Effective Leadership: Motivational or Inspirational

By Dan Nielsen, dan@americashealthcareleaders.com

A key topic I address in the beginning of my new book, Be An Inspirational Leader: Engage, Inspire, Empower, is the difference between inspirational and motivational leadership. While the terms are often used interchangeably, there are a few key differences, and I believe one leadership style is vastly more effective than the other in the long run.

Inspirational leaders are intentional in using their position to inspire, change lives, and leave beautiful and lasting legacies. It is amazing to witness the ripple effect of a truly great inspirational leader, and in the book I share many first-hand accounts of people who have had the opportunity to work under these leaders.

Differences between motivational and inspirational leadership

  1. External vs. Internal: The first key difference is while motivation is typically accomplished through external factors, inspiration is an internal force. Wayne Dyer puts it this way: “If motivation is when you get hold of an idea and carry it through to its conclusion, inspiration is the reverse. An idea gets hold of you and carries you where you are intended to go.”
  2. Duration and Effectiveness: Since inspiration is an internal force, it lasts longer and is more effective. Motivation, particularly when connected to a system of external rewards, is only effective as long as you are able to keep the system of rewards consistent. Inspiration has deeper roots; its influence sticks with you and propels you further than mere motivation can.
  3. People’s Responses: People respond to inspirational leadership exponentially better than they do to compensation or coercion. People are always more eager to do something when it is an idea they feel connected to and invested in. While external forces can be a key motivator, people will react far better to a personal investment.

Alan Cherry, who contributed some excellent comments to the book, beautifully summed up the difference between motivational leader and inspirational leaders like this:

“Ultimately, the only thing that separates inspirational leaders from all the rest is that at his or her core, inspiring leaders seek to inspire others just as they have been inspired …They find reasons to stir their followers to action because those followers have become inspired and can no longer abide inaction.”

How do you lead? Do you depend on a system of compensation and coercion, or do you inspire, leading the people in your organization to genuinely desire to accomplish the same mission? I encourage you to evaluate your leadership style and remember that true inspirational leadership is vastly more effective and impactful than any external motivators.

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