Inspired ordinary: The real cost of poor leadership

by MPA28 Oct 2014
Read any research on employee engagement and you are likely to find a similar story. Global statistics show only 30% of people are actively engaged at work. Active engagement means that people feel a sense of emotional ownership and are committed to achieving the objectives of their role. The remaining 70% fit somewhere between somewhat engaged and actively disengaged. The actively disengaged are those deliberately looking for ways to minimize their contribution and even sabotage success.

These statistics show the vastness of the untapped potential sitting in most organizations. The unfortunate reality is that at the heart of the issue is poor leadership. Through recruitment decisions, leadership development and employee engagement strategies, there is much you can do to inspire far more than ordinary. The most important things you can do to inspire your own team and support business leaders to do the same are explored in this article.


Leaders who bring an uninspired, lethargic, conservative or cautious approach undermine the ambition and confidence of their team. Hesitant and reserved leadership diminishes the belief people have in their own potential and drains the team of vital energy needed to succeed. Without confidence and energy, people are unlikely to strive. Thriving people and teams are ambitious and push beyond safe boundaries to give new or challenging things a go. They work hard to achieve results and take the opportunities that come along.

Leaders who accept the mediocre fail to inspire other people to reach beyond ordinary standards of performance. Equally they struggle to inspire people to be committed to their organization and excited about their future. Aiming for easily achievable goals is only ever likely to inspire ordinary levels of engagement and outcomes. The real cost of this approach to leadership can be seen in suboptimal operational performance, customer satisfaction, staff loyalty and engagement.

The starting point of any successful endeavor is understanding and articulating the specific outcomes you want to achieve. Laying out your plans and what you need from each person is fundamental to your ability to leverage the talent and energy of your team to drive optimal results. However, the hectic pace at which so many managers and teams operate makes achieving this clarity and focus difficult at times. With our minds occupied with here-and-now priorities, there is often little energy and space created for reflecting on future possibilities. See planning as essential and forge the time needed to do it well.

Engage your team by not only sharing insight into your own thinking but also allowing them to contribute. Allow people to be a part of the process you work through to determine where you are heading and how you plan to get there. Ask the people on your team to work with you to define the strategies, values, behaviors and capabilities needed to achieve more than ordinary outcomes. Don’t underestimate the quality of the contribution people can make, irrespective of the seniority of their position in your team.

Every leader I have observed achieving extraordinary results has done so by first creating an inspiring vision of the future that people believed in. These managers have won buy-in by encouraging belief in exciting possibilities and in the team’s ability to succeed. However, all too often I meet leaders who know what they want the future to hold but fail to share their dreams with anyone else. Other leaders I meet struggle to create a clear picture in their own mind and therefore fail to lay down a path for their team to follow.

Paint a picture of what you are aiming to achieve as well as the contribution you need each person on your team to make. Ensure vision isn’t limited to the ‘big picture’ view of your organization’s ambitions; the vision each team has of their own future matters just as much in inspiring people to strive. Influence your team’s confidence that big things can happen, but also inspire in them a passionate desire to strive to get there.

To achieve the best possible outcomes it’s essential that your team challenges conventional wisdom. Limiting dreaming to within the boundaries of what is commonly understood or accepted is likely to lead to, at best, ordinary results. Being a leader in any industry takes willingness and ability to think beyond what is typical – to have the courage to take the road less travelled, or even one that has never been travelled at all. Our history is rich with examples of the achievements of people who dared to think differently and give new things a go.

By promoting a creative culture you are more likely to continue to expand your own vision and realm of possibilities over time, and it is these expanded possibilities that will empower you and your team to reach the highest peaks of your potential. Your own ability to conceive of a bigger and brighter future matters, but so too does your ability to inspire that belief in others. Challenge limiting beliefs and make it OK for people to suggest and try things that haven’t been done before.

Visioning is neither a one-off nor a once-a-year event. Looking into the future, dreaming about what might be possible, and imagining the places you would like to go are crucial if a business or team is to achieve its full potential over time. Our ability to continuously grow and evolve depends on curiosity and the desire to keep exploring new and better options or approaches. Leaders who lack imagination and are happy to evolve slowly will struggle to inspire other people to strive for excellence.

Plodding along doing what you have always done is not necessarily going to serve you well in the future. Organizations that ‘stick to their knitting’ and fail to innovate are those most likely to be adversely impacted by change. Unless you inspire people to challenge what they do and how they do it, you are unlikely to keep pace with the rapidly changing world in which all businesses operate. No matter the competitive advantage your organization may have today, that can change quickly and you are wise to be ready to respond.

Inspiring a team to strive for excellence requires that leaders should hold people accountable for the standard of contribution they make. It’s essential that immediate steps be taken to address mediocre through to inadequate performance. As poor performers drag down a team’s results, those who are making a positive contribution begin to lose motivation. Failing to deal with the issue will eventually lead others to give up, resigned to the fact that only ordinary is possible.

One of the most commonly reported reasons people leave an organization is that they are unhappy with their manager. While it’s common for complaints to relate to the manager’s style, just as often people express frustration with their manager’s failure to deal with the poor performance or behavior of their colleagues. Often when strong performers feel held back by their manager’s failure to hold some people accountable, they choose to move on.

Expect more than ordinary and you will have taken the first step towards inspiring people to give more than ordinary. Lead by example and showcase what it means to strive to achieve the heights of what is possible. Bring energy to your own role and hold people accountable for doing the same. Give people something to strive for and keep them informed about how your team is progressing towards turning your dreams into reality.

Karen Gately is a leadership and people management expert and a founder of Ryan Gately, a specialist HR consultancy practice. She is also the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Getting the Best from People, and The Corporate Dojo: Driving Extraordinary Results Through Spirited People. For more information, visit or contact


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