Inspirational leadership is not just one key among many; it is the key that turns the other keys.
Road to Flourishing
By Al Lopus
The Power of Inspirational Leadership
Inspirational leadership is one of the most critical keys to flourishing workplace culture. By calling this kind of leadership “inspirational,” I certainly mean that the leaders inspire those they lead to greater, more creative performance. But I also recall the ancient Latin roots of the word inspire, which means “breathe in.” Inspirational leaders breathe in divine power and wisdom and breathe out transformative influence on their organization and its people.
After analyzing thousands of workplace surveys, the Best Christian Workplaces Institute has found inspirational leadership to be more closely associated with employee engagement than almost any other trait. A workplace culture simply does not thrive without it. Yet we have learned that inspirational leadership is not valuable so much as a standalone quality but rather because of its powerful relationship to everything else.
Inspirational leadership is not just one key among many; it is the key that turns the other keys. When the other keys are missing, it is certain that inspirational leadership is missing too. Conversely, where inspirational leadership is present, the other keys to flourishing will always appear in time. For instance, inspirational leaders practice the key of healthy communication and make it an organizational norm. They also attract outstanding talent (another key) because the best people want to work for the best leaders.
This is what makes leaders so highly sought after—they draw together people with different gifts to produce a greater outcome than they would ever make individually. The Bible teaches that God has bestowed a beautiful diversity of gifts in the body of Christ as the Holy Spirit operates through each person. Therefore, the gift of leadership (Romans 12:8) is no more worthy of honor than any other gift (1 Corinthians 12:22-25). What makes the gift of leadership unique, however, is that it makes all the other gifts operate far more effectively than they would without it.
Inspirational leadership stimulates great effectiveness because it establishes great trust, first between the leader and those led and then among all people in the organization. Roland Warren, the president and CEO of Care Net, a ministry to women with unplanned pregnancies, describes it as becoming a “no-look pass organization.” In basketball, a no-look pass (where the passer throws the ball to a teammate without looking at them) requires trust in both directions: the passer trusts that the other player is looking for the ball, and that player trusts that the passer will throw it to the right place at the right time to set up a score.
Warren wondered whether departments in his organization passed work among one another with as much trust as throwing a no-look pass. He took a simple survey of his organization, asking questions like “Do you trust that when you hand work to someone else that they’ll do it in a high-quality way?” and “Do you trust that someone is not going to try to give you work that they should be doing?” Warren’s investigation uncovered trust gaps at Care Net, so he facilitated cross-departmental conversations to develop the mutual understanding that makes trust possible.
Warren’s inspirational leadership is echoed by an observation made by Craig Springer, executive director of Alpha USA, about “the speed of trust.” “It’s the quickest way to get stuff done and share openly,” Springer says. “Conflicts can be resolved with very easy, open dialogue. There’s a kind of seamlessness across departments working together, and you just hear it in the language. There’s almost no talking behind one another’s backs, ever. And part of it is because we’ve declared that’s not who we are.”
When an organization has inspirational leadership, it moves from being a collection of players to being a team, from being a group of musicians to being a band. Inspirational leadership brings everyone’s contribution to the table to make one grand meal. It makes everything work better and makes everyone grateful to be part of it.
Character and Confidence
My favorite Scripture verse about leadership is not one you’re likely to find on a plaque on the wall or a bookmark for your Bible, but it speaks volumes about inspirational leadership. I am referring to Psalm 78:72: “David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”
This verse indicates that David “shepherded” (or led) Israel by relying on two crucial attributes. His “integrity of heart” was his character and his “skillful hands” were his competence. Every truly inspirational leader has both character and competence, both integrity of heart and skillful hands.
Our research has found over and over again that character is key for building a flourishing culture, especially in Christian organizations. If a leader does not have integrity, it does not matter how competent or even excellent the person is at designing strategy or raising money or communicating from the platform; that leader will fail.
For instance, I recently saw a brilliant parachurch executive get fired by his board. He was incredibly smart, but his distortions of the truth, his failure to listen, and his selfishness continually got in his way. Yet I also know a pastor who retired after a highly successful tenure without having a reputation as being an exceptional leader. His integrity, however, was rock solid, and he was humble enough to surround himself with excellent leaders and entrust them with significant responsibility. His strong character enabled his church to become outstandingly effective beyond his moderate leadership ability.
Although character is so critical, competence is truly important for inspirational leadership too. It is best to think of character as the foundation that leaders’ competence is built on. Leaders of great organizations have both.