Inspired to Lead

Image Source: Dean McCoy

Can you imagine and see a time, when you drive down the road on a clear beautiful afternoon with your family?  As you travel further, the weather begins to change and the sky darkens.  You can feel and see and hear the difference.  Your visibility worsens and deep, penetrating fog sets in.  You slow down, uncertain about what is ahead.  Could there be a car in front of you, or a cliff?  Would you have time to react?  It’s a scary feeling, right?  A team without a clear vision for where they are going reacts in much the same way.  They may slow down, feel anxious, or seek ways to get out of the situation.  This is the reason that it is critical to inspire a shared vision for those you would lead.  And yet, as critical as inspiring a shared vision is to a team’s performance, it is also the leadership practice that most leaders struggle with (Kouzes & Posner, 2006).  We often study prolific leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Steve Jobs and yet very little time is spent on how their vision came into existence. I submit that inspiring a shared vision is a craft that any craftsman can create with the right perspective.

Challenge the Status Quo

            A colleague of mine, often reminds me that different isn’t always better, but better is always different.  “You find vision by reaching for any available reason to change, grow, and improve(Clark, 1997).” Kouzes and Posner noted in their research that challenging the process is one of the five practices of exemplary leaders (Kouzes & Posner, 2007).  It takes courage to challenge the status quo, because there are frequently vested interests that seek to maintain a business as usual approach.

Be Optimistic

            “Leaders have to enlist others in a common vision (Kouzes & Posner, 2007).”  For others to want to share in the vision and want to be inspired, the vision must be both exciting and possible.

Aspire to the Greatest Good

            There is always a greater good.  The greater good is that which serves the larger group and is inherently connected to a vision.  A leader sits between his team and the greater good and has the role of aligning the aspirations of each individual to the greater good.  To do that, a leader must navigate between the many levels of good and the aspirations of the team members.  The greater the good, the more inspiring the vision is.  For example, contrast the success of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition with that of the original show, Extreme Makeover.  The original show focused on helping an individual with their physical appearance, whereas the Home Edition focuses on helping an entire family reestablish their lives.  Which is still on the air?

The Language of Vision

            In one sense, a vision can be described as an experience.  How can you help people have a shared experience?  The language of a vision will differ based on the representation systems of the team members.  Some may be more apt to see a visual representation, while others will want to hear what the future will be like for them personally, and yet other may want to study the rationale behind the vision.  You must understand your team and their language of value to help them experience the vision together.

Using the Timeline

Each of us has a timeline that extends far back to our first experiences and as far into the future as we wish to look.  “When we gaze first into our past, we elongate our future (Kouzes & Posner, 2007).”  By helping the team to first look to the past, we gain the value of perspective and their experiences.

Goal Setting is the Roadmap

As we have our teams envision the future timeline and see the achievement of the vision, key questions can set be used to create specific goals that measure both progress and results.  As we move down the timeline, how will we know that progress is being made? What will it feel like and be like?  What will be different?  These clarifying questions can help solidify the definition of success and form those definitions into specific goals.  We can then lay the goals across the timeline to form a roadmap.

Be Contagious

“Getting people to accomplish something is much easier if they have the inspiration to do so (Clark, 1997).” Your passion is contagious.  Your passion will tell your team that their effort will make a difference.

The ability to inspire a shared vision is within each of us.  Like anything else, it is a skill to be honed through practice and use.  Thomas Edison once famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration (“Edison Lecture Series,” 2010).”  Inspiring a shared vision is about getting the inspiration right, so the perspiration creates the right results.


Clark, Don. (1997, 4/20/2010). Leading and Leadership  Retrieved 3/19/2011, 2011, from

Edison Lecture Series. (2010).   Retrieved 3/24/2011, 2011, from

Kouzes, James M., & Posner, Barry Z. (2006). It’s Not Just the Leader’s Vision. In Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith & Leader to Leader Institute. (Eds.), The leader of the future 2 : visions, strategies, and practices for the new era (1st ed., pp. 207-212). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, James M., & Posner, Barry Z. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.



The Two Wolves

Photo from Caninest

“The leader’s unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time (Kouzes & Posner, 2007, pg. xvi).”  Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were leaders during a time of turmoil and social change.  These leaders, together, and with the countless masses that supported them, transformed a generation, a people and a country.  In his book, Bass describes transformational leaders as, “those who stimulate and inspire followers to both achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their own leadership capacity (2006, pg. 3).”

Kouzes and Posner, renowned transformational leadership scholars, suggest that there are five practices of exemplary leaders; they “model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart (2007, pg. 14).”  Both Malcolm X and King exhibited strong characteristics of the transformative leader.  Both challenged the nation’s Jim Crow laws, both inspired the African-American people, and both modeled the way for their followers; Malcolm the model of a proud, educated, strong, Islamic black man and Martin the model of Christian beliefs; loving, charitable, faithful and tolerant.  There were also some key differences, specifically in their vision for African-Americans.

Photo from Tony the Misfit

“Malcolm X was a product of the northern, poor, black masses (Cone, 2009, pg.41).”   Malcolm once famously commented, “All our experiences fuse into our personality…for me to wind up in prison was really just about inevitable (X, M., & Haley, A., 1999, pg. 378).”  Malcolm’s vision was for Black Nationalism; he believed strongly in unity, self-respect, self-defense, self-love and separatism, hoping for a separate, free, black nation (Cone, 2009).  He was a fiery and unapologetic speaker of the truth of the black experience in America.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a well-educated, middle-class, devout Christian minister.  His philosophy on the power of love and hope drew broadly from the Christian tradition, whereas his operational plan came from Gandhi (Cone, 2009).  “He urged his people to accept their redemptive role by pursuing five objectives: self-respect, high moral standards, whole-hearted work, leadership and nonviolence (Cone, 2009, pg. 71).”  King was an integrationist and believed that Negros future lie in America with equal rights and equal protection under the law.

While both men were great leaders, Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership style was more effective.  His vision for integration was both optimistic and inclusive as it had appeal for both black and white audiences.  He indicated it was easy for him to be optimistic because of his childhood experiences (Cone, 2009).    In his article, the Leadership Advantage, Warren Bennis writes, “every exemplary leader that I have met has what seems to be an unwarranted degree of optimism — and that helps generate the energy and commitment necessary to achieve results (1999).”

Photo from daBinsi

An angry boy came to see his Grandfather.  The Grandfather told the boy that it was as if he had two wolves inside of him; one wolf that lives in harmony and has love and hope in its heart, and the other wolf that lives in anger and hate and they fight to dominate your spirit.  Curious, the boy asks, “Which one will win?”  His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”


Bass, B. M., & Riggio, R. E. (2006). Transformational Leadership (2nd ed.). Mahwah, N.J. : L. Erlbaum Associates.

Bennis, W. (1999) The Leadership Advantage. Leader to Leader Institute. Retrieved March 18, 2011, from

Cone, J. H. (2009). Martin & Malcolm & America:  A Dream or A Nightmare (19. print. ed.). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The Leadership Challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

X, M., & Haley, A. (1999). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books.