Understanding Inspirational Leadership & Influential Leadership
How to become an inspirational leader and influential leader who can ensure diverse stakeholders support and fund lasting change
As a transformational leader, once we have innovated a breakthrough solution to a customer or business problem—one worthy of committing a decent chunk of our lives to—we soon realize that the world has rarely been waiting for us to implement our innovation. We may have brought our team on board to co-create the solution together; but most people beyond our core team will resist or reject the unfamiliar in an instant.
We have to cut through the noise, chaos, and ambivalence with a compelling and well-crafted vision; and paint a pathway of how all involved can land the possibility we have envisioned with an achievable yet ambitious narrative.
This is what inspirational leadership and influential leadership are designed to do. They are the 5th spiral in our 6 spirals of transformational leadership.
Once we have a potentially transformational idea, innovation, or strategy to future-proof a part of our organization—from a more fitting expenses policy to a billion-dollar business model—we have to get everyone else in the organization and beyond to understand it, buy into it, find their role to play in implementing it, and work together to deliver it. Then we have to get our customer base and stakeholders to use it and pay for it. This is where the skills and qualities of inspirational leaders and influential leaders will help us not just have a bold breakthrough; but actually manifest it in a world that is generally resistant to such big ideas and disruptive innovation.
No amount of genius in our ideas and plans will mean a jot if we can’t capture the hearts and mind of others to get them behind our ideas. Many leaders win the war; but lose the peace. Given that manipulative and coercive ways of getting people to support us—through explicit threats of censure, veiled threats of sanctions, or through bribes and promotions—are less effective than ever, we actually have to inspire and influence people to change. We must find ways ethically to get groups of people to change their protective patterns, often developed over a lifetime, and working for them just fine (or so they think).
The essential tool for inspiring and influencing others ethically is story: narratives of the future that show how things could be (and why); and that paint a navigational pathway for manifesting possibility. Stories, whether brand commercials or quick emails to the company, can drive mass behavior change in hands. To ensure that happens, they give the head rational and logical reasons to change. But people will not pay attention, care about a solution, or be able to overcome their fears of change until the emotional heart has been captivated; and the guts (or hara) gripped.
Transformational narratives capture hearts, shift mindsets, and have a call to action designed to deliver the change in behaviors we need to deliver the transformation we envision. Stories are our species’ solution for how to transform others without coercion. Otherwise we will fail to overcome the Backfire Effect: the more we try to challenge a strongly held belief rooted in emotions with reason, evidence, and facts, the more believers believe they are right. They double down on their erroneous assumptions (especially, research shows, those with a more conservative outlook). Every transformational leader, entrepreneur, and innovator therefore must become a virtuoso at storytelling if they want their bold ideas and ambitious visions to be actioned.
I see storytelling as two separate, yet related, activities. The first is story-crafting: designing a narrative that meets our audience where they are at and then takes them somewhere higher, better. We painstakingly craft a story that includes all the key ingredients that hara, heart, head, and hands need to effect the various changes we want to see that will scale up to land transformation. After that, the second element is story-sharing: how we deliver that story in pitches, talks, brand identities, landing pages, meetings, emails, reports, pitch decks, social media posts, commercials, and more. Transformational leaders must become consummate experts at both skills, while always being aware that a powerful protective pattern is to leverage stories for the wrong reason: to obfuscate, gain affection, and capture attention without a purpose-driven vision.
Story-crafting requires that we can first envision an alternative, valuable, and achievable future to the one predicted by extrapolating trends from the past: a transformed reality that is markedly different from the one that is likely to occur without transformational leadership. We must be able to craft this possible future within a “transformational vision” that feels both new and refreshing yet also attainable and familiar. If it is too other-worldly, not many people will connect with it or see themselves in it. If it is too mundane and banal, there is no transformation and there is little value in us holding the vision.
The vision should, of course, come from a strategic and systematic interrogation of the future; and be driven by real and profound insight into existing and future customers’/users’/employees’ needs, wants, and yearnings. But it must also be relatively simple, even if we know that simplicity is an artificial construct in a VUCA world. Given that many receivers of our vision may be at a lower level of C-BC than the person who has gone on the journey of complex problem-solving to have a breakthrough—which is never a judgment about their intrinsic value as human beings—we must use our intelligence and wisdom to find metaphors and emotive possibilities that render complexity into simplicity.
Finding appropriate ways to communicate transformational ideas and insights is key and often our signal is drowned out by noise, the complaints of protective patterns, the plethora of internal comms, corporate jargon established by the legacy business model, and cultural codes and team shortcuts that obfuscate as much as clarify. We must then be able to turn a vision of how the future could be into a compelling and coherent narrative structure that inspires others to get involved.
To design a story that can transform people and our world, the sequence of the story elements is critical. There is a time-proven narrative structure that change-driving stories leverage. If we ignore it or try to improve it, we risk very few people getting what we see as possible. Whether developing a leadership, brand, funding, or team narrative—we usually need all of them to affect transformational change— our story sequence must inspire hearts, elevate minds, and invite immediate action. It must connect emotionally, justify rationally, and make change urgent, compelling, and clear.
Every story structure requires, at a minimum, an essential context that explains why the transformational idea or strategy is better than the past and why it is the right fit for this organization to bring to life right now; a clarity of focus and intent, reducing complexity and noise in the system so people of varying levels of Cognitive-Behavioral Complexity and embodied wisdom can see their role and where best to act; and a call-to-action, which explicitly asks people to change their behavior, whether through shifting the allocation of resources or through speaking or acting in a
Once we have developed a story with the right elements and ingredients—perhaps with multiple variants for different audience segments—we then must decide how, when, and with whom to share the story. Whilst some of our communication efforts will be through media, like video and reports, we will at some point have to share our story in person.
This means mastering how to show up with our full potential as inspirational transformational leaders: how best to speak about, and present, ideas that fit our character; and how to be fully present ourselves with people, at ease in our skins. The transformational leader knows never to moan that investors don’t get our genius idea, customers don’t get how awesome our product is, or bosses don’t appreciate our brilliance: instead we own the resistance and refusals we get and metabolize them into a more compelling vision, a clearer and more engaging narrative, and more executive or leadership presence.
How we show up in pitch rooms, meetings, conference calls, and workshops is key. Our capacity to influence others is beyond mere words. It sits, in essence, within the relational field between leader and listener. Inner work we have done to date on ourselves to clear away fixations and distortions in our relational fields will come into its own when we want to inspire and influence others most powerfully. According to studies at UCLA, change in people occurs not so much through the language and intellect but through a deep dialogue between entire bodyminds.35
The less we are snarled up with old trauma and patterns in our relational fields, the easier and quicker it is to change people. This is, I believe, a large part of what genuine charisma and gravitas are (as opposed to the demagogic and manipulative charm of the narcissistic and phony). To be fully present means that we must be able to break and transform protective patterns that pull us away from presence: such as being distracted by technology, wanting to get to our bit of the meeting, urges to use power to increase our social status, or prioritizing being right over deeply
Incongruities and conflicts within us as leaders will be obvious to perceptive listeners. If we are unsettled by our own story, have seen inconsistencies and contradictions in it, or just don’t fully believe in, it will impact our capacity to influence and inspire.
If we are tired or jaded, it will spread like a virus to our listeners. If
we have persistent self-esteem issues, these will permeate across a room and diminish the power of our vision and narrative. If we are either too arrogant or not confident enough, our audience will sense this and it will cause them to doubt us.
Therefore, there is more inner work to expand again our embodied wisdom: to become ever more compelling, energizing, and electric. We must be able to shine a light on complexity when others are confused, fearful, or cynical; and manage our own resilience so we have the inner resources needed constantly to re-inspire people when they tire or fall by the way. We also may sense hidden agendas, silent worries, and elephants-in-the-room that need to be dealt with before people can listen. Choosing how and when to do this while avoiding shame and blame reactions in our listeners takes prodigious levels of both Cognitive-Behavioral Complexity and embodied wisdom.
Beyond vision, narrative, presence, and genuine charisma there are many other ways to persuade people to join our cause. Scores of books and courses exist that claim to teach the (often dark) art of persuasion. Many of these techniques are not ethical as they require subtle (or not) methods of manipulation: persuading people to do what is not in their genuine best interest to do, but serves our needs instead.
A well-developed moral compass, that we fully embody not just speak about, becomes an essential guide for how to harness ‘soft power’ ethically to persuade people to make things happen with minimal resistance and maximum energy. If we have not done the inner work to develop such a purposeful and refined compass first—which takes months and years not hours and days—persuading people without manipulation or coercion will constantly be tricky. Tools such as ‘reciprocity’ and ‘social proof’ are useful ways to persuade and influence, but we must use them with a whole heart or risk backlashes and off-purpose feelings.
Ethical influencing, like genuine coaching, is always about supporting people to change for their own longterm best interest as well as ours, helping them give up comforts and conveniences that their C&P Mode relishes. We want to identify, activate, and cultivate both formal and informal networks up and across our enterprise and system; and then find the right Mode, message, and moment to influence people in different groups to find the Triple Win.