How to inspire people—Part 1

Posted on under Articles

Inspire: From Latin inspirare—to breathe

Let me begin with a statement of the obvious, for which I profusely apologize in advance. However this obvious statement is often forgotten by corporate leaders, firm partners and even politicians. Leaders engage and inspire others—that is how their work gets done.

Leaders have been seduced over the last few decades by a host of my fellow MBAs touting the oft-proselytized “results-orientation.” They wonder, then, why their people are not “inspired.” Modern management research and neuroscience has the answer.

So many organizations have asked Fortinberry Murray to teach their people to be “inspirational” and to be able to “inspire” those that report to them. Usually they mean either “make them committed to the firm/corporation/organization” or “get them to work harder” and often the first is code for the second. Quite often the problem is that those that they want to be inspired—gen Y, and perhaps gen M—don’t much like what they see of the lives of their elders in the company and so are disengaged, flight risks, poorly used or all three. The Gen Xers feel that the Ys should aspire to be like them—work hard and diligently and follow the standard career path.

In truth it’s not what they—the Ys—want and the Xs don’t understand that. What I have found is that many of the Xs (and the Boomers) who have followed the path laid down feel cheated out of something which I would call a “greater meaning to their lives” or a “purpose.” I have often asked executive coachees of mine or members of audiences to whom I speak what is their life purpose—essentially why are they here, what makes their being alive worthwhile—very few have a cogent answer.

Both  the Xs and the Ys are waiting for something to give their lives a meaning—to be inspired.

What is “to inspire?”

The word inspire comes from the Latin word inspirare which means to breathe in. To be inspired by someone is to take them in, to want to be like them in some way.

There are three kinds of ways that a person can be “inspired” and they relate to three different parts of the brain. A truly inspirational leader purposefully or instinctively can make use of all three.

  1. You can inspire through ideas. To do this you have to come up with really novel and interesting concepts which are relevant to the person you want to inspire. This is one of the ways Christ or Moses or Karl Marx inspired their followers. You are appealing essentially to the pre-frontal cortex—the thinking part of the brain—and the anterior cingulate cortex which is involved in arousing attention . You are, in effect, giving the person you want to inspire purpose and meaning.
  2. You can inspire through actions or achievements. Essentially this is what a good role model does. Again the action or the modelling must be relevant to the person to be inspired. Just role modelling hard dedicated work will not inspire someone who doesn’t feel that is the way for them. Kicking a thousand goals will not inspire somebody who hates sport. This is essentially a visual thing—something that you witness. You are appealing directly to one of the most important social parts of the brain, where empathy lies, the mirror system located in the left inferior frontal gyrus.
  3. Finally you can inspire through establishing a commitment to the relationship with you. In this sense you make people feel that they have a real, or potential, relationship with you and that that relationship is important to you. This appeals very much to the limbic system of the brain where those areas associated with trust, safety, decision-making and relationship are located. Research has shown that if you try to inspire by telling a person what you think they ought to do, feel or think or try to inspire by giving them information or facts—which is what many leaders do—you actually do the opposite.

As you can see the three are not mutually exclusive, anymore than the parts of the brain that they appeal to operate in isolation. Two and three are very closely tied together because the way role modelling essentially works is that a person observing the behavior seeks to form a relationship with the person they admire through imitation—just as a child does with his or her parent.

Go to Part 2 of this series on how to inspire people.