by CIO Staff

Why Leaders Should Tap Into the Aspirations of Their Followers

Oct 03, 20056 mins

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 achieve greatness.

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 obstacles.

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 excellence.

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 noble aspiration.