In a meeting earlier this year with a senior leadership team of a client company, our collective group was discussing how the practice Inspire a Shared Vision provides hope to people in the most challenging times. The idea appeared to be an appropriate, logical assumption. But as we transitioned into a related topic, the CEO stopped us and asked what we meant by ‘hope’. Did we mean that we were “hoping we would meet our targets,” and “hoping that the company didn’t lose money?” If so, we needed action and engagement—not hope—to meet the company’s needs.

This was an excellent question (though I have to admit, I thought “Haven’t you heard President Obama speak about HOPE? That’s what we’re talking about!”) Clarity came, however, when my partner, Jo Bell, observed that we were focusing on ‘hope’ as a noun, not a verb. We are not simply hoping that things change in the environment. Leaders act and inspire hope in others and engage them in the future success of the company.

Taking this lesson from the challenges our singular client company was facing and applying it more universally, inspiring hope in others is critical for ALL leaders. This is especially true as companies experience difficulties that are a result of our current economic turmoil, and have had to make difficult decisions about the business they are in or the staff that they can support.

Challenging times like these are the most difficult in which to lead. However, in this environment, it is even more critical that leaders inspire people to give their best. Inspiring a shared vision amid layoffs, downsizing, and radical changes in the way we do business is tough. But as Jim and Barry often say, “that’s why it’s the Leadership CHALLENGE, and not the Leadership Cakewalk.”

Many of the leaders we work with tell us that Inspire a Shared Vision is their most difficult leadership Practice (indeed, it is the lowest ranked Practice across leaders)—especially in the current environment. But the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) can provide a clue to how the best leaders Inspire a Shared Vision in even the toughest times. It provides actions you can take as a leader to become more inspiring and to engage those around you.

First, let’s take a look at some of the key leadership behaviors that define this Practice.

     #7: Describes a compelling image of the future

     #12: Appeals to others to share a dream of the future

     #17: Shows others how their interests can be realized

Interestingly, these behaviors also tend to be ranked the lowest of the 10 rated on the LPI.

Many leaders find these behaviors difficult, but for different reasons. Some do not see them as part of their role (it’s someone else’s responsibility). Others are not naturally visual learners, so have a hard time visualizing the future.

In our coaching work with leaders, we have found that two other easily actionable LPI behaviors can influence a leader’s ability to Inspire a Shared Vision. When leaders focus on these behaviors, their scores in this Practice (and, indeed, their ability to Inspire) show an increase. These are:

     #26: Is clear about his/her philosophy of leadership

     #27: Speaks with conviction about the meaning of work

Philosophy of Leadership
At The Leadership Challenge Forum in Augusts of 2009, Barry Posner discussed how he believed that a philosophy of leadership was a critical component of leadership. If leaders do not know who they are or what they stand for, it is difficult to lead and inspire hope. So what is your leadership philosophy? If someone came up to you in the hallway and asked that question, would you have an answer? If so, wonderful! It is probably clear to others as well, in the way that you discuss what you believe in and why. If not, how can you become clearer on your philosophy of leadership? Ask yourself these questions*:

  • What do I believe in? Why?
  • What do I stand for? Why?
  • How do I want to be remembered….tonight? Why?
  • What brings me suffering? Why?
  • What makes me jump for joy? Why?

* The Leadership Challenge, 4th edition, pages 69-70

When you have answers to these questions, think about how that translates to your leadership philosophy. Write out a philosophy and begin to share it with others. This doesn’t necessarily mean you state that you want to share your philosophy, but rather that you begin to talk about what really matters to you, what you believe about your people and your work.

Speaking with Conviction about the Meaning of Work
Creating a philosophy of leadership leads to the second leadership behavior that can influence your ability to inspire: to speak with conviction about the meaning of your work. Though you may have difficulty predicting exactly what the future will look like for your organization or department, if you talk about the meaning of your work, you can continue to inspire others. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What important work is your group doing for others?
  • How do you help serve a need?
  • What are some of your success stories with customers (both internal and external)?

Once you have clarity for yourself about the meaning of your work, share this with others. When critical issues come up, reinforce this. When the challenging times in your work threaten to bring your group down, reinforce why your work matters.

These may be difficult changes in “the way we’ve always done things,” and it may take a while for people to catch on to this new “enthusiasm.” But our leadership challenge today is to help bring hope to others. If we can challenge ourselves to step into uncomfortable territory, we lead the way for others and can inspire and engage the best.

This is my hope for you!

This article first appeared in The Leadership Challenge Newsletter at