To be an inspirational leader, you first need to remove the theoretical framework of what it means to lead or to inspire from your brain. That's the first step. The second step is to start building your own definition.
That's it. Two steps that are recursive and endless. But a lifetime of learning stems from engaging in these steps.
Step 1: Deconstruction
The first step to being an inspirational leader is to give up on the idea of being either inspirational or a leader. While this may sound counterintuitive, I believe the idea of being a "leader" misguides people and takes them in the opposite direction that authentic leadership requires.
Leadership, to me, is about authenticity. Consciously trying to behave in a given socially constructed way creates shallow, inauthentic behavior that is readily perceived by those around us. It may not be at a conscious level, but I believe people do pick up on this.
So there's a socially constructed archetype for an inspirational leader: brave, decisive, tall, relentless, committed to the vision, charismatic, down-to-earth, thoughtful and creative. The list of adjectives could go on and on. The problem is that no one is entirely like that. We may behave ascribing to these adjectives occasionally, but no one is a robot who can fulfill all of those characteristics all of the time. Even if someone does manage to come across like that all the time, I don't think that pretending to be beyond human comes across as inspirational. That's just demanding and taxing of oneself and others. Ultimately, people will feel pressured rather than inspired by such behavior.
So how do you rise above this problem? Deconstruction.
Real people are not at their best 100% of the time. Real people don't feel like working all the time. Real people have flawed and panicky moments, and that does not make them less inspirational. Quite the opposite, actually.
People become inspired by getting rid of the masks and the veils of obligation and stepping into a place of vulnerability. Again, you can't try to be vulnerable, because that would put you back in the same paradoxical state of trying to be inspirational. You have to find a place where you are comfortable with your shortcomings and embrace them – not because you read it in a book or heard it in a seminar, but because you have found out just how liberating it is to be you.
That's the most inspiring thing you can do. You can't demand anything of others, because that's not inspiring – that's pressure. Inspiration is breathing, and breathing is about freedom.
You can't believe that you are going to change people. You can't want that either. You have to see the best in everyone and try to shape and orchestrate the organization in a way that leverages the best that each person brings to the table, while bridging their shortcomings through how you organize the team, rather than through pressure for self-improvement.
As long as you are trying to be inspirational, trying to lead, you will never be either inspirational or a leader. Leadership comes from the way you behave, and the way you behave is a reflection of your habits and values that are carved out like glaciers over long periods of time. Superficially changing these habits or behaviors will only take you so far. If you emulate compassion, thoughtfulness or creativity, that may work at first but will slowly become a cage that engulfs your expected behavior.
Step 2: Rebuilding
If you have successfully given up on the constructs of leadership and inspiration, your glass is now empty, and you may begin to fill it up again with your own self-brewed tea.
Some people can lead by being very vocal, others by being very quiet. Some might lead by being creative and others by being highly methodical. Some might lead by being challenging and inquisitive and others by being acquiescent and thorough. Some might be exceptional at micromanagement and others at empowering and releasing others.
People don't all value the same things. Some may want a partner who is always calling to check up on them. Others may find the same behavior annoying and smothering. Now that you are momentarily released from the conceptual shackles of leadership, you can begin to identify who you are – not who you think you should be based on theory, but who you feel comfortable being.
This may seem trivial, but it's not. Embracing yourself means accepting all of the thousands of things you are not. For every little thing that we are, there are thousands of things that we are not. Take me, for instance. I am great at starting things and changing things. Conversely, I am not great at just keeping things running, not great at incrementally fixing things, not great at promoting stability, not great at producing clarity and not great at introducing predictability in the workplace. I could go on endlessly. The point is that for one thing that I am, there are thousands of other things that I am not. It's not easy being OK with that.
When confronted with the social construct of what it means to be a CEO, for instance, I naturally expect that I should be able to do things that are not natural to my form of being. I expect that I should be more structured in my thought process, better at running long meetings, or at being cold and clearheaded about my decision-making process. But I am not any of those things. I can't bear meetings that last for more than 10 minutes unless we are brainstorming about something. I don't like sitting down to work or engage on days when my schedule is jammed with meetings, all laid out before my day has even begun. I enjoy feeling like every day is packed with intuitive discovery, that one clue from one conversation could set the stage for the next, and that some conversations require two minutes while others may require one hour.
The point is that, as I give up on socially constructed notions of leadership, inspiration or "CEOness," I can begin to learn what I am really about. Rather than patching up my shortcomings through extra work and going against my grain, I can surround myself with people who have those characteristics that I am missing. That's the beauty of a team. Not everyone has to be everything. Most amazing teams, in fact, have people who are wildly different from each other but somehow coalesce to complement each other.
It's a lot easier to build a team if you are not trying to be things that you are not. It will be easier to recognize the gaps, and easier to accept these gaps in other people. If the "leader" is always trying so hard to be things they are not, they will stimulate the same behavior in others, which will promote an environment where it won't be easy to understand where the shortcomings are, because people will be hiding them as something bad to be frowned upon. But shortcomings are the foundation upon which amazing teams are built.
If you discover a more authentic way to relate to yourself, though, that will eventually percolate through the deepest parts of your being and will come across to others as something genuine.
Ultimately, you will be eternally dissatisfied if you are trying to lead for others. That's an impossible task, because you have no control over how others will see and react to your style. You do have control over how you respond to your method of dealing with yourself, and if you figure that part out, you will create room for a more authentic self to form. With this room, you will be able to breathe and inspire. Whether others will want to follow your lead or not is irrelevant – especially if you plan on being a leader.