Can you learn to be inspiring?

Authors and leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman ( gathered data from nearly 50,000 leaders and discovered that the ability to inspire creates the highest levels of employee engagement and commitment.

When you talk with leaders who want to be more inspiring, however, many don’t know how to get there. Zenger and Folkman found 1,000 leaders who scored the highest on the competency of “inspires and motivates to high performance” and analyzed what they did that separated them from their less-inspiring counterparts.

Some of what they did was specific and tangible:

•  Set stretch goals

•  Develop subordinates

•  Engage in highly collaborative behavior

•  Encourage others be more innovative

Other things they identified were less specific and less tangible. Inspirational leaders are:

•  More adept at making emotional connections with their subordinates

•  Better at establishing a clear vision

•  More effective in their communication and willing to spend more time communicating

•  Ardent champions of change

“Our data send a clear message: In this case, more is more,” Zenger and Folkman state in a Harvard Business Review blog post. “That is, the more of these behaviors a leader exhibited, the more inspirational that leader is perceived to be.”

But the question remained: Can inspiration be learned?

The authors studied data collected from 882 executives who were measured on 16 different competencies and encouraged to focus efforts on improving one of them. The 310 who chose to improve their ability to inspire others made impressive strides — moving from the 42nd percentile (below average) to the 70th percentile.

“With awareness, good feedback, and a plan of development, leaders are able to improve this most important of all leadership competencies,” they conclude.