How to Become a Daring Leader at Work

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership" by Ronald A. Heifetz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you feel like your employees have lost the drive to perform at their best? What can you, as a leader, do to motivate and inspire your team?

Inspiring employees to go above and beyond requires a leader who is willing to show their emotional side. Everyone inherently has the ability to inspire, though everyone will do it differently depending on their purposes, communication style, and the challenges at hand.

To inspire, use the following two techniques.

Technique #1: Visibly and Audibly Express Your Emotions

You feel strongly enough about your purpose to risk the dangers of leadership, so show people how much you care about changing things for the better. This will help people see why their suffering and loss are worth pushing through. (Additionally, if you don’t share your emotions, people will be disinclined to share theirs with you, and them sharing is critical to technique #2.)

Expressing emotion in professional situations can be thorny—leaders are expected to be cool in the face of danger, and if you appear too emotional, people might think you’re unsuited for the job because you let your feelings cloud your judgment. (Women are particularly vulnerable to this accusation.)

Here are some tips for appropriately demonstrating emotion:

1. Prepare. Before you go into a situation in which you want to display emotion, mentally rehearse what you’re going to say, remind yourself of your purpose, and clear your mind.

2. Don’t hold back as much as you usually would. When you start to feel emotion, don’t suppress it, let it show.

3. Keep functioning through the emotion. (For example, if your voice starts to break from emotion, keep talking.) Don’t suppress the emotion or run—finish your speech while also displaying the emotion. This leads by example—it shows everyone who’s listening that it’s fine to feel emotion and it’s possible to get things done even while in its throes.

  • For example, after 9/11, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke openly about his emotions, which helped him connect with people, but he wasn’t so overwhelmed that he was incapacitated.

4. Use your voice and speech patterns effectively. When you’re delivering an emotionally difficult message, pause more often than usual to give people time to process it. When people are in conflict, speak with a calming tone to lower the intensity, and when people are unmoved, speak more loudly and expressively to raise it.

Your default tone of voice is usually determined by your culture and environment. For example, in some cultures, people in leadership positions speak dispassionately and use more statements than questions. However, you don’t need to use cultural and environmental defaults—use whatever tone of voice will be most effective in your circumstances.

5. Only address one or two emotionally loaded points at once. If you try to make many points all at once, people won’t be able to absorb them. 

6. Be aware of connotations (meaning associated with particular words beyond their dictionary definition). If you use a word that triggers your audience’s sensitivities, you can unwittingly create a lot of resistance or support for an opposing point. You’ll probably have to use trial and error to figure out which words carry connotation. (If you do unintentionally use something triggering, at least you’ll have some new insight into hidden conflicts.)

  • (Shortform example: Though the word “holocaust” technically means mass destruction, it’s so strongly associated with the mass murder of Jewish people in World War II that using it to describe anything else could come across as insensitive.)

Technique #2: Empathize With Others’ Emotions

The first technique was about sharing your emotions with others. Now, it’s time to get others to share their emotions with you so that you can empathize with them. Once you better understand people and their emotions, inspiring employees to pursue your purpose will become much easier.

To empathize with others, first, you need to find out what they’re feeling. To do this:

  • Ask people what they’re feeling and listen to their answers. People may be open to directly expressing themselves. Or, they might only tell you what they think you want to hear. Note that it’s harder to listen when you’re in a leadership position because both you and your team are used to you talking and providing answers.
  • Observe nonverbal cues. People reveal what they’re feeling through their body language as well as their words. 
  • Be aware of your own emotions. Strong emotions are contagious, so when you notice yourself feeling something, there’s a good chance that you’re picking it up from others.
  • Look for clues that reveal what the hidden stakes (fear of loss) are. People might say they oppose an initiative because it’s too expensive, but they may actually oppose it because it conflicts with their values or will cause them distress. 

Once you have a better sense of what people are feeling, empathize with them by:

1. Trying to feel in yourself what others are feeling. This will help you understand their point of view and why they might feel distressed and therefore resist change.

2. Wielding silence. While silence might be uncomfortable, it’s very useful for four reasons:

  1. It prevents you from accidentally beating people over the head with your ideas. Many leaders find silence uncomfortable and fill it by repeating what they’ve already said about their initiative so much that people get annoyed and stop listening. 
  2. It provides processing time. When you tell someone about an initiative that will seriously disrupt her life and cause major losses, she’ll need some quiet time to get used to the idea. Watch for nonverbal clues that indicate someone has had enough silent time and is ready to work. 
  3. It captures attention, especially when it comes from a leader. For example, the authors often restore order to their rowdy training sessions by standing silently in front of the group.
  4. It buys you time to take a step back. Silence isn’t emptiness—it can contain emotions and moods (body language, etc.), and if you learn to read it, you’ll be better at diagnosis.
2 Techniques for Motivating and Inspiring Employees

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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