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Organizational Change
In Search of Sustainable Leadership:
Creating Inspiration

This is the fourth in a series of articles examining the many facets of ‘sustainable leadership.’ Find links to the entire series below. Our search for sustainable leadership has shown us how to create organizations that use change to become stronger by using values and purpose to facilitate the transitions that arise during change.

This is the fourth in a series of articles examining the many facets of ‘sustainable leadership.’ Find links to the entire series below.

Our search for sustainable leadership has shown us how to create organizations that use change to become stronger by using values and purpose to facilitate the transitions that arise during change.

To accelerate the first stage of these transitions, Separation, we need to build an inspiring vision of the future we want to create. This article describes how.

Vision Matters – It Makes Us Feel Alive

As Steve Jobs said: “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you."

“If you want to build a ship,” poet and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

In a time of rapid change, your ability to create an inspiring vision will enable you to meet any challenge.

It transforms your results three times over:

  • First, in times of change, people are likely to be experiencing uncertainty, confusion and loss. Getting them to switch to your proposed way of doing things means overcoming their inertia, doubt and even fear. The best way to do this is by inspiring them.
  • Once people have joined your project or initiative, difficulties are bound to arise. The more inspiration you have created with your vision, the more people will be able to work around those difficulties without needing further input from you. The more inspiration customers, employees and investors gain from participating in your project, the more committed they will be to continue engaging with it, no matter what happens. A 2016 survey of tech companies showed that employees at Tesla and SpaceX had the most stressful and the lowest-paying jobs, but also the most inspiring. The meaning and inspiration they feel outweigh the stress and lower pay.
  • Third, the inspiration felt by your team will show up in the results you produce together over time. Gallup research found that companies with highly engaged workforces “outperform their peers by 147 percent in earnings per share… A highly engaged workforce,” Gallup says, “means the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors and one that fails to grow.”

Creating inspiration will spur people to join your project, motivate them to stick with it, and generate higher levels of contribution. It is also more enjoyable to be around.

So how can we create this inspiration?

Seven Building Blocks

We can describe your chosen way forward in an inspiring, visionary way by using seven building blocks.

The first three blocks describe three elements that research has shown are essential to achieving successful strategic change:

  • clear definition of the problem
  • clear definition of the future you want to create
  • clearly defined first steps to get there – not the entire journey, just the first steps

These building blocks will then have more power if you communicate them in ways that resonate with your audience, so the fourth building block is to create that meaning for your audience, both rationally and emotionally.

The fifth block is to describe the underlying values, principles, or ideals that your vision upholds.

The sixth is to ask people to make a choice: Will they support your project?

And finally, you will achieve all this best when you speak it in your own authentic voice. This is the seventh building block.

Here are the seven ingredients for creating an inspiring vision:

  1. clear definition of the problem
  2. clear definition of the future you want to create
  3. clear first steps
  4. together with the higher principles or values that your vision supports
  5. delivered authentically by you
  6. in language that is meaningful for your audience
  7. in a way that spurs your audience to decide whether or not to join you

Individually, these blocks can be boring, dull and lifeless. The best way to make them inspiring is to turn them into a story.

A Vision-Story

Human beings are hard-wired for stories. We connect with them, engage with them, and remember them in ways that simply don’t happen when we receive the same information in other forms.

Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson has found that, “Story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”

As screenwriting guru Robert McKee explains, “When an idea wraps itself around an emotional charge … a story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience.”

A story can deliver a vision so meaningful and inspiring that your audience not only understands the vision but internalises it as their own.

As a simple example, let’s invent one deliberately bland sentence for each of the seven blocks, then combine them into a story:

“We are facing a difficult situation, unlike anything we have experienced before. But we come from a long line of people who have faced difficult situations and overcome them. We can’t stay as we are, or go back to where we were: We have to move forward. And if we move in the direction I am suggesting then we have the opportunity to build something very special. It will uphold the very principles we stand for. We have all the tools and resources we need to begin. The only question is, are you willing to step up and play your part for those who will come after?”

Each building block alone is a single, unexciting ingredient. But, like your mother’s cooking or the recipe for gunpowder, combined in the right order and proportions they can become a whole that is more powerful than its parts.

Story is the best way to combine facts and emotion so that you and others want to make your chosen way forward happen. Sustainable leadership uses this ‘vision-story,’ together with purpose and values, to build organisations that use change to become stronger.

But before we can create an inspiring vision we first need to choose a direction to move forward in: the future we want to create. And before we can do that, we need to know what our options are.

The next article looks at how to identify more opportunities in a time of change.

In Search of Sustainable Leadership, the series:

  1. In Search of Sustainable Leadership
  2. Building Antifragile Competitive Advantage
  3. Managing Transitions
  4. Creating Inspiration
  5. An Opportunity Mindset
  6. Choosing a Way Forward
  7. Keep Your Head When They Are Losing Theirs
  8. Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet