Practices successful leaders use to inspire

Let me tell you a story. During the middle ages, a bishop was making the rounds, calling on parishes in his area. He came to a village where there was a great deal of building going on. Curious, he approached one of the workers asking, “What are you doing?” The man replied, “I’m cutting stone.” The bishop walked on and came to a second worker, again asking, “What are you doing?” “I’m cutting stone,” said the worker. The bishop continued, eventually coming upon a third worker. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Me?” said the worker, his voice brimming with pride, “I’m building a cathedral.” This is the perspective successful leaders use.

Why is it that some people are able to see themselves as part of a great enterprise, while others miss the point? I believe the answer lies in inspiration, a force that motivates us to act or create. It’s a feeling rather than a concept, and its effects are profound.

Successful leaders are many things. Perhaps the most essential is to be adept at using leadership practices to inspire followers. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to meet some exceptional successful leaders, as a follower, mentor, boss, or observer. Sometimes as a reader or news consumer. From those experiences, I’ve drawn seven practices that successful leaders use to inspire followers.

7 Practices of successful leaders

  1. Make the dream visible

    There’s a reason it’s called a vision. Describe in detail what the realized vision looks like. US President John F. Kennedy, in a speech to Rice University students, vividly described a moon landing that would take place more than five years after his death:  “…we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away…, a giant rocket…greater than the length of this football field…made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented…and then return it safely to earth, reentering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour…and do all this, and do it right, and do it first, before this decade is out.”

  2. Create meaning

    Leaders inspire followers by helping them make sense of complexity. Former president Bill Clinton did this in his speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, putting partisan politics into perspective for his audience. The following day, President Obama said Clinton should be named “Secretary of ‘Splainin’ Stuff.”

  3. Focus on values

    Logistics may be important, but they are not the stuff of inspiration. Let supervisors deal with tasks, “the how.” Leaders deal with “the why.” They remind followers of the deeper values that underlie daily activities. In her 2011 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf did not talk about the actions she took to bring peace. She spoke about her struggle in terms of values, saying, “Mine has been a long journey, a lifetime journey to Oslo. It was shaped by the values of my parents and by my two grandmothers – indigenous Liberians, farmers and market traders – neither of whom could read or write. They taught me that only through service is one’s life truly blessed.”

  4. Successful leaders touch phrases

    Touch phrases, words that are easily recalled in the heat of the moment, inspire followers in their daily decision-making. My mentor, Frances Hesselbein, CEO of Girl Scouts USA from 1976 to 1990, was a master at this. One of her best-known aphorisms is “Manage for the Mission.” In this concise, alliterative phrase she gave staff an easily recalled guideline to keep daily decisions consistent with the Girl Scouts’ core purpose.

  5. Use symbols

    Symbols are a useful mnemonic device. Here’s an example from the Planned Parenthood Federation. Several Colorado affiliates were merging into a more efficient, statewide organization. Naturally, there was anxiety about loss — of positions and titles, office space, local identity. Sylvia Clark, CEO of the Denver affiliate, inspired people to trust the process by creating a slogan, “No Sacred Cows,” indicating that every program, every position, every pet project was up for discussion. Everyone involved received a lapel pin featuring a cartoon cow, a symbol of commitment to a fair and transparent process. This reassured people, inspiring them to put the welfare of all ahead of self-interest.

  6. Be inclusive

    It’s not enough to tolerate differences. Good leaders change the ways they do things to fully embrace people from varied backgrounds. In the Girl Scouts, that meant every girl saw herself represented in handbooks and on cookie boxes. It meant accommodating a broader range of religious holidays, shedding assumptions and perceived norms, modifying language and revising a thousand other things, large and small, to create a comfortable environment where all felt welcome. Inclusive systems and procedures inspire followers to be inclusive, and that’s the only way to grow in today’s multicultural workplace.

  7. Give credit 

    It’s true that the buck stops with the leader. When failure happens, leaders take responsibility. But when there’s a success, smart leaders give credit —  to colleagues, suppliers and customers. Leaders who give credit gain influence. Margaret Thatcher provides a good example. On the eve of the 1987 election, she was asked why voters should make her “the first British prime minister to be elected to three consecutive terms in over 100 years.” Thatcher responded by crediting her party. “The fact that I am the leader does not seem to me to be the most material thing,” she said. “It is conservative policies that people are voting for.”

Leadership ability is not some mysterious gift of karma. It can be learned and its exercise improved. I hope that these seven suggestions are useful for you and that they help you inspire followers to build cathedrals.

This post was updated in April 2019

I am a freelance writer and a consultant to social change organizations. I also teach graduate courses in media, management and leadership at The New School, a progressive university in New York City.