Two types of inspiration

It seems to me that there are two ways to inspire: by changing minds and by changing facts.

Inspiration by Changing Minds

This is about getting people to think differently. One approach is to frame the situation differently. Attempts to change the lexicon fall into this camp. Our business isn’t in deep shit, we have “opportunity.” We don’t have weaknesses, we have “development opportunities.” And so on. This can be silly or it can be meaningful. You can look at tough economic times as tough economic times or you can look at the lull in sales as the time to focus on innovation so you’re ready for the upswing.

Another approach is to get people to ignore the situation and focus elsewhere. The general who leads an outmatched army that has raggedy coats and boots in the dead of winter is a good example. The general doesn’t have coats and boots to hand out. But he can remind people that they fight for a cause that is more important than their comfort.

Inspiration by Changing Facts

This is about changing the conditions that are blocking people from being inspired. For example, the general who procures the coats and boots. The corporate executive that changes the policies that are vexing people. [I like to say “vexing.” You should try it.]

Both methods of inspiration have their place and time but I think that too often would-be leaders try to inspire by changing minds when instead they should change facts. I think this is often just laziness to take on the hard work of changing the situation, cowardice to fight the battles that would be required or arrogance that the masses can always be convinced by the right message.

I think two things are required if you want to inspire by changing minds:

1) You must be perceived as unable to change the facts. If the soldiers think you really can get them boots and coats and just won’t, they will be very de-inspired. You will breed only cynicism with this approach if you could change the facts but choose not to.

2) There must be a cause that people truly believe is worth it. Again, don’t fake it. You will breed cynicism. If your company is working on a life-saving drug and you’re strapped for cash and need people to work weekends… then go ahead and inspire them with your important mission. Be open about the fact that you can’t pay them overtime and ask them to help you save lives. But if your mission is to squeeze out one more penny in earnings per share or another tenth of a point of market share, I’m not sure you will succeed here.

Too often people become enamored of their oratorical skills. Don’t fall into this trap. Some situations call for inspirational rhetoric. But others demand that you roll up your sleeves and meaningfully change your corner of the world. It’s hard work. Much harder than giving a rousing speech. But in certain situations, nothing less will work.