The cult of inspiration

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The conference promised “Inspirational Leadership for Inspirational Results.” At least the sandwiches were good, if not inspirational.

Perhaps some people are inspired by such conferences. The rest of us feel a little daunted. Am I meant to put on my white suit and dancing shoes and inspire everyone before doing my tax return and email, or afterwards? Or perhaps I should do an inspirational tax return.

There is a dark side to inspiration and passion. Nearly all Shakespeare’s tragedies are based on excessive and misplaced passion. But when it comes to business, leaders assume that passion is all virtuous. One speaker demanded that employees show passion for the business, so that if you sliced them open you would see the name of the company engraved on their heart. Like Shylock, they want their pound of flesh from nearest to the heart. Like Shylock, it is a dangerous wish to have.

When employees are inspired to engrave your company on their heart, they have lost all sense of work-life balance. The speaker who made this inspirational demand later complained that although most employees were women, few were managers. He missed the link: some people like to have family engraved on their heart, not a semi-loyal and over demanding employer.

We need to move away from seeing the company as a cult where everyone signs away their soul. Great employees and leaders tend to be hyper-active inside and outside work: turning them into one dimensional work drudges does not help.

There is an alternative to cult-like inspiration. It is called professionalism. Trust people, give them direction and support, focus them on what is important and recognise their achievements and they will do their best for you. Like most of leadership, it is unglamorous and effective in equal proportions.

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