Inspiring Leadership: A crucial competency

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This is the first of a six-part series exploring the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of inspiring leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the other articles here:

Leadership is changing. ‘Command and control’ is no longer an effective strategy, if, in fact, it has ever been, with relation to employee engagement and productivity. Today’s employees do not want to be told what to do. They do not want to be instructed. They do not want to be controlled. They want to be inspired. And nowhere is that more important than in the nonprofit sector.

With funding decreasing and the need for services continually increasing, the nonprofit sector is under strain to deliver quality services on a shoestring. This creates stress, insecurity, and tension in organizations, all of which can significantly impact employee motivation. Nonprofit leaders need to know how to help their employees navigate these everyday challenges by staying motivated to do the work. This motivation comes from inspirational leadership.

Being able to inspire is a crucial leadership competency gaining ground in today’s workplaces. In 2011, Zenger Folkman, an American leadership development company, conducted extensive research on leadership competencies. They compiled a dataset in which they asked 332,860 bosses, peers, and subordinates what skills have the greatest impact on a leader’s success. Each respondent selected the top four competencies out of a list of 16 that they provided. Being able to inspire and motivate was the number one competency identified and correlated well with a number of other competencies such as integrity and honesty, powerful communications and collaboration.

And, it seems that leaders do believe they are inspirational. McKinsey conducted research with leaders to find that 70% thought they were inspiring their employees (Feser, Claudio. When Execution Isn’t Enough, 2016). However, Gallup, in its collection of data for its State of the Global Workplace Report (2016), found that 82% of employees viewed their leaders as ‘fundamentally uninspiring’. This is a serious disconnect in how leaders perceive themselves and how they are viewed by those who work for them. When a gap in perception and delivery like this exists, it can have a major impact on the culture of the organization and employee engagement overall. As leaders, we need to make sure that we truly understand what inspirational leadership is about and make sure that we not only have, but actively demonstrate, the skills related to it.

There are also external factors that are driving the need for more inspirational leadership in the nonprofit sector. The next generation of employees has arrived and they are looking for purpose in their work. Millennials are challenging the status quo of work and leadership in all sectors. For many years, the nonprofit sector has held the mantle for social causes and purposeful work. We may not get paid as much but we get to make a difference, the story goes. However, the landscape is changing, and if we are to remain competitive about attracting talent to our sector and retaining it, we need to be more deliberate about being more inspiring, internally as well as externally. We can’t just rely on our existence as organizations focused on social change anymore because we are no longer alone in that space. Corporations, social purpose businesses and entrepreneurs are all speaking the language of ‘making a difference’. Social change and making the world a better place is now big business.

For example, let’s look at the concept of ‘impact’. In the nonprofit sector, it’s tempting to view impact as a funder-led initiative, designed to make us do more work and justify our existence. However, demonstrating impact is not just about reporting to funders. It’s about understanding the change we are trying to make in the world and demonstrating that we are moving toward that goal. It’s not just a nonprofit ‘thing’. There has been a significant increase in the number of for-profits that talk about impact with regard to the work they do locally and globally. If you look at any major corporation’s website, you will find some mention of impact. In fact, I have heard more about impact in my work with businesses over the past five years than I have in the nonprofit sector. We spend so much time talking about money in the nonprofit sector that it sometimes seems like we’ve had some weird ‘Freaky Friday’ mix up with the for-profit sector. They are talking about impact and social change and we are talking about the desire/need for more money! Now, that is perfectly understandable given the changes we’ve had in funding in the past 20 years and the challenges of trying to ‘keep the doors open’. However, it’s also not at all inspiring.

If, as leaders in the nonprofit sector, we don’t get clearer about our impact and become more adept at sharing it internally, we will lose talented, purpose-driven staff and potential leaders to the for-profit sector, where stories of impact and corporate social responsibility are a key part of their recruitment efforts and ongoing marketing. When current or potential employees are more inspired by corporations than they are by the work we are doing in the nonprofit sector, we’ve got a problem. And, it’s up to us as leaders to fix it.

The good news is that it isn’t difficult to be inspiring as a leader. We just need to focus more on our people and what they need from us as leaders. That doesn’t mean not paying attention to our bottom line, but it does mean talking about it less and understanding that our staff are our most valuable assets. When employees feel inspired, they are more engaged. They are more productive. And, they are more resilient during change. When people are inspired, they are also more tolerant of small challenges and step up for the big ones. And most importantly, they remain passionate about, and committed to, the change our organizations say we want to make in the world. In turn, that’s inspiring for our clients/customers, our volunteers and our donors, which means our services are utilized, our human capital increases and, ironically, when we are talking about money less and impact more, so does our bank balance. Inspiring leadership not only helps us to ‘keep the doors open’ but ensures that our organizations are thriving and making the change we want to see in the world. Be inspiring!

Find out more about HOW to be an inspiring leader in the next five articles that are part of this Inspiring Leadership Series. Coming next month, Inspiring Leadership: Focus on the big picture.

Lianne Picot is a self-described leadership and story obsessive who has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years. Currently, as a Leadership Coach, Strategist, and Trainer, Lianne specializes in helping leaders to be more inspiring. Lianne is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Lianne is also currently undertaking her Master’s in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) with a focus on workplace learning. She is the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, an online leadership program that helps new, emerging and current leaders to be more inspiring, have more influence, and get better results. Connect with Lianne at or find out more about her services at

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