How to Inspire

How to Inspire

Most leaders can’t clearly answer the question, Why am I here? How can we be inspiring if we don’t even know why we are here, or what we are supposed to be doing, or what we stand for?

Illustration Credit: Becky Joye

If you Google the word “leadership” you’ll get a gazillion hits leading to an endless variety of schools, models, and training programs. Maybe each one has something useful to offer, but what I have found in my work as a corporate coach is that the essence of leadership can be summed up in one word: inspiration. Every great leader—Christ, Confucius, Buddha, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela—inspired his or her followers. Every great mother who seeks to inculcate good values and instill moral character in her children inspires. Every great teacher or mentor who wants his or her students to excel inspires. As human beings, we yearn to inspire and be inspired, just as we need to love and be loved. Inspiration is the oxygen of the soul.

So what’s the working definition of great leadership? After 30 years of study, teaching, and practicing leadership in almost every imaginable environment, this is what I’ve discovered: Leadership is a serving relationship with others that inspires their growth and makes the world a better place. Leadership is something you live, model, and practice, not something you tell other people to do. As Albert Schweitzer said, “Example isn’t the main thing in influencing others—it is the only thing.” Charlie Parker put it another way: “If you don’t live it—it won’t come out of your horn.”

What is so remarkable about leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela? Simply this: They knew why they were here on this planet. They were in touch with their destinies. They knew what they stood for, what they were needed to do, and how to use their talents to fulfill their calling. If you can put these pieces together, as all great leaders have done, you will make magic. You will find it to be the most liberating experience of your life. You will discover the contours of your own internal map, which you can then rely on to help you—and others—to realize dreams.

I’ve found that most leaders, however, can’t say why they are on the planet. How can we inspire if we don’t know why we are here, or what we are supposed to be doing, or what we stand for? It’s never too late to find out.

Don’t Motivate, Inspire!

Are you lifting the hearts of those around you? That, as a leader, is the question you should be asking yourself. Why do 80 percent of the population, according to Gallup surveys, not want to go to work on Monday mornings? Do you think that 80 percent of the people who followed Christ didn’t want to follow him on Monday mornings?

We have confused the words motivation and inspiration, even though the two concepts are quite different. Motivation means to provide a motive, to induce, insight, impel. It’s based on fear. If I say I’ll give you a bonus if you make your budget or your sales quota—and that I won’t if you don’t—it’s essentially a bribe. Now you’re afraid you won’t make it. Fear has become the motivating factor. And the bonus isn’t about you: it’s about me, because if you make your budget then I get to make mine. I’m manipulating you for my own benefit. We can follow the motivation model based on fear and spend our lives playing not to lose, not to get old, not to get sick, not to get poor, not to lose our jobs, not to get in trouble with the boss, not to look silly, not to fail. Or we can play to win.

Look at the word “inspiration.” It comes from the Latin word inspirare, to breathe. To inspire is to infuse with an encouraging or exalting influence; to animate. Inspiration is stimulation by divinity, a genius, an idea, or a passion, a divine influence upon human beings; to give life; the breath of God.

Motivation and inspiration don’t have a lot in common. Inspiration isn’t about me—it’s a gift to you that comes from my love for you and my desire to serve you in some way. If you’ve ever had a great coach or mentor in your life, you know that this person inspired you out of love for you. There was nothing in it for them other than the joy of seeing you grow. Motivation is about me. Inspiration is about you. Motivation is about fear. Inspiration is about love.

Oscar Wilde said, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” Can we be the kinds of people who bring happiness wherever—not whenever—we go? We can if we are inspired to fulfill our destiny.

It’s never too late to discover your destiny or change the course of your life. In his 40s, Bill Wilson decided he didn’t want to keep struggling with alcoholism, and he helped to found Alcoholics Anonymous. Rosa Parks was 42 years old when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Golda Meir became prime minister of Israel at 70. Grandma Moses began painting at 76 and completed more than 1,000 paintings before she died. It’s never too late.

We need to think large. We shouldn’t think, as so many of us do, that any job is too big for us, that completing it requires a Golda Meir or a Rosa Parks. They were just like us before they became great leaders. Who says we can’t change the world—each one of us? But first, we have to discover our destiny.

Step One: Discover Your Destiny

If you don’t know your destiny, here’s a suggestion: Think about which trouble or issue in the world most saddens or pains you. Then consider that manifestos for action are generally statements of problems, flipped upside down. Every manifesto—the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, Charter 77—is a statement of problems written in the affirmative. So think of a statement of a problem written in reverse as a manifesto we call destiny.

You can think of these issues as terra-threats—threats to the earth. My issues are violence of all kinds—toward children, women, countries, minorities, the earth, trees, the atmosphere—and degradation of the planet, caused by the way we live today. When I reframe these terra-threats in the positive, I find that the opposite of violence is love and the opposite of degradation is sustainability, so my destiny is to work for a more loving and sustainable planet. And my cause is to inspire others to see the sacredness in everything; that’s why I am here. Everything I do in my life is aimed at helping to make life more loving and more sustainable.

If I can help someone to see the sacredness in another person, a tree, or a country, then maybe they won’t destroy it. We aren’t violent toward things that we hold sacred. If I can inch the world forward in this way, that also moves me toward meeting my destiny.

Step Two: Take Up Your Cause

I wish I could take all the mission statements ever written and burn them. I bet if I shuffled them all together and then gave one back to you, you wouldn’t know whether it was yours. They’re all the same because they all come from the same books and MBA courses.

Most mission statements are about being the world’s largest, best, fastest, strongest, most profitable—fill in the blank. Three days in a retreat center and thousands of dollars in consultant fees later, all to end up with the same blather. We need something larger than that. We need a cause, a destiny, for our organizations and companies, just as we do for ourselves.

One example of a company with its cause as its mission is Timberland Boots. Its cause: to equip people to make a difference in the world.

I called Jeffrey Schwartz, Timberland’s CEO, some time ago, and the company’s main switchboard gave a recorded message saying, more or less, “I’m sorry, but none of our 4,900 employees are at work today. They are in their communities, doing local service work in 19 different countries. You won’t be able to reach anybody at Timberland today. Call back tomorrow.”

Schwartz wants to change the world by getting people into boots and outdoor gear that help them do what they do better. He doesn’t say his cause is to make the best, fastest, strongest, most profitable boots in the world.

Timberland has a cause centered on serving the world. When you have a powerful cause, people want to be part of it. It’s how we integrate the spirit with the mechanics of making money in a capitalist system.

Step Three: Choose Your Calling

Can you imagine what power would be unleashed if every person in every company followed his or her calling? Sadly, most people are mismatched in their jobs or companies, which is why most people don’t want to go to work. They don’t like what they do. Our calling is a succinct definition of our personal mastery, the intersection of our passions and our talents and skills. For example, Evelyn Glennie, one of the world’s leading percussionists, has made dozens of recordings although she is deaf. Imagine how powerful a musician’s calling must be to compensate for not being able to hear. When Glennie is asked about being deaf, she says: “If you want to know about deafness, you should interview my audiologist—my specialty is music.”

Step Four: Get Yourself Aligned

Nothing is as reassuring as the certain knowledge that you are living your life on purpose. In fact, when you stand in the presence of someone who knows why they are here (destiny), what they stand for (cause), and what they will do to use their talents to serve (calling), you are in the presence of an inspiring person. Until we clearly indentify and follow our own destiny, and make it real by having and serving a cause, we cannot be authentic leaders helping others to follow their true paths. That is what I call Higher Ground Leadership.

So the next step is to make sure your destiny is aligned with your cause and your calling. The best way to do that is to ask yourself the following questions: If I have found my true calling, the unique intersection between talent and spirit, and I practice it with exquisite mastery, will it help my cause? And if it helps my cause, will it make a difference in the world? Will it fulfill my destiny?

Aligning our destiny, cause, and calling is an important step toward validating our lives, confirming that our newfound sense of clarity is neither an illusion nor a mere exercise, but a real arrival at a new stage in our personal growth and development.

Step Five: Devote Yourself to Service

Every great leader in history, upon aligning destiny, cause, and calling, wanted to serve. Leadership is serving others rather than yourself.

Step Six: Lift Up Their Hearts

Most businesses still operate on B.F. Skinner’s theory that behavior is conditioned on the expectation of reward or punishment. They use salary increases, promotions, and bigger offices as rewards, and poor performance appraisals, salary freezes, and threats as punishments. This is the same system used to train animals. Think about what “breaking” a horse means; often, it means breaking its spirit. Now think about how a horse whisperer works. I met one in Arizona who, after working with a wild mustang for an hour, was able to ride it. No bribes, no beating, no punishment—nothing but a connection between the soul of the person who loved the horse and the soul of the horse. Connecting soul to soul—that’s what we need to do with one another at work.

We need to ask if we are lifting each other’s hearts in our work and in our lives. Are we guiding the brilliance around us, helping others to grow and find fulfillment?

Step Seven: Inspire

This is the step that is missing in all the leadership literature. When the leader is down, blue, depressed, who inspires the leader? The answer, of course, is the follower. But you as the leader cannot demand to be inspired. You must create the environment, the conditions that will inspire you. The best way to do that is to allow people to believe in something bigger, better, larger in their lives. That is your job—to inspire by forging hope. Lin Yutang said it best: “Hope is like a road in the country. There never was a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.”

Lance Secretan is the author of 15 books and an award-winning columnist, teacher, corporate coach, and keynote speaker whose clients include 30 of Fortune’s Most Admired Companies in America. He has been an ambassador to the United Nations Environment Program and the recipient of numerous prizes, including the prestigious International Caring Award.

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