Inspiring a Vision

Written by: Christopher Sell

Primary Source: The Wednesday Wake Up


A few years ago I was sitting in a meeting with my then-boss at the time. I remember telling her I was amazed at how she could manage so many personalities on our staff and all the “stuff”  — our family life, our concerns, wishes for a promotion, personal goals, etc. — each of us brought to the workplace. She smiled and quickly replied, “I don’t manage people; I lead people.”

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At the time I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that.

Nowadays, however, I think I know.

Managers organize effectively. They dictate fairly well. They are efficient. Managers can be great leaders. But they aren’t always. You see, great leaders do one thing that isn’t necessarily a precursor to management.

Leaders inspire.

If there was ever any doubt about what employees want from their leaders, IBM put it to rest when the company recently asked 1,700 CEOs throughout 64 countries what trait they thought mattered most within the scope of leadership. The three traits that came out as most important were the ability to focus intensely on customer needs, the ability to collaborate with colleagues, and the ability to inspire.

When I think about some of the best leaders I’ve had the privilege of working with, they all seem to share the same traits identified by the IBM study. The great leaders for whom I’ve worked in higher education were student-centered (customer focus). They thrived on collaboration. And they had mastered the art of motivating others.

Whenever I had a meeting with them, I would leave a little bit more inspired than when I had started my conversation with them.

Over the years, I’ve developed a simple barometer to gauge the extent to which someone inspires others. It’s easy, really. Just picture a particular leader and then ask this question:

Would I consider working for this person even if meant switching my profession?

If the answer is “no” then they may not be adept at inspiring others. If the answer is “yes” then said leader is in fact a pretty inspirational individual. Why? Because inspirational leaders focus on creating a compelling vision that others want to be a part of. I think leaders go about creating a compelling vision in several ways.

They care about you. It’s true that leaders cannot be solely focused on building relationships, but the best in the business know that caring about those with whom they work goes a long way in inspiring others. Joe Schmoes like me want to go the extra mile when we’re led and held accountable by someone who truly cares about us as professional and as a person. Leaders who regularly spend time with others are inspirational because there’s more at stake than just performance goals and quarterly reviews; employees want to do their very best to sustain the respect and admiration they’ve mutually developed with those who are in leadership positions.

They are customer-centered. For 5+ years I’ve worked in the business of higher education. Our enterprise is education; our customers are students. Every inspiring leader for whom I’ve worked has ultimately positioned students as the focus of our work. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, makes coffee-drinkers his primary concern anytime his global company has to make a decision or take a stance on a public issue. Ron Kitchens, the CEO of Southwest Michigan First, first learned the power of a job as a youngster and has endeavored to share this revelation in the best way that he knows how since — by creating jobs to contribute to the elimination of poverty and vulnerability. His customer is business and he serves his customer by helping to develop jobs. The bottom line is important for any leader, but the best know that continually deferring to your customers will keep a good bottom line and inspire others along the way.

They help you identify the goals…and then they get out of the way. I once had a former supervisor tell me the best thing he could do for me as my boss was to paint a picture in my head that I liked and then get out of my way. He didn’t want to spurn my creativity or create red tape for my agency as an educator. Instead, he wanted to work with me to mutually develop a picture of where we wanted to go as a team and where I wanted to go as a professional. And then he gave me the license to use my talents and strengths to pursue it with all my might. He was always there if and when I needed him for the occasional question or pearl of wisdom. But he knew that he could get the most out of me by creating a compelling vision and empowering me to work towards it.

So as you wake up this Wednesday morning, let’s consider the ways you and me can be more inspiring. Decipher ways we can show our colleagues that we care about them. Determine methods for maintaining focus on our customers. And develop strategies for mutually creating goals for our friends at work — and then giving them the license to chase those dreams with unbridled enthusiasm.

Most folks can be a good manager. But if you can create a compelling vision for your teammates, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a great leader.

And that’s a really inspiring thing.


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My name is Christopher Sell and I'm an educator in higher education. At my core, I'm passionate about creating synergy and connecting people to opportunity. I place tremendous focus on collaboration, strategic planning, forward-thinking, and teamwork in any professional environment. As an alumnus of Western Michigan University (WMU) and Michigan State University (MSU), I'm equally committed to leveraging relationships with industry and students/graduates to retain & attract talent in the state of Michigan and contribute to the economic revitalization of the "Mitten State" that I love so much. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of the Pure Michigan campaign.

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