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The Transformative Power of Inspirational Leadership

The Transformative Power of Inspirational Leadership

Helping teams identify and build their strengths is the role of a great musical conductor, and a great business leader.

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The Transformative Power of Inspirational Leadership

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

In 2008, Benjamin Zander, founder of both the Boston Philharmonic and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, gave a TED talk on the transformative power of classical music. In it, he shared a realization that he says changed his life. Twenty years into his conducting career, he said, he realized that the conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. A conductor “depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful,” he said. “I realized my job was to awaken possibility for other people.”

Since he delivered the talk, 21 million people have watched the video and countless more have had the opportunity to read his book, The Art of Possibility, or listen to Ben live. He offers powerful lessons on the importance of positivity, in his case of believing that the whole world loves classical music—they simply don’t know it yet. The broader implications of his message on leadership are profound.

Inspiration matters, and not just because it’s more fun to work in an inspirational environment. Those environments produce results. In researching their book Time Talent Energy, Bain & Company Partners Michael Mankins and Eric Garton found that inspired workers are more than twice as productive as those that are simply satisfied.

So how does one become the type of leader who inspires, who awakens possibilities for others? Understanding the following three principles can help you on your way.

1. Create your own leadership brand, don’t fit yourself into a box.

Many books have been written on the topic of leadership, offering various recipes for success. In truth, there’s no single formula. When asked who they find inspirational, people typically create a long and diverse list, from famous politicians like Nelson Mandela and John F. Kennedy, to business executives like Steve Jobs and Jack Ma, to activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Greta Thunberg, to sports figures like Mike Krzyzewski and the neighborhood football coach, to family members like Mom and Dad. There are different ways to be inspirational.

Bain & Company research has identified 33 different traits of inspirational leadership. Remarkably, a leader only needs any four of them to be distinguishing in order to be perceived as highly inspirational. That makes for tens of thousands of possible combinations. One doesn’t need to be exactly like Steve Jobs or Nelson Mandela. The human identity is far too wonderfully complex to be put into a simple box. Realizing this can be powerful and liberating. Inspirational leadership is accessible to all. It can be learned, but the result is unique to you.

2. Build on your strengths, don’t obsess over weaknesses.

There’s an old story about a young rabbit who went to finishing school. He got high marks in hopping, but low marks in swimming. Teachers, friends, and especially parents were all concerned. Their universal advice: better focus less on the hopping– you’re good at it anyway—and more on the swimming. Have you ever seen a rabbit swim? The rabbit never became good at swimming, and over time actually forgot to hop.

This story may sound familiar to many who have traveled through personal development plans in the corporate world that spend a lot of time trying to compensate for and fix weaknesses. Good news: It’s your distinguishing strengths and potential distinguishing strengths that others see in you or that you see in yourself that deserve your attention. These reflect your underlying enthusiasms, what you’re excited to be known for, and what you want to spend time developing. These are what set leaders apart.

3. Take your next step, from wherever you are today.

This is easy to say but hard to do. Asking yourself the following questions will help you figure out what small steps you can start to take:

  • What are the distinguishing strengths that define my leadership brand?
  • What actions can I take to build those strengths?
  • What will make that difficult to do?
  • What can I stop or start doing to be more inspiring?
  • How will I hold myself accountable?

It helps to discuss and share with others. Anyone who’s set a New Year’s resolution, a weight-loss goal, or a plan to improve financial fitness can tell you that peer support is a great motivator. It also helps to focus on momentum. Your starting point matters less than your trajectory. In mathematical terms, focus on your slope, not your intercept.

Ben Zander has it right. In business as in life, your ability to inspire others, to awaken their sense of possibility, is the true measure of a leader.


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