Let me share a tale with you. In the Middle Ages, a bishop embarked on a journey, visiting parishes under his care. He arrived at a village bustling with construction. Driven by curiosity, he approached a worker and inquired, “What task occupies you?” The man answered without hesitation, “I am cutting stone.” The bishop, not yet satisfied, proceeded to question a second labourer, “And what task occupies you?” The response echoed the first, “I am cutting stone.” Undeterred, the bishop moved on until he encountered a third worker. Upon asking the same question, the worker replied with a voice swelling with pride, “Me? I am part of a grand mission—I am building a cathedral.” This story illustrates the vision that successful leaders adopt.
Why is it that some people can 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
Firstly, envisioning the future is essential, hence the term ‘vision.’ It’s crucial to paint a detailed picture of what the achieved vision entails. For instance, US President John F. Kennedy, in a memorable speech at Rice University, vividly outlined a future moon landing—a feat that would be realized over five years posthumously. He began by stating, “We shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away…,” and continued to elaborate on the journey with precise and inspiring details, capturing the imagination of his audience and firmly planting the image of a nation’s dream.
2. Create meaning
Secondly, leaders excel when they simplify the complex. Bill Clinton exemplified this during his address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where he adeptly distilled partisan politics for his listeners. Subsequently, President Obama humorously suggested that Clinton should be appointed as the “Secretary of ‘Splainin’ Stuff,” acknowledging his ability to clarify and connect with the audience.
3. Focus On Values
Moreover, while logistics are undeniably significant, they don’t spark inspiration. It’s the role of supervisors to manage tasks—the ‘how.’ Conversely, leaders are tasked with conveying ‘the why.’ They are the ones who reinforce the core values underlying daily tasks. For example, in her 2011 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf didn’t dwell on her actions for peace. Instead, she spoke eloquently about her journey and the values instilled by her family, which resonated deeply with her audience.
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 the loss — of positions and titles, office space, and 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, and 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
The buck indeed 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.
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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.