and encouraging his or her team to look to the future. In shaping strategies, leaders anticipate strategic trends and develop plans for the long and short term. In leading innovation, leaders scale and invest in new ideas and drive change to move their organizations forward. In putting the customer first, leaders anticipate customer needs and use that insight to create value for the customer. In being adaptable, leaders flex and transform their approaches to meet the needs of their situation and best prepare themselves for the future. (For more, see “Putting the customer first—for real” and “Shaping strategy: Which leadership traits help most?”)
What does this mean for leaders, then? When leaders inspire and influence, they are creating meaning and purpose, engaging and energizing their organizations, and leading through their influence. But they are also indirectly encouraging their team members to develop future-focused thinking that will help them to anticipate what is coming next and thrive in the future—and that will help the whole organization.
About the authors
Karen Rosa West (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office and the head of psychology, product research, and design for HLabs, the research arm of Heidrick & Struggles.
Megan Herbst (email@example.com) is a psychological analytics coordinator for HLabs; she is based in the Chicago office.
You can reach them at HLabs@heidrick.com.
1 Michael F. Steger and Bryan J. Dik, “Work as meaning: Individual and organizational benefits of engaging in meaningful work,” in Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.