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How Leaders Inspire in a World of Cynicism

How Leaders Inspire in a World of Cynicism

How Leaders Inspire in a World of Cynicism

In the book Leadership Presence (2004), Halpern and Lubar mention that they always start their management and leadership workshops with a question about what participants hope to gain from improved leadership presence.

The most consistent participant response is the desire to “be more inspiring.” They describe that sentiment as the “universal desire among those who lead others.” The authors go on to define inspiring as “infusing others with life and energy and passion.” (p. 193.)

However, according to McNamara, “Over the past 20 years, confidence in business has fallen from 70% to 15%, and ratings of management competence and trust have fallen almost as much among workers in the same period (Mirvis and Kanter, 1991, p. 46).  Mirvis claims, "It has now reached the point where cynicism is chic and loyalty to the company is for saps and suckers (1991, p. 2)."


Cynicism in government is equally prevalent. Lawless (2015) states that “…the overwhelming majority of 13-25 year olds view the political system as ineffective, broken, and downright nasty. As a consequence, nine out of 10 will not even consider running for [political] office.”

So, how do leaders infuse others with “life and energy and passion” when cynicism abounds?

How can they inspire people to join them in noble or even fanciful ventures when those potential followers reject idealism and enthusiasm, mistrust authority, or simply do not believe change can occur?

We can begin by looking at cynicism itself.

Noted philosopher Steven Colbert said: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”

Cynicism may be a culprit, but it serves many purposes. It frees us from unrealistic expectations. It shields us from the hurt and disappointment of idealism. It allows us to make light of people or circumstances that can bring harm.

In an amusing but thought-provoking article called Positive Cynicism, Richard Bayan acknowledges that cynicism bestows some benefits on the practitioner, but he suggests that it can lead to “alienation, depression and pervasive pessimism.”

Cynicism also seems to have some negative health effects. One of those is heart disease (Bayan, n.d.) Another may be dementia (Firger, 2014). Cynicism also prevents individuals from enjoying opportunities that add texture and richness to their lives.

In the Bayan article previously cited, the author suggests that cynics  can save themselves from the unpleasantness associated with rampant cynicism by focusing their energies on something they love. He advises cynics to recognize and live their passions while remaining skeptical.

The challenge for leaders is to break through the walls of cynicism to gain trust, to clear new paths and present new possibilities. Leaders need to bring passion into focus and to help potential followers get in touch with what is really important to them.

They must convince cynics to reject the notion that no amount of effort can bring a better future.

So, how do leaders accomplish this Herculean task?

They begin with self:

  • They get in touch with their own passions. They become so focused on their own desire to make a difference that they become willing to show vulnerability in light of that passion.
  • They consider what has inspired them and they build on that inspiration.
  • They are authentic. They express their values and their reasons for promoting a new and different future. They let others see what matter to them.
  • They suppress ego, choosing instead to concentrate on their mission and the well-being of the group.
  • They recognize their own emotions and learn to manage them in ways that promote rather than hinder their cause.
  • They give the best of themselves, acting as role models for everyone else. To paraphrase Ghandhi, “They become the change they wish to see.”

They work with and through others:

  • They readily admit challenges and work diligently to overcome them.
  • They understand, acknowledge and accept the emotions of others as they attempt to minimize fear and anger brought about by uncertainty.
  • They eagerly learn from others. They listen and they are passionately curious.
  • They demonstrate and generate trust, which empowers others and allows their brilliance to shine.
  • They expect the best from others as they give the best of themselves.

They build a culture for change:

  • They create a culture that promotes success: they show what can be; they tell stories of inspiration; they engage people’s imaginations and emotions; they celebrate and build up heroes .
  • They analyze and focus on shared values, learning what values are important to their group and encouraging  followers to act on those values.
  • They deal in hope for a better future as they clearly communicate what that better future will be.
  • They make their followers part of something bigger than themselves. They use “we” and “us” instead of “I” or “me.”

This list seems nearly overwhelming to a new or aspiring leader or someone who has never focused on bringing excitement alive in others.

However, leaders who leave behind their own cynicism and live in a world of passion and enthusiasm eagerly embrace the actions on this list.

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