You Had Me at Hello: 4 Ways Some Leaders Inspire Us

Have you ever worked for someone you would follow anywhere?

Despite the numerous definitions of effective leadership, and store shelves packed with books claiming to unlock its secrets, it seems to me that there are a few, very simple reasons why some leaders compel us to acts of loyalty, and others don’t.

At the Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS) in Ireland last week – an international conference I have had the privilege of being involved in for more than a decade – I witnessed a leader inspiring truly unprecedented followership.

Shannon Stowell is the President of ATWS, but unfortunately was unable to attend the conference due to an unexpected medical issue. He had never missed the conference before, so at the close of the Summit, we live cast him onscreen to see the delegation and to share a few words. The multiple standing ovations, profound electric energy in the room, and viral social media activity after the fact, all evidenced his connection to the attendees, and characterized the ephemeral magic that is present with leaders we love.

When Shannon’s face came on the big screen, the crowd rose to meet him. His intended opening words were drowned out by the joy, love, and enthusiasm of the delegation. In response to such a greeting, he stopped talking, and just looked at us on the screen, as we watched the emotions pass through him: humility, gratitude, amazement, and in fact, love. We saw the tenderness and fear of a life threatening illness, followed by the courageous confidence of a leader who knows he’ll be back. Tears welled in his eyes, and he allowed the outpouring of the 700-person audience to pull him into the moment: to honor the gift of his presence. If I could have given the crowd one voice, it might have said, “We have missed you and are so glad you are back. We were fine without you here practically, but as our leader, your seat was empty. Come, lead; we have been waiting for you.” This multi-national audience, representing 65 different countries, united by Shannon, epitomized the behavior of a group that was ready to do anything for its leader.

To compel this level of followership, Shannon demonstrates what I have identified as four qualitative, primary elements of effective leadership. These four, taken together, have elevated him to a place where he has earned the hearts of people across the globe, and gained their loyalty.

  1. Emotional stirring

At the heart of connection between leaders and their people, is an emotional surge. As humans, we are drawn in by feelings of joy, belief, gratitude, wonder, even fear and recovery. Data and logic help us solve problems and get results, but it is emotion that draws us towards a leader, gets our attention, and makes us listen. We become captivated by our hearts, moved to unexpected expression, and compelled to seek out that emotional stirring again. Inspiring leaders know that emotion is not something they must wade through in order to get things done, but is in fact, how the big things can really get done.

As a leader, how do you capture people’s hearts? What emotion do you touch that matters to them?

  1. Authentic vulnerability

When leaders are imperfect with us, we believe them. When they reveal their mistakes, their challenges, and their learning, we see them as real and human and our trust increases. Our titer for showmanship, veneer, and being sold a bill of goods, is very high, and turns us off. We value courage, and draw upon it when in need. Leaders who show up as they are, ragged, messy, and human, show us the courage they posses, and we can relate. We will do anything for those leaders: those who, in their imperfection, strive for greatness anyways.

Do you reveal your imperfections to others or hide them away? Are you willing to talk about your mistakes?

  1. A compelling vision

We most need leadership when the way is unclear or the task seems insurmountable. In the case of Shannon, the unification of a disparate trade across the globe is messy, and at times, fragmented. His ability to set forward an inspiring possibility of where the trade can go together to change the world invites those around him to feel reassured. The manifestation of that vision in his faith, optimism, and commitment, even when unsure and hesitant, draws followers in and keeps them.

Have you spent time on where you are going with your organization? Does the future you see inspire you with passion?

  1. Consistent words and expression

Emotional intelligence researchers know that dissonance between what we see and what we hear erodes trust. If a leader feels hope, we want to feel the emotional vibe of hope. If they are anxious and concerned, we want to see that in their face. The match between spoken words and non-verbal expression is critical to our trust and our followership. We instinctively know when danger is present, when we are safe, and when someone cares. The words our leaders say must match those instinctual responses, or we check out, back away, and disengage.

Are you aware of the connection between your words and expression? Do you know your own strengths in expressing your emotions?

I am quite sure that Shannon, the leader who is the subject of this blog, did not plan for the reaction of connection and love he invited last week. He likely had a prepared talk that he wanted to deliver as would be appropriate in his capacity as Summit figurehead. The outpouring of joy and love he was welcomed with in his live cast was a result of many years of actions that created a platform for confidence in his leadership. Among them, his willingness to show up for his staff, and for the 700 summit attendees; unveiled, authentic, and real.

Jim Morris