In August of 1969, a brand new coach at the
University of Michigan took charge of his football team. Players
assembled expecting a tune up prior to the season. What they got were
grueling workouts. Players quit in droves but the ones for whom
football was a calling as well as a ticket to college remained. During
that hot summer, a sign was posted in the locker room: “Those who stay
will be champions.”
The 1969 team did win its championship by beating number one Ohio State
in the last regular season game. Michigan’s coach was Bo Schembechler
and in his 20 seasons, his teams captured 12 Big Ten titles.
Schembechler did more than win: He tapped into the collective energy of
his players. By doing so, he created expectations that could only have
been fulfilled by aspirations to greatness, a total commitment to
achieving a goal. This applies not to the gridiron, but to life itself.
The Human Condition
Aspiration is inherent to the human condition. We want to aspire to
do something to make a positive difference. Leaders who tap into the
aspirations of their followers are leaders who have the opportunity to
Steve Jobs is an example of an aspirational leader. His canvas is the
fusion of personal computing and entertainment. Under his leadership,
Apple has emerged not only as a force in personal computing but today
is pioneering the distribution of music personalized through downloads
(iTunes) and playback (iPod). Jobs has created such high expectations
that he has tapped into the collective aspirations of a legion of
hardware and software engineers and end users.
Aspiration is a blend of hope tinged with optimism. “Aiming
high” is the slogan of the Air Force and it is a mantra that leaders
can emulate when seeking to move their organizations and their people
forward. Fundamental to aspiration is good communications. Here are
some ways to foster it.
Envision the outcome. In The 7 Habits of Successful People,
Stephen Covey advises us to use achievement as a foundation for vision.
Such forethought gives backbone to aspiration. For example, if you want
to achieve market leadership in your field, you must think about what
it will take to achieve that leadership and then consider what you must
do to make it happen. It is a form of reverse engineering from a future
perspective. You consider what products you must offer, how you will
develop and market them and, most importantly, whom you will hire to
help you achieve it.
Listen to the soul. Visions come to fruition through hard work.
But before the work begins, you need to tap into the soul of the
organization to find out if your vision is its vision. If not, give
employees the opportunity to make it their own. Leader’s vision remains
a solo endeavor; shared visions become collective enterprises.
Entrepreneurs possess an knack for tapping into collective
consciousnesses. They do this through the power of their message, even
their personality, and by shining a light on what people want to do, be
it run a franchise operation or build a better mousetrap.
Steel the heart. The late David Hackworth used this phrase from Shakespeare’s Henry V
as the title of his book about the year he spent as a colonel in the
Mekong Delta turning a band of hopeless draftees into a Hardcore
Battalion. What Hackworth did was tap into his men’s desire to make it
home alive. By channeling that desire, he molded a fighting force that
indeed went home and inflicted damage on the enemy. As the most
decorated soldier in U.S. Army history, Hackworth led by example. He
was tough and he expected his men to be tough. As a soldier’s soldier,
he trained his men well and did what was necessary to prepare them for
combat and protect them from undue risk. Steeling the heart refers to
toughening your people to adversity. Hackworth, like Henry V, did this
by sharing the hardships. Managers who emulate that example will
strengthen their team members’ resolve and prepare them to overcome
Bend but do not break. A flip side of aspirations that stand the
test of time is resilience. It is one thing to have a good idea of
where you want to go, but it is quite another to be able to get there.
Nokia, the mobile phone company, is a model of resilience. Throughout
its century and a half existence as timber and mining business, Nokia
has survived war, depression and country occupation by foreign powers.
The last two decades have seen Nokia emerge as a leader in mobile
phones. And despite recent ups and downs, Nokia has persevered by
producing products that capture the imagination of consumers and tap
into their aspirations for what cellular communications can be.
Aspire With Optimism
Aspiration without foundation is dangerous. Getting people to
aspire to things they cannot achieve becomes a kind of Ponzi scheme.
Look at the e hucksters who flood our e-mail with get rich quick
schemes. Similarly, aspirations shaped by shallow manipulators create
cults that manifest themselves either in psuedo religions or criminal
enterprises. As lofty as aspirations may be, they must have some roots
in reality as well as a grounding in doing good for the whole rather
than enriching the greedy few.
Those reservations aside, aspiration is a powerful and in many
cases necessary outcome of leadership. Leaders who tap into the goals
of where their people want to go or better channel the collective
energies of the group have a greater chance of achieving organizational
But that is not the end of the story. Leaders need to consider
something more: the better tomorrow. An essential aspect of aspiration
is optimism, a belief in positive outcomes. Optimism for its own sake
is fool’s gold. But optimism coupled with attainable goals fuels
progress and makes aspirations attainable. In others words, to
paraphrase the slogan that hangs in Michigan’s locker room, those who
aspire will achieve.
The author would like to dedicate this column to the memory of Col.
David Hackworth (U.S. Army ret.), who died in May 2005. A true
soldier’s soldier, “Hack” lived his life according to the mantra of his
spiritual mentor, Sun Tzu, “take care of your soldiers.” It is indeed a