Inspiring vision, part 7: Define the needed steps

Dr. Wernher von Braun explains the Saturn Launch System to President John F. Kennedy. NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans is to the left of von BraunThe last of the seven building blocks that you can use to create an inspiring vision and inspire people to do what needs to be done is to tell them what actions are needed and show them they are achievable.

This post describes three very different examples:

  • General George Patton, in 1944
  • President John F Kennedy, in 1962
  • Acting-CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, in 2009

In 1944, it was General George Patton’s job to motivate the inexperienced Third Army to follow up on the largest seaborne invasion in history. The outcome of World War II depended on it. How would you have gone about this task?

Patton was being called upon to deliver something far larger than either you or I will probably ever be asked to do. In succeeding, he gave us a fine example of how to apply this seventh building block to create inspiration.

Patton inspired an entire army to do something huge and terrifying that they had never done before. He did this mostly by telling them what was needed and showing them it was achievable. He did this on three levels:

  • First, he reminded his team of the general behaviours he expected from them, such as “constant alertness” and “instant obedience.”
  • Second, he described specific examples of the kinds of actions they would be called upon to perform and he reminded them that other people before them had already done these things:
    “You should have seen the trucks on the road to Gabès. Those drivers were magnificent. All day and all night they crawled along those son-of-a-bitch roads, never stopping, never deviating from their course with shells bursting all around them.”
  • And third, he told his people how he wanted them to behave emotionally — he reassured them that the role of every one of them was important and that they would not be alone:
    “An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, and fights as a team. This individual hero stuff is bullshit.”

The language Patton used might not be appropriate for your audience but it was entirely appropriate for his, and for the task he was calling on them to perform. Historians have called this one of the greatest motivational speeches of all time so it is an excellent example for us to learn from. You can read it in full, here and elsewhere.

John F Kennedy, on the other hand, approached this same building block in a very different way.

Announcing his ten-year plan to put an astronaut on the moon, he defined only the high-level resources that would be assigned:

“During the next five years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to double the number of scientists and engineers in this area; to increase its outlays for salaries and expenses to $60 million a year; to invest some $200 million in plant and laboratory facilities; and to direct or contract for new space efforts over $1 billion from this Center in this City.”

This, again, was appropriate for him — at this stage it was the most that anybody knew.

And as a third example, Tim Cook laid out a vision for Apple soon after he was appointed CEO. He briefly described the purpose of the firm (“to make great products”) and then focused on the ‘steps’ that would be needed to achieve that purpose. Here’s what he said, with emphasis added:

“We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.”

In this case, the needed ‘steps’ were not one-off actions but rather the ongoing attitudes, competencies, values, and behaviours that would enable the company to succeed — no matter what happens.

To summarise, this seventh building block is about defining the next steps (not the whole journey) and showing they are achievable.

What that looks like depends on what is most appropriate for you, your task, and your audience.

And defining this block well is what will give your people the confidence to take the first step.

Are you trying to shift someone to action? Would defining the next steps and showing they are achievable be a useful way to inspire some of them to support you?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By NASA on The Commons via StockPholio.net

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