There is one common question that continually pops up during my travels across the country speaking to and working with leadership teams and organizations of all sizes. The question that I am referring to is, “What is the biggest difference between athletic coaches and leaders in the business world?” My response is always the same. The biggest difference is the ability to inspire. Most coaches embody what being an inspirational leader is all about.
I have had the great fortune of working side by side with some extraordinary business leaders over the years, and each of them possesses their own set of freakish abilities to not only run large organizations, but drive execution at scale. With that being said, the one characteristic that almost all athletic coaches do a phenomenal job of that business leaders can learn from and implement is the power of being an inspirational leader.
This is not to say that all business leaders are not inspiring. That is the furthest from the truth. As a matter of fact, most business leaders have incredibly inspiring stories of how they got to where they are. However, I am not just referring to inspirational stories of senior executives who used to be a lower-level employee and worked their way up to become the CEO of the same company.
Being an inspirational leader is not discussed or talked about nearly as much as it should be. When most business leaders hear they need to inspire, they tend to roll their eyes and reiterate that being a motivational speaker isn’t in their job description.
This is a massive flaw in perspective in my opinion. The reason why being an inspirational leader is so important in business is because employees experience the exact same challenges that athletes face. There will be times throughout the year where they may be in the middle of a major slump, not feel motivated to perform at an elite level, and get distracted by outside or personal circumstances.
Becoming an inspirational leader isn’t about giving rah-rah speeches or completely changing your personality type. Here are a few ideas on how to become an inspirational leader.
Develop a Powerful Rally Cry
Motivational slogans don’t create change and move people to action all on their own, but they sure are a great starting point to bring a team or organization together and connect on a deeper level. Look at P.J. Fleck, the head football coach at the University of Minnesota. His famous slogan “Row The Boat” is embedded in everything they do. Whether it’s their culture, fundraising efforts, or every interview he gives, that slogan is constantly being communicated in a million different ways and the meaning behind what it represents.
At my alma mater Indiana University, head football coach Tom Allen is another great example. His LEO motto is front and center of everything that team does. LEO stands for “Love Each Other.” Taking over a historically struggling football program in the Big Ten conference is no easy task, but coach Allen developed this motto which served as a rally cry for the team. His deep belief was that regardless of what outside experts say about the program, that they could eventually become a Big Ten contender if they simply loved each other as teammates and integrated that into every facet of the program.
What does your organization stand for? As the leader, what is something that you are deeply passionate about and how can that connect to a bigger purpose to help unite everyone within the organization? This may seem cheesy and very artificial at first, but when you are authentic and communicate the vision of your rally cry and the meaning of its importance, inspiration begins to gain traction.
Coach More Than You Manage
The future of effective leadership is centered around coaching your people more than you manage them. The best leaders that I have ever encountered were football coaches. The reason why I can so easily classify them as some of the best leaders that I have ever experienced is because of their unique ability to coach and develop talent. They didn’t just lay out the team objectives and tell us to run faster, jump higher, and win more games. They took the proper amount of time to get to know each player, identify the strengths and weaknesses of each player, and diligently ask more questions than provide solutions.
A common mistake that many leaders make, especially rookie leaders, is convincing themselves that they don’t have the time to coach their people. We are currently experiencing a war for top talent. The organizations and leaders that fail to adopt a coaching mentality will not only lack in fully developing their current talent, but also with acquiring top talent. Even if they don’t articulate or express their desire to be coached, most people want to work for someone who can unleash their full potential and help them to become the best version of themselves. You can’t do that by just managing your people. It requires consistent and frequent coaching. Coaching not only brings out the best in others, but it also inspires people to reach higher, dig deeper and expand their vision of what they are capable of.
Lead with Healthy Optimism
The most inspiring leaders look to the future with optimism and communicate a powerful vision that is much bigger than the current reality, regardless of how difficult or good times may be. Healthy optimism consists of addressing the current reality, facing the facts, and then crafting a strategy and communication cadence that clearly expresses a bigger future.
I am not referring to being delusional and ignoring the challenges and roadblocks that stand in the way. Highly effective leaders that exponentially drive organizational performance can lead with a healthy dose of optimism while facing the challenges of the present head on.
There is enough negativity in the world right now. What we need more of is positive leaders who not only lead and envision a bigger future for their people and organization, but also back it up with their daily behaviors.
Being an inspirational leader is no longer a nice skill to have. It’s a requirement. Those who dedicate the time and energy to practice becoming an inspirational leader will drastically enhance organizational and individual performance at scale.