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Inspirational Leadership - 12 April 2012

Last month, Stephon Williams went to see Barack Obama deliver a speech. It wasn’t so much what Obama said that inspired Stephon. It was what happened afterwards. Stephon was born deaf, and as Obama walked past him, Stephon used sign language to tell the President: “I’m so proud of you.” Obama immediately responded – also in sign language – with the words for “thank you”. The video has since gone viral. It has inspired not just Stephon, but also millions of others around the world.

What Obama demonstrated was one of the six languages of inspiration – connection – to inspire one person, and subsequently, plenty more. And it’s a skill many people possess. You’ll notice the word ‘skill’ was used. That’s because inspiration isn’t a talent reserved for the privileged few. It can be learned, and it’s available to any leader who chooses to inspire employees rather than scare them. The following paragraphs outline the six languages of inspiration by using examples of people who’ve represented those qualities.

The language of hope: When Sean Swarner was diagnosed with cancer, he was given just two weeks to live. And yet he went on to become the first cancer survivor to climb the world’s seven tallest peaks. He says: “No human being can survive without hope. Without hope, you have nothing.” Likewise, inspirational leaders don’t accept the status quo. They adopt a bold vision – no matter how ambitious – and pursue it with everything they’ve got.

The language of realism: One of the most viewed clips on YouTube is a presentation by university professor Randy Pausch titled The Last Lecture. When he was given just a few months to live, he wanted to pass on to his students what he’d learned about life. One of those messages was this: “When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be.” The lesson for leaders is to be honest about the present. It’s more inspirational to admit you have flaws and to declare your prior failures, than to act as though you are (and always have been) perfect.

The language of enthusiasm: Jessica Cox (pictured above) was born without arms, and yet she uses her feet to play the piano, insert contact lenses, drive a car, and even fly a plane. Nick Vujicic, too, was born without limbs, and yet he plays sports like soccer and golf and his motto is “I love living life”. Inspirational leaders are just as enthusiastic. They’re optimistic about the future, they smile more than they frown, and they work with passion.

The language of belief: When an airline crashed into the mountains of South America, Nando Parrado led the survivors on a 72-day trek through the snow. His story was famously told in the movie Alive. His mantra: “There’s no limit to what you can do”. Inspirational leaders have that kind of belief in themselves and their employees. They’re convinced of success.

The language of why: Betty Anne Waters was a single mother, a high school dropout, a waitress, and the only person to believe her brother was wrongfully convicted of murder. So, she put herself through law school, a process that took 13 years, so she could represent her brother in court. And when she did, she was able to prove his innocence. Her story shows that when there’s a big enough why, almost anything is possible. Inspirational leaders understand this truism. They know that explaining ‘why’ to employees is more important than stating the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. When employees understand the purpose behind what they do – and when they themselves have purpose – everything changes.

The language of connection: When Ben Underwood’s cancer-ridden eyes were removed at the age of two, he cried that he couldn’t see. But his amazing mum took his hands, put them on her face and said, “You can see me with your hands”. She put her hand on his nose and said, “Smell me. You can see me with your nose”. She placed her hands on his ears and said, “Hear me. You can see me with your ears. Baby, you can’t use your eyes anymore, but you still have your hands and your nose and your ears. You can still see.”

It was a remarkable moment of connection that changed Ben’s life forever. Inspirational leaders value that kind of meaningful connection with their employees. They see their employees not as resources but as people. And they don’t just have conversations; they build relationships. Ben went on to become the only person in the world to master echolocation, which meant he could walk without a dog or a cane just by clicking his tongue.

Inspiration. It’s not something you can really see. But it’s certainly something you can feel.


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