Good Leaders Inspire a Culture of Meaning

Article main image
Jul 31, 2017

Leading isn’t just a matter of knowing what to do – it’s a matter of knowing and communicating why it’s important to do it.

Authority alone will no longer motivate employees. People are motivated by a leader’s passion, by their insights, and most importantly, by their willingness to listen.

Great leadership excites people to exceptional performance. It’s relational – it’s something you do with people, not to them. The difference between high-performing cultures and exceptional cultures is the quality of those relationships – how well people like and trust one another.

Inspiration & listening are missing

What’s missing in most leadership approaches isn’t information, change or knowledge – it’s inspiration.

Inspiration gives knowledge an application and changes its meaning. We long for leadership because we’re rarely inspired and we miss it terribly.

To inspire others requires self-knowledge, the courage to speak, and then it takes the emotional intelligence and commitment to learn how to connect with others. Effective leadership communication is clear and deep, creates commitment rather than compliance, and for most of us, requires the learning and application of new skills.

Listening to connect is different from listening to formulate a rebuttal. If the primary measure of trust is closeness, then having and conveying empathy is the hallmark of leadership listening. Good leadership communication connects with the mind – it’s logical and strategic – but it also connects with the heart by being personal and meaningful.

Discover what matters

In a time when employee loyalty is waning, generating loyalty can become a competitive advantage. Job satisfaction springs from what we do, but it’s always vulnerable to an organizational mistake or a better offer.

But loyalty is different. Loyalty to a leader comes from who he or she is – from the motivation behind their actions. Loyalty is created from values that matter more than transactions. Leaders can inspire such loyalty – if they first understand who they are, not just what they do.

Speaking through values inspires leaders, and thereby gives them the ability to inspire others. Unfortunately, leadership communication is not merely saying what we think or feel. Leading requires a decision – a commitment to engage and connect with others; to learn the skills of communication to inspire others to make change happen.

Deciding to lead is to take on a greater responsibility than merely having a voice. It is to submit ourselves to the scrutiny of others – to their criticisms and fears, to make our own ideas of the future match with theirs, and to communicate in such a way that we connect.

Provide meaning

And beware the danger of crushing employees’ feelings of contribution. Sucking the meaning out of work is surprisingly easy – just ignore employees’ work and their efforts.

When it comes to labor, human motivation is complex. It can’t be reduced to a simple ‘work for money’ trade-off. Instead we should realize that the effect of meaning on work, as well as the effect of eliminating meaning from work, are more powerful than we may expect. The translation of joy into willingness to work seems to depend to a large degree on how much meaning we can attribute to our own activities.

If leaders really want their employees to produce, they should try to impart a sense of meaning – not just through vision statements – but by allowing employees to feel a sense of completion and ensuring that a job well done is acknowledged. All of these exert influence on employee satisfaction and productivity.

A version of this appeared previously on