The most important task for a leader to inspire others to excel at their jobs is to help them identify and then leverage their strengths.
Employees who are making the most of their gifts in doing their jobs are inspired employees, and inspired people will do the best work of which they are capable.
To make this critical link between strengths and inspiration we have found it most useful to focus on the “Signature Strengths” developed by Martin Seligman in his book “Authentic Happiness” (2002).
These strengths are organized according to character traits and reflect a person’s deepest held values (e.g. wisdom and knowledge; a strong sense of justice).
Seligman, in fact, based his list of Signature Strengths on the universal values expressed across the many cultures and religious systems he studied. Because these strengths are all value-driven as opposed to behaviorally driven they can be viewed as sources of inspiration. In fact, in describing the impact that engaging these strengths has on us as individuals, Seligman (2002) captures the essential experience of inspiration:
• A feeling of excitement when displaying it.
• Each strength feels like the ‘real you’, aspects of yourself that you can own.
• A sense of yearning to find ways to use it.
• Invigoration rather than exhaustion while using the strength.
• Joy, zest, enthusiasm, even ecstasy while using it.
The profound impact of playing to one’s strengths is illustrated by a story a colleague told us about an IT Director in a large medical technology company.
Warren was a star performer in IT: he was a most highly valued leader and had made a huge contribution to the success of his company by providing IT solutions to scientists that made it possible for them to make scientific breakthroughs.
Warren was also a bit of an anomaly; unlike his boss and many of his peers, his focus was not on his next promotion or climbing the corporate ladder. One day Warren invited his coach to tour the heart of his IT operation — a massive building that housed all of the company’s servers. Warren explained that the servers contained and processed scientific data from around the world and that the data were being used by researchers in his company to find the cure for many forms of cancer. In effect, Warren’s IT operation was a tool responsible for saving millions of lives. As Warren talked, his coach observed a shift in his demeanor from his naturally energetic and exuberant self to a state approaching euphoria.
Later, the coach, remarking on this transformation, said, “You were so passionate as you talked about your operation that it felt as though you were a guy in love, talking about his girlfriend.”
Warren laughed, revealing that maybe it was because, in using his intellectual gifts to alleviate human suffering and give cancer patients hope, he felt truly inspired. For this director, leveraging his prodigious strengths in IT to make a significant personal contribution to the greater good was one of the most significant aspects of his life’s journey.
This experience eclipsed his desire to pursue corporate promotions in the traditional sense, making promotions seem beside the point.
As a leader who inspires others by expecting the best from them, you will:
Meet with each employee to identify his/her talents, passions, and strengths.
Assign individuals to positions they are passionate about or show how their role in that position will eventually connect to what is important to them.
Let people know the vision for success by showing individuals how their work and unique talents/abilities align with the corporate mission.
Collaborate in setting stretch goals as a tangible way of expecting the best performance for each individual.
Define the best in measurable terms. How will you know you have reached your goal?
Create an environment where individuals can do their best; as a leader, remove as many barriers as possible to optimize reaching corporate goals.
Celebrate short-term wins in ways that are meaningful to a particular team.
Provide the resources for teams to do their jobs optimally.
This posting is taken from the book “What Inspirational Leaders Do” (Kindle 2008). It was written with Kris MacKain, Ph.D.