Want to Inspire ? Show the fire in your eyes

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: December 06, 2013

Inspirational people are everywhere.

On a recent visit to Singapore, my cab suddenly stopped just short of the hotel. It was raining and the area in front of the hotel was gridlocked. Taxis, buses and limousines were all blocking each other — it was a mess. A moment later, the hotel porter Jerry came out to take over from his colleague. He started guiding the cars, apologizing to guests, and nudging drivers to clear the way. He was everywhere all at once, and he was smiling. Less than 5 minutes later, everybody was moving again.

“Welcome to Singapore, Mr. Barta”, he said when he opened the door to my cab. “How did you manage to get the cars moving so quickly?” I wanted to know. “Well, I take care of everybody here. I don’t see the cars, I see the people. If your arrival goes well, you’ll have a good stay.” I saw pride in his eyes when he said this. Jerry is just one of the many people who inspire us every day.

Inspiring people starts with one person: yourself. If you have the spark of inspiration, you can inspire others. That’s the key. — Thomas Barta

Inspiring other starts with yourself

“How can I inspire people?” Some people believe inspiring is all about storytelling techniques or about picking a bold topic. Others think: Some leaders “just have it” (in fact early leadership theories propagated this idea). Today we know different: Inspiration comes from a spark deep inside you. Together with INSEAD Business School, we have recently researched how over 8,000 global leaders see themselves versus how their superiors and team see them. The picture on inspiration is pretty clear — those leaders who feel inspired themselves inspire their teams and superiors. Inspiring people starts with one person: yourself. If you have the spark of inspiration, you can inspire others. That’s the key.

Inspiration is easy to spot, and hard to fake. Think about it: replacing humans in movies with digital lookalikes doesn’t work (yet), however perfectly computer-animated they are. Human expression and body language is so complex, it’s hard for even the most powerful computers to simulate. People can spot a flicker of inspiration in seconds. They pick up your movements, your tone of voice, even your smallest facial expressions. You can see this for yourself: repeat a recent, boring conversation for a minute in front of a mirror and watch your face. Next, for another minute, talk about something you really care about (such as a hobby, a dream, or a strong belief). I’m certain your face will show more excitement and energy. It’s what I call the flicker of inspiration. If you show others this flicker behind your eyes, they too will be inspired.

You need to find your flame

Do you need the grand ideas of a Henry Ford, a Steve Jobs or a Mahatma Gandhi to inspire people? Not necessarily. The following experiment shows: People are inspired by very different things, and often by small things. In my leadership workshops I always ask people to write a card to all the other participants who have inspired them, saying why they are so inspiring. We then slip these cards under the addressees’ hotel doors late at night. Some participants get lots of cards, while others get none. What’s on these cards has been surprisingly consistent over the years, and falls into three categories:

  • The flame of optimism: “you have so much energy”, “you always see the opportunities”, “you give me hope that you can do it”, “you believe you can change the market”
  • The flame of courage: “you stand up for what you believe”, “you don’t give up even if it’s not popular”, “you are not afraid to take a risk”
  • The flame of care: “you are so committed to your family”, “you listen to me”, “you supported me”, “you really care for your team”

Why not ask five people today how you inspire them? I’m sure you have flickers of inspiration showing already. Don’t pick a random idea to inspire others. Instead, start with the spark inside you, and let people see it. If it matters to them, it will turn it into a flame.

Inspiring others is your job as a leader

Even if you have the spark of inspiration, it takes energy to show the flicker in your eyes consistently. Some years ago I led a large global team; but despite major business success, the team was not fired up with excitement. I soon realized that I needed to provide them with more spark: They always needed to see the flicker of my own inspiration, especially when things got busy. It seemed odd at first to try and set people alight with every interaction, but it did help me build inspired teams. How about reminding yourself of that, too? If you want to lead, set others alight with your inspiration in each interaction you have.

Whether you want to change the world, lead a company or just clear the road in front of the hotel: let people see the flicker of inspiration in your eyes, and turn it into a flame!

(This is a version of my Huffington Post article on the topic).