Inspire Others? Yes You Can

What does a leader do to inspire others? And how can you, as a leader, awaken this positive and powerful source of human potential?

Inspiration is derived from two Latin words, in and spirare, translated as “to breathe in”. It is, perhaps, best described as a force that, when experienced or “breathed in”, changes the way we see the world and ourselves.

When inspiration strikes, we may experience the mundane or everyday as suddenly infused with possibilities. Ideas spill forth freely while obstacles seem to fall away. We feel empowered, exhilarated, and able to work long hours while remaining highly focused on our goals.

Inspiration is a highly positive force that can transform the lives of the inspired and, especially, those they touch. It can drive us to accomplish goals and reach levels of achievement we previously did not think possible.

Inspiration. Not Just for “Big” Personalities

Maybe to you, the capacity to become inspired by others ideas or accomplishments may seem like a real possibility while, at the same time, the ability to inspire others may seem very much out of reach. 

This discrepancy may be accounted for, in part, by a commonly held view that inspirational leaders are those rare individuals who use the power of their charismatic and compelling personalities to mobilize large audiences into action. Most of us do not see ourselves as having this gift.

However, though a positive, powerful personality may be very effective in inspiring others, it is not the only way.

The rest of us, leaders who may be more introverted and/or better at working in smaller groups, also have the power to inspire.

So, if the influence of a big personality is not the only way to cause people in an organization to say, “Yes! I will follow your lead. I am so excited by this new idea! I will do everything within my power to make this plan a success,” what is it?

The key ingredient to inspiring others is to tap into and awaken the inspirational source within each person. 

This is accomplished by learning to identify and engage five, typically latent, human sources that (individually or in combination) function to inspire us. These include,

  • Making a Contribution,
  • Tapping into Character
  • Engaging the Imagination
  • Demonstrating Empathy
  • Expecting the Best.

How then do you determine what another’s inspirational source actually is?

Actually the process is quite simple. It involves three steps.

  1. I ask a person to tell me a story about a leader that inspired them at some point in his/her life? As I probe a little deeper as the “why?” that person was inspiring it turns out, in some way or another, that the inspirational leader had one of the five characteristics mentioned above.
  2. The next step is to ask them “To you, what is a great day at work?” or “What are you the most proud of at work?” Answers to such questions will give you a sense of what is inspiring to that person.
  3. The final step in finding ways to inspire people at work is to match what inspires them with their actual work assignments.

All of us can help an individual identify his/her unique source and leverage it in the service of a team goal. Hence the beginnings of an engaged and inspired team.

In closing, we leave you with the words of Patanjali, an Indian sage and mystic from 3 B.C., who we think captured the experience of inspiration beautifully when he said:

When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds;

Your mind transcends limitations,

Your consciousness expands in every direction,

And you find yourself in a new, great
and wonderful world.

Dormant forces, faculties, and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.

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The Profile of an Inspirational Leader

Written 8 years ago with my wife Kris MacKain, Ph.D.

So what does an inspirational leader look like?

As a leader, you have a vision of where you want your organization to go.

You know you need to inspire individuals to get them to follow you and make that vision a reality. But how do you do that? How do you connect with people in a way that fires them up, motivating them to commit to your vision and give you their best?

In our book “What Inspirational Leaders Do” (Kindle 2008) we explore what inspirational leaders do to bring out the best in others. Specifically, we discuss several important needs or behaviors that you, as a leader, will need to know in order to inspire your team to work together to realize the vision you have for your organization.

The needs we have identified have arisen out of our work in coaching and developing business leaders all over the world. Over the last decade, we often began our first coaching session by asking, “What inspires you?” The answers to this question were compelling in that they typically reflected an individual leader’s deeply held values or needs. We subsequently grouped these needs into five categories that we call The Five Sources of Inspiration.

These sources reflect specific human needs that, when met, can release powerful inspirational forces.

The Five Sources of Inspiration

The need to:

1. Make a contribution to benefit individuals or the world-at-large. (Contribution)

2. Work in alignment with one’s highest values. (Character)

3. Engage one’s creative potential, to imagine a better way. (Imagination)

4. Be interpersonally moved or emotionally engaged to work toward achieving team goals. (Empathy)

5. Be acknowledged and affirmed for one’s unique talents and strengths, and engage those skills in meeting work challenges. (Expecting the Best)

Once engaged, these needs drive individuals to perform and produce at levels they previously may not have thought possible. A leader’s first step in inspiring others is to identify which source(s) of inspiration drive a particular individual and then appeal to that source.

Now you know the basic theme of our book.

Describe the leader who inspires you and why

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Leading a “Barn Raising” – What’s Your Story?

What’s your story that grabs people emotionally and best describes your unique contribution to your organization or community?

I know of a Technology Executive who describes himself as a “breaker of glass”.What’s unique about this metaphor is that his organization needed someone to completely revamp its IT systems. He was the person for the job. He disrupted old ways of doing things, got rid of redundant staff, and set the course for a dynamic new organization that met customer needs. He is now seen as the glass-breaking innovator.

Stories (metaphors) are a way that we as individuals naturally organize our personal lives and communicate what and who we are. It is also the way we influence others at an emotional level to buy into our ideas and use our talents. We have to reach hearts as well as minds. Very few people are moved to action on our behalf by viewing a bar chart or a resume.

How then do you position yourself with a compelling image so that key decision makers say, “I want him/her on my team”?

Most people I work with are highly talented, have a stellar performance record, and sometimes wonder why they lose out on great new opportunities.

If you fall into the category of the “often ignored” you need a story that grabs people’s attention where they almost hire you on the spot,

The Making of a Story

There are two basic components in story-making. You use,

1. Stand out phrases from your resume

I was working with an executive that was writing his personal story. I asked him to isolate three phrases from his resume that best described his stellar leadership abilities. He came up with, “fix important problems, manage a large business successfully, and forge durable partnerships”. We then built on this discovery with a key picture.

2. Pictures from the past

Personal pictures capture your story in powerful ways. The above oil executive grew up in small town rural America. Survival on this frontier meant that the residents faced life’s challenges together. I asked him to come up with three photographs that captured his experience and essence both then and now. The standout photo for him was his community raising a barn together.

This picture meshed well with his resume capabilities. In his mind his story from that point onwards was a leader who inspired a collaborative effort to “raise barns.” He used this image in his last job-interview. Just that phase alone captured the interviewers’ imagination and led to a job offer.

Your Challenge

Use three key leadership descriptors from your resume and integrate those with a powerful image from your past,

What image best describes your unique contribution?


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Living with a Narcissist

Whether we admit it or not we all feel the hurtful impact of “me-first” people somewhere in our lives.

Maybe one of your parents or your partner or your boss was/is a narcissist. You never felt heard by him/her,  consistently had your own abilities diminished, and, if the narcissist was a boss,  you felt invisible in the organization.

Generally you have very hurtful memories from such “all about me” people.

How does this ubiquitous condition manifest itself?   And, how do you manage it?

The Roots of Narcissism

Narcissism is deeply rooted in our society. It,

  1. Arises from a deep sense of self-loathing – many sense that there is a fatal flaw in them that requires overcompensation with personal boasting and bluster. We are scared and so shout louder about ourselves.
  2. Deeply impairs relationships. A person so deeply focused on the self cannot attune to others. As a result they remain inaccessible to deep and authentic relationships. They are an accident waiting to happen on work teams. Because when they don’t have their needs met it,
  3. Leads to a narcissistic rage response when the narcissist senses that you are not meeting his/her needs. A typical response from a narcissist is that when you push back they punch back ten times harder.
  4. Shows itself in grandiosity. It overestimates its real abilities, exaggerates its talents, and boasts about small accomplishments as if they were something akin to the Nobel prize.
  5. Constantly craves attention and in so doing attempts to choreograph everyone around to dish up praise.
  6. Treats sycophants well and abuses those who see them as the “emperor without clothes” (often their own family members).
  7. Wants to keep us as infants dependent on them. Narcissists never want us to grow up and think for ourselves and challenge them.
  8. Manifests as an  incredible tension between their inflated self-image and what they actually are (fragile and vulnerable). One writer puts it this way“We like to see ourselves as strong and in control but we are more like a fragile eggshell that is easily broken – This makes use feel deeply vulnerable and not in a good way.” Dzigar Kongtrul

How then does one live and work with a narcissist?

 Managing Narcissism

There are certain insights and actions needed to live more successfully with narcissists. These include the recognition that,

  1. We all have elements of narcissism in our lives. The smaller the dose the less miserable we make others and ourselves. The key here is self-awareness and then self-regulation.
  1. We should not confuse it with the self-confidence found in so many successful people. That confidence is often wedded with a deep humility.
  1. When we detect narcissism in ourselves and others we should never become judgmental. We need to always forgive. Self and other-loathing is not the solution for narcissism.
  1. Self-deprecating humor is often a good antidote, e.g. “please join me on my pedestal!”
  1. In cases where the narcissism of the other is intractable we need to defend ourselves and break off or severely limit major contact with themManagers need to arrange that narcissists work mostly alone and not have them on teams

We don’t have to put all narcissists in the same category since there are different degrees of severity with the condition. Mild cases are easier to manage. Severe cases may have to be managed out. But we cannot just wait for the problem to fix itself. We need to proactively deal with it or it will pull us and our organization under.

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See You At The Top – Qualifiers for an Executive Position

Today I asked a senior executive whether one of his direct reports “had the right stuff” to become an executive. He answered, “While he is great at what he does right now, I don’t see him as one of our future executives.”

“How do you know he won’t make it to the C-Suite?” I asked.

His answer was somewhat perplexing and needed elaboration. He said,

“Do you know the saying, if you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, you are a duck? This person just does not look and behave like an executive. None of my peers would promote him to the C-Suite.”

Was it the way this person dressed?

Did it have to do with his weak communication skills?

Or did it have to do with the fact that although he had excellent tactical skills, he did not have a strategic bone in his body?

I have coached numerous mid-level leaders who had such leadership gaps. Many overcame their challenge and became senior leaders.

How then does one evaluate for executive level abilities?

Putting aside the domain expertise and credibility that one would need to fill C-Level shoes, the best way to assess whether one could make it to the top is to compare one’s current leadership skills with typical success criteria for that particular position. The above leader presented me with a few of the criteria for success used to evaluate him for his current position. The CEO and Board of Directors wanted to know whether he had the

Ability to build trust with senior leaders across functions and geographies

“Fire his belly” to succeed

Capacity to present a vision of the future for the enterprise

Drive for results in the face of big challenges

Capability to bring novel solutions to the table for the business and influence others to buy into the strategy

Global mindset and knew the levers to pull to improve the business 

Skill to build teams and get the job done through others

Ability to communicate with clarity and credibility

Emotional intelligence to make a good “fit” with the culture of the Organization

Capability to influence people to follow him

In the end, he had received the highest rating in all of the above and was chosen for his position.

How would you rate yourself against such criteria?

Question for Current Executives

What leadership success criteria would you add to the above list to assess whether a person has executive capabilities?

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Finding the Master Key in a Cross-Cultural Conversation

We are always wanting to make more effective cross-cultural connections. But what cultural key do we reach for when we begin our conversations?

Are we left to hit and miss? Is there a tried and true strategy we can use? Recently I met with a Mexican client and his wife for dinner. I had lived in Mexico for several years, knew the rudiments of social protocol, and spoke Spanish at the elementary level. Which tool did I reach for to establish rapport with these folks?

The key question I ask myself in choosing the best response to a person from another culture is, “What is the central value to this particular culture?”

In the case of Mexico, and for most of Latin America, family is of central importance. You talk with people about their family, tell stories about yours, and you do this in some detail before you get down to transactional matters like business challenges or political discussions.

I asked her to show me pictures of her children.

That was the key. She smiled and told me “I can see that we will be friends!”

I know of a psychologist who did a post-doctoral fellowship in Russia during the height of the Cold War. Suspicion for North America was at an all time high. However, he and his wife had an infant that drew instant attention and admiration from Russians on the street. The child was their chief conversation piece. The songwriter Sting was on to something when he said

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too

The key for cultural effectiveness is not just to find common ground with the other but to know “their” ground and then go there intentionally.


How have you used the central value of a culture for effective cross-cultural connections?

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Managing Compassion Fatigue


Compassion can have a short shelf life. That fact alone can make it very lonely and confusing for anyone in need.

All of us have felt a pang of pain when folks seem to disappear on us during our crisis. People who were there for us one minute become distracted or exhausted by our plight and fade off the scene. However, at times we are guilty of the same response to the need of others.

I have a son with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. It’s been that way for over two decades. Most of the time, after the early years when the disease first appeared, he has done quite well. Recently however, he went through a crisis and landed in the hospital with a life-threatening illness. During this extreme situation I found myself overwhelmed with compassion for his plight. However, occasionally I shut down emotionally and closed my heart to him. I felt the same flagging compassion that I have experienced from others.

It takes energy and focus to sustain compassion. Chronic challenges like Alzheimer’s, cancer, substance abuse, and even unemployment can be life draining. Supporters drop out quickly.

In the face of another person’s crisis, we,

  • Feel awkward and out of control when confronted with problems that have no immediate “fix” 
  • Don’t have the emotional and physical bandwidth to deal with the situation and check out (dissociate)
  • Prefer that others listen to us rather than we listen to them 
  • Want the problem to fix itself and go away because it makes us feel helpless
  • Impatiently give useless advice like “Use tough love” or “Find a different medicine that works”

All of the above are signs that our compassion is flagging. While we all want to be helpful to those in need, few of us are the “energizer bunny” that can keep on being helpful all the time.

How then do we survive compassion fatigue?  

  1. Be realistic about the level of support that one person can give at one time.

 This helps you not to get bent out of shape when people flee for the exits or when you do the same. As a result you learn to spread your support needs around. You take the levels of support you actually get no matter how big or small.

  1. Learn to take care of yourself.

You learn to distract or energize yourself with activities that boost your energy. But in so doing, you don’t shut yourself off to potential helpers. Here it is important to find people who are going through a similar situation. All some can do is say “hang in there, it’s tough for you”. Such normalizing of your experience may be just what you needed in that moment. Others, with more durable mental and spiritual resources can sit with you through the night as you agonize over your situation.

  1. Reflect on what you can and cannot control.

 It is important to distinguish between short and long-term solutions. For instance, you cannot fix the dearth of medical providers but you can find one person who can take care of one part of the problem. Bemoaning an inadequate medical system is not helpful. As the saying goes, “Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle”

  1. Go where the help is.

The best compassion comes without judgment and cheap advice. In this current crisis I can number on one hand those who sustained their support with a focused and caring presence. Each person was worth his/her weight in gold. In the absence of such people in our immediate circle what can we do? Some find professional support. Others join 12-Step support groups. In the end, we all gravitate to where the help is.

 Please Share

 How did you navigate compassion fatigue without feeling hurt or guilty?

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The End of Self-Improvement

Let’s take a break from self-improvement. And then find ways to get off the hamster wheel of self- judgment that often comes with the sense that we are somehow inadequate followed by the drive to improve the self.

Why do we need to take a break? From what? Two reasons. We need to stop trying to fix the self and demanding that things be different in areas where we have no control.

In “Falling into Grace” the author Adyashanti writes,

“To tell ourselves – to tell all of life – that it shouldn’t be the way that it is a type of insanity. The insanity destabilizes us.  It’s a bit like going up to a brick wall, telling it that it shouldn’t be there, and then continuing to walk into it. Every time you bump your head on it, you judge the brick wall for being there, and then you walk into it again, again bumping your head. Then you say it shouldn’t be there, at which point you condemn yourself for the pain you have in your head. It’s a kind of insanity to be constantly arguing with what is and thinking it should be different.”

Here are some typical questions we ask ourselves and statements we make in trying to fix the so-called “broken” parts of ourselves. In so doing, we deny the reality that some things will never change.

“Why were my parents so abusive?”

“Why does my organization not recognize my contribution and give me a promotion?

 “I wish I was less shy”

“Why is all this tragedy hitting me right now? What have I done to deserve this?”

Let’s examine the underlying premise of each of these statements.

  1. The historical context of each statement may be accurate. (Yes, your parents were abusive and you may be an introvert)
  2. Our minds twist the event into “what it means for us”. (See that proves that I am unlovable or lack significance)
  3. We then try to fix the broken part of the self. (Help me make myself more lovable to others or attract the right person)
  4. We rail against our misfortune for having such a past or present. (I did not deserve this. Why does the traffic have to be bad, especially today?)

Want to stop hitting your head against the brick wall of immovable and unchangeable events in life? Here’s how.

  1. Don’t “should” on yourself. (Things ought not to be this way).
  2. Recognize that there may be some things you can change, those within your control, and make the changes.
  3. Don’t believe your thoughts. (How your mind interprets the meaning of painful events).
  4. Accept that your essential self (inner wisdom, stamp of the divine or whatever you might like to name it) does not need to evolve or improve. You are perfect as you are.
  5. Be kind to yourself when you face your pain.
  6. Remain open-minded as to what opportunity or growth this pain may bring your way.
  7. From the place of inner stillness or stability discover the magical quality of life.*

*(Points 6 and 7 are adapted from “Falling into Grace”)

Pain is inevitable. But suffering is optional.

Suffering ceases, in part, when we stop railing and struggling against events that cannot change, accept them for what they are, and stop giving them a meaning they do not have.

So by all means go ahead and improve your skills and change your behavior.  But recognize that the invisible part of you, the self, needs no improving. Wake up to finding ways to access it in the stillness of your inner being.

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Our Hurried Lives


 “I’m late. I’m late. For a very important date!

No time to say Hello! Goodbye!

I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”

The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland

The whole world seems to be telling us to “hurry up”. As a result we can be too busy for our own good. Eventually we reach the point where we ask; “Why am I doing this to myself?” 

There are huge differences as to why we get overly busy. Some reasons are productive. Others are quite dysfunctional. Also folks have different energy levels, social/family needs, professional demands, ways they take care of themselves, and the stage they find themselves in life.

At the root of hurry, beyond the fact of time management, there are two basic questions we could ask:

1.  What am I running from?

2.  What am I moving towards?

 Running From

People who are unconsciously driven by past demons often spend much of their lives running from their hurt. This hurried flight can be explained in part by the following self-statements.

1.   “I am inadequate!” Our perceived lack of value may be pegged to insecurities related to personal appearance, lovability, intellectual capacity, social status, and so on. Driven by deep feelings of inferiority we pack our lives with activities that we believe will compensate for our felt sense of inadequacy.

2.   “I don’t have enough!” Here we literally become greedy for whatever we believe will fill that vacuum in our lives. So the more friends we accumulate, possessions we acquire, social events we attend, steps we climb on the corporate ladder, or business commitments we make, we believe that these behaviors will fill the empty but leaking bucket of our lives. The sad fact is that the activities we pursue never seem to fully satisfy us.

3.   “I love this busyness” The adrenaline rush from a hurried life keeps us feeling alive to the point of it becoming an addiction. We reach the stage where we think that we cannot survive without frenetic activity. As a result our lives are so out of balance that our health and relationships suffer. We literally become physically and psychologically hooked on our hyperactive lives.

4.   “I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts.” Sometimes we are suffering from hurts from the past or unresolved psychological issues in the present. We then attempt to avoid the pain by keeping busy. Our family is falling apart so we compensate by turning our fellow workers into a family. As long as we distract ourselves and don’t allow ourselves to be quiet and reflective we think we can eliminate our suffering. But every attempt to run from our inner demons leads to an array of psychosomatic and interpersonal disorders.

However, to be fair, busyness is not always a bad thing. It can be productive when we are…

Moving Towards

People may be busy for positive reasons.

1.   The Drive to Make a Contribution. This impulse is seldom found in a person compensating for a felt sense of insufficiency. Rather, it comes from a vision of a deep human need, an innovative challenge to meet that need, and a sense of the significant contribution one can make in serving the greater good.

2.   The Impulse of the Soul. In our heart of hearts, our very essence or soul, we are kind people with the impulse to do good. In order then for the soul to thrive it has to grow in the soil of personal awareness, balance, presence, and the practice of living as fully in the moment as we can.

3.   The Sense of the Oneness of EverythingThe more I travel and experience other cultures I sense that we have more in common with each other than the differences that often divide. It is these common bonds that drive us to ever be students of other cultures and celebrate common ties. The appetite for more of this oneness ennobles the human spirit.

Forces that arise from moving towards include contribution, soul, and oneness. Such are regenerative. They build us up and contribute in positive ways to others.

Activities driven by moving away, include the forces of the ego based on inferiority, greed, and addiction. These break us down, rob us of our vitality, and hurt others in the process.

Both forces are ever present in our lives. Both require that we stay awake to their presence, treat ourselves with compassion, be less judgmental of others, and require that we take intentional steps to feed the soul and starve the ego.

What have you done to manage your busy life?

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Think of a person who embodies graciousness. What personal characteristics come to mind? How do you experience that person?

On the other hand, think of the polar opposite of graciousness. A person with such a disposition typically is self-centered, brusque, irritable, and shows very little gratitude. He/she expects loyalty from others but does not give it in return. After you have had an encounter this person you feel empty, rejected, isolated, and ignored.

I recently asked a friend to describe the essence of a leader he deeply admired. The answer was that this person showed unconditional acceptance towards others and consistently sought to contribute to the common good. He also did not use people, rip them off financially, and use them for his own ego and selfish needs. In other words, he is gracious.

Here are some behaviors I have seen in gracious people.

  • A prominent politician who took time at a public function to focus on what I was telling her despite the fact that everyone also was clamoring for her attention. She also offered encouragement for my comparatively meager political activism.
  • A very busy CEO who responded immediately to my email requesting information about his key leadership best practices
  • A stranger from Mexico who greeted us at a restaurant table with a “buen provecho”. (By the way, this is typical social protocol in Mexico)
  • A friend who noticed that a stranger was feeling “down” and offered a word of encouragement

In all cases, the gracious person responded with generosity, consideration, and courtesy. They gave of themselves and their time.

Many of us, distracted by busyness and self-preoccupation, forget to be gracious. But such consideration for others can be a choice. Of course, the bigger the differences between ourselves and others (political and cultural), the more challenging graciousness becomes.

But eventually habits can become engrained in our character.

How have you chosen to be gracious?

Where have you observed graciousness in others?

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