I had a client recently share with me her desire to be a more inspirational leader in her organization. I asked her why this was important to her.  She said she wanted to have deeper impact in her organization and greater engagement within her teams.  Shoulders slumped, she quickly confessed she was not really sure how to do that.  Most leaders I know have a strong desire to have impact. How do you do that? 

Most people believe they can be more inspirational by watching others who are inspirational and then doing what they do. There are certainly lots of books and tapes we can buy to read about how we can be inspirational leaders. Earlier in my career, I enviously observed my boss’s boss. He was a large man with a commanding presence – at least 6ft 2 inches, 230+ pounds .  One time I saw him palpably excite a roomful of 400+ people with his booming voice and speech, ending in a standing ovation.  But here’s the problem. I am 5ft 2 on a good day and hard as I try, the booming voice is hard to emulate.  So here’s what I have learned.The most important first step in being an inspirational leader is being INSPIRED ourselves. So the right question to ask is not who we need to emulate. The right question to ask ourselves is WHAT INSPIRES US?

Neuroscience Research

The research on neuroscience is proving why being inspired is critical to being inspirational. Our human brains have evolved over millions of years.  According to research quoted in a book “The General Theory of Love”, simply stated, our brain consists of three different evolutions. The original reptilian brain has a critical function. It keeps us alive. It keeps our heart beating and organs functioning. The second evolution of our brain is our mammalian brain called the limbic brain. It’s the seat of our way of relating to each other, of reading each other, and our emotional center. It is what allows us to nurture each other, to communicate, to love, to crave friendships. The third part of our brain is our neocortex.  It is what allows for reasoning, for playing “what if”, for planning.

Recent research into our brains shows that our limbic brain is where we make many of our decisions (unlike what we tend to think, i.e. decisions are made in our “rational” neocortex brain).  Our limbic brain is also the place where we communicate with each other at a very subconscious level.  In fact 93% of our communication is derived from signals other than words we speak. There is a process called “limbic resonance” that happens, where human beings read each other, the others’ motivations and feelings, and then adjust their own to match the person they are relating with. So if I am walking in with a friendly attitude toward a colleague, the chances are they will match their attitude to mine. On the negative side limbic resonance is what leads otherwise rational human beings to develop mob mentality.

What does all this have to do with being an inspiring leader? The more inspired we are, the more our limbic brains will communicate that inspiration to others at a very deep and subconscious level.  Here’s a quick exercise to prove this point. Pick your favorite inspirational leader. Now ask yourself, were they inspired themselves? Did they have a message that they were so convinced of, they could not help but convince you about it? Some of my favorite inspirational leaders are Jimmy Carter who inspires by his message of peace. Or Martin Luther King who had a dream he was inspired by. Or Mother Theresa who was inspired by what she saw as her clear mission in life.

So we come back to the questions about how we can be more inspirational. Here are 3 questions to ask ourselves and how they can be important in us being more inspired and inspirational leaders.

The Three Questions

1)      What inspires me? The answer to this may not be easy. It requires some space from our daily frenzied lifestyles to consider and to listen to our inner voices.  The voice is there, trust me, it just requires some quiet time. The paradox is that sometimes the answers come when we are least focused on the question.

 The answers may not be earth shattering, like world peace or ending world hunger. They may be small. The important thing is that they must inspire us. For instance, one of the many things I am inspired by is my Zumba classes. Now you’re probably lifting one eyebrow and asking yourself, “And how does that make you a more inspirational leader”? My Zumba classes give me vast reserves of happy, fun, self-confident energy and that energy makes me more creative, more joyful and more connected to others…and of course it helps me be more inspired . For some of my friends, their inspiration is their garden or cooking gourmet meals. The key is to tune into what energizes us because that energy has the power to be infectious.

Once we have our creative juices flowing it is easier to tune into what is important to us. For Steve Jobs it was a desire for excellence in design and he brought this passion to his work. For me it is my love of seeing growth in myself and others. Think back to your peak experiences in work and life, times when you were really inspired. What were the common themes? What inspired you?

 2)      How can I integrate more of what inspires me into my life? Once we have discovered what moves our energy and what is important to us, it’s time to integrate more of that into our lives. This includes our work lives and our personal lives. I have a client who is Chinese American and is deeply inspired by helping others. In particular, she chooses to get involved in a lot of Chinese American community and business activities. It gives her energy, and she is also able to develop her law practice in this area where she is not only an expert but also deeply inspired.

 3)      How can I discover what others around me are truly inspired by? Connecting with others and truly and deeply listening to them allows us to be more inspired and inspirational. At our deepest level, human beings have a need to connect. If you have a limbic brain (and I am taking a pretty good guess that you do), you have a desire to connect with others. You may not have actively nurtured this but it exists. Actively nurture the part of yourself that relates and connects with others. It is like opening up a 4G telecom network where lots of communication can go back and forth because truly understanding and relating to others is our best vehicle for inspiring them.

I would love to hear your comments about what inspires you and how you plan to integrate more of this into your work and personal lives. I wish you good luck and great inspiration in your journey.

This article was written by Henna Inam, CEO Coach. She works with women leaders to help them be successful, deeply engaged, fulfilled, and out of that create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, engagement, growth and meaning in the world. Her corporate clients include Nestle, J&J, Home Depot and others who deeply care about growing their female leadership talent. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Sign up for her blog here