Over the past three years, I have interviewed nearly a hundred leaders from many different walks of life. My goal has been to understand what inspiration means to each of them and how they have experienced it in practice.
Inspiration has an elusive quality. Just like happiness, the risk is that the more we concentrate on trying to achieve it, the further from reach it can become. However, as I have listened to people’s wonderful stories over the course of my research, one overriding and intriguing insight has emerged:
The secret to experiencing leadership inspiration lies in better appreciating our relationship with time and the role it plays in our lives as human beings.
Like it or not, our time on earth is limited. Deep within each of us is a desire to make the most of it and to give our lives as much meaning as possible.
As time ticks by, our experience of the past and all that has happened builds up behind us. The future, on the other hand, continues to stretch ahead, with all its limitless possibilities. Our great challenge as individuals is to draw the most out of what we have learned and who we have become, up to the present moment, in order that we can make the most of all the time we have remaining. And that in turn involves making the most of every present moment, the only point at which we ever actually experience time in reality.
Founded on this insight, I have noticed that leaders tend to describe the ways in which they actually experience inspiration in four distinct ways, each determined by their perspective relative to time.
1. A sense of purpose
The first and most fundamental form of inspiration for any leader is the sense of purpose they have about what they want to make happen in the future. If leadership is about changing the world for the better, our purpose helps define how we intend to go about doing so in reality.
An exciting sense of purpose gives a point to our existence, providing us with something to live for and to work towards. It drives us forward with a spirit of hope, resolve and a sense of self-worth and relevance. It also gives meaning to our lives more generally, helping to create a context within which our activities in the present and the past can be interpreted and appreciated.
2. A sense of enjoyment
The promise of what the future holds has a huge impact on our spirits, but so too does the reality of what we experience in the present. A second potential type of inspiration arises simply from the enjoyment of the work we do on a day-to-day basis.
Many of the leaders I have spoken to are energized by the rapport and buzz that comes from working closely with other people. Some emphasize how much they enjoy being involved in coaching conversations that serve to build people’s confidence and capabilities. Others appreciate the responsibility that comes from being at the heart of what is going on in an organization, taking decisions that influence the course of future events.
Ultimately, we feel most alive and exhilarated when we get involved in tasks that we love, that absorb our attention and challenge our capabilities. The key challenge facing each of us personally, therefore, is to discover exactly what these activities are for ourselves.
3. A sense of achievement
As time advances, the things we do and accomplish begin to build up behind us in the past. Big projects completed successfully, awards won, targets hit, contracts signed. In all of these situations, leaders feel a surge of elation and joy, followed in time by a more reflective sense of achievement.
As events unfold, leaders can begin to see the promise of the purpose they have been striving towards delivered in practice. As evidence accumulates that they are really making a difference, they can start to experience a deep sense of fulfillment and pride that they are leaving a lasting legacy.
Achievements help build our self-worth, confidence and belief. They build our credibility and esteem in the eyes of others, resulting in their appreciation for the things we have done and their gratitude for the efforts we have put in to doing them.
Just as importantly, achievement helps prove ourselves to ourselves. It demonstrates that we are developing and making the most of our talents, which in turn encourages us to embrace new and even bigger challenges in the future.
4. A sense of illumination
The final form of inspiration is a little different from the others in that it is not tied so directly to our place in a timeline. In some ways it can be understood to transcend or go beyond the confines of time. This type of inspiration manifests itself as a sense of illumination or insight into who we really are as individuals and how we relate to other people and the world around us.
What is so intriguing about this form of inspiration is that it can potentially be triggered by anything at any time. The admirable behaviour of an inspiring role model, an uplifting book or some insightful feedback from a trusted colleague. It just depends on how our experience of the people and situations we encounter touches our deepest personal passions, aspirations and beliefs.
Often these moments will be small-scale everyday occurrences, but sometimes they can be disruptive and transformational – shifting completely our perspective on who we are as individuals and the direction our lives are taking.
The four ways in which we can experience leadership inspiration are captured in The Inspiration Timeline above. Each one brings a distinct bundle of powerful emotions that help fuel our spirit and motivation as leaders.
The benefit of distinguishing between the states in this way is that it helps us take stock of how we are experiencing inspiration ourselves today. Are we paying enough attention to all four potential states? Could there be opportunities for us to draw more inspiration from any particular perspective?
To find out more, try reading my book – The Inspired Leader – which not only explains these ideas further, but also brings them to life with lots of inspiring stories and examples.