Inspiration – the magic potion to leadership

Published on : 13 Oct 2017
7 min read
Category : Leadership

Napoleon the Bonaparte escapes from Elba in February 1815; sets foot in southern France; a defeated General without an army, an emperor without a country and an exile who sneaks back.  On 5th March 1815, 9 months after his exile and 2 weeks after his escape, he is at Grenoble. Let me narrate the magic in the words of Malcom Higgins from his article: Napoleon’s return from exile; Rallying an army with his words alone:

The people of France welcomed back their leader with open arms; men flocked to his cause. His army had grown rapidly and, until Grenoble, no one had stood in his way.

Now, however, royalist troops barred the way. The 5th Infantry Regiment had taken their positions as the enemy (Napoleon) approached, and as the vanguard of Napoleon’s forces came to a halt, a tense silence fell.

As the sun set, lighting up the western horizon, Napoleon strode out into the open.

He was unarmed, yet he showed no fear as he surveyed the line of gleaming rifles before him. For a moment he stood quite still, his face inscrutable. Then, without taking his eyes away from the royalist regiment, he seized the front of his coat and ripped it open.

“If there is any man among you who would kill me,” Napoleon declared, “Here I stand!”

After a moment of silence, voices within the ranks of the 5th Regiment began shouting;

“Long live the Emperor!”

As the cry spread, it was taken up by more and more of the royalist soldiers. Before long they had lowered their weapons and, en masse, the entire regiment joined Napoleon’s army.

The following day, the 7th Infantry Regiment joined the cause ….”

On 26th May 1940, the British Expeditionary Forces, were trapped in a pocket of 60 miles to 15 miles at Dunkirk. Nearly half a million officers and soldiers doomed to be annihilated by the Germans. Winston Churchill, the newly elected Prime Minister of Britain is barely 2 weeks into his job. Churchill was ignominiously sacked as the Officer of the Admiralty, after the rout of the Allies at Gallipoli, in 1915. He was in political exile for a full 25 years, before coming back as the Prime Minister. Here he is again faced with his worst night mare. Another rout of the allied forces even before the battle had begun. 


Churchill defies the advice of his Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax and most members of his war cabinet, refuses to open talks with Hitler. He sets a daunting objective of rescuing at least 40,000 fighting fit troops from Dunkirk. The rest they say is history. Inspired by his defiance to capitulate, the Navy and the ordinary British people put together an armada of yachts, trawlers and fishing boats along with 42 Destroyers of the Royal Navy and rescued nearly 400,000 British and French troops in a magical week long operation. These ordinary men and women; yes I am correct women; defied the screaming Stuka Bombers and the diving Messerschmitt fighters. Churchill was back again in the early 1950’s, to inspire Dwight Eisenhower (Ike) his old WWII Supreme Commander in Europe, now the US President, during the Korean war. Ike delivered a moving eulogy at Churchill’s funeral, recalling the inspiration that Churchill was to him and many others.


What made a Napoleon or a Winston Churchill to inspire ordinary people to commit their resources, whole heartedly and unconditionally? One is a revolutionary democrat turned imperialist and the other a democrat who strived to save an Empire. Both were rejected to the dust bins of history, yet rose back, like Phoenix with popular support. Neither suffered self-doubts, even when in exile. Neither settled for anything other than for the outcome they had set their eyes on. Both could sense the pulse of the average person. Both effortlessly spoke the voice of the common person on the street and made the common person believe that even the most daunting outcome could be achieved. They instilled self-belief in everyone they came into contact with. They uplifted the emotions of the people they came in touch with. Eternal optimists!


In 1915, the Bombay docks witnessed the docking of SS Arabia, a steam liner from South Africa. A frail man 46 years old man set foot on the pier; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi went on to inspire not only Indian masses, but every freedom fighter, in every country. The weapon he chose was non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Lacs of ordinary men and women were prepared to sacrifice their personal freedom, knowing that they will be jailed, in response to the call of one leader. For the next 30 years his word was the mission of every freedom loving Indian. Gandhi to all of us was you and me. There was unison of purpose, identity thought and emotions, between Gandhi and most Indians, which mobilised action in everyone who came into touch with him. A supreme humanist!


I can regale you with endless anecdotes from history. You may even rationalise that you are not Napoleon, Churchill or Gandhi and may even not believe you could be. Yet to bring alive a theme like inspiration and leadership, we need to pick up people and events that have captured our imagination.  


We should remember before they became the Napoleon, the Churchill and the Gandhi, they were ordinary people like us. To quote Napoleon,  ”Courage is not the strength to go on. It is going on when you do not have strength.” In fact it is this courage, which made all three of them inspiring and tall leaders, whom we now see as out of the ordinary. 


Does that mean ordinary folks like you and me, who from time to time exercise leadership, cannot inspire people? 


My physical education teacher Narayanaswamy sir, at Avichi High School, in Chennai, inspired a generation of young boys and girls to take up sports and excel in it. He would be up at 4.30am every day, picking-up us boys and girls from our homes, forcing vegetarians like me to have raw eggs for nutrition, putting us through our gruelling training, accompanying almost all of us to our matches, sleeping with us on the floor of some school’s class room- our 5 star lodging, applying turpentine oil on our aching limbs to relieve our pain before the next game, screaming at us when we faltered, shoring us up when we cried after a loss (often with a tight slap!), celebrating with us by taking us to the much awaited English movie (neither he nor we understood a word in these movies!), once our batch passed out starting it all over with the next batch. He did this for 30 years until his untimely pre-mature death. Our, no my Narayanaswamy Sir, my leader, inspires me to this day. 


Decades later, it was the turn of K.V.Kamath to inspire a generation of ICICIans to go on and become leaders in their own right. Kamath not only inspired us he inspired the whole Banking Industry in India to find its place under the Sun and not feel second to the multi-national Banks. He taught us all that world-class was possible by Indians and in India. He did what Gopichand has done to Indian Badminton. Instilled self-belief in our capabilities, demanded excellence in everything, refused to accept mediocre thoughts or actions, pushed us over the cliff to find our wings, yet was the net beneath to prevent us from crashing, never answered a question but challenged us to find the answer, put us on the stage and in the lime light and celebrated our success, above all he showed greater faith in us than we did in our abilities. 


In my book: Leveraging Human Capital: A Practitioner’s Perspective, I have narrated the story of Sg. Matt Busby, who inspired Manchester United to 60 years of excellence. He instilled in the club the second to none, spirit. He built the Manchester United team from scratch thrice, once after he lost 23 players and trainers on 6th February air crash at Munich. The legend has it that when you played for Manchester United you actually played for Busby. It mattered to all the players that Busby approved of their efforts & skills, on the field and outside. If you were 2 goals down and there was 5 minutes to go for the full time, Busby’s babes, as they were called, believed a win was still possible. The fabled United’s prowess of scoring last minute injury time goals to win is founded on the back of Busby’s inspiration. The ethos lives on, decades after Busby is no more. 


Inspiration is the quality that matters when the outcome looks improbable & beyond our abilities and when self-doubts plague the people. Inspiration mobilises free will and whole-hearted commitment to action. Inspiration eggs us to go beyond the call of the ordinary; it lifts our abilities and even surprises us on what we can achieve. Inspiration is rooted in both thought and emotions. Thoughts that everyone can identify with, emotions which are experienced as authentic and outcomes they believe that they have a stake in. An outcome framed as an achievement inspires; while an outcome framed as numbers and performance goals feels banal.


How does this magic happen, again and again with some leaders, while most plod on to banality, even when they occupy their high offices, with all the panoply of power? 


Trust brings credibility and authenticity to both thought and emotions. It is when leaders lose trust inspiration becomes intimidation or exploitation. We should differentiate awe & admiration, which are inspiring emotions, from intimidation, which is a controlling emotion. Often we confuse these. 


When Ambition of the leader is beyond his and when it reflects that of the collective, it moves the collective. Inspiring leaders are able to articulate the ambitions of the collective, as if theirs is drawn from it. They craft propositions which are anchored on perspectives which make the outcomes vivid and desirable for the collective. 


They use simple messages to articulate even complex outcomes. Like Churchill’s, “We will fight at the Beaches …” address or Dr. Martin Luther King’s  “I have  a Dream…” address or Tilak’s “ Swaraj is my Birth right”. This is not about speech making, yet it is about compelling and clear articulation of the means and the ends. Inspiring leaders tell stories from the past, frame the opportunities and challenges of the present in a compelling manner and make the future come alive; ala Obama or John.F.Kennedy.


Inarticulate people and reticent leaders struggle to inspire others. While it is popular to say actions inspire, the truth is credible words when backed by actions, inspire. That is why Higgins highlights this aspect of Napoleon’s leadership in the title of his article quoted at the beginning of this article. 


We are not talking about empty and high sounding words. Having said this, history is replete with demagogues briefly charming, if not inspiring people, until their unauthentic emotions betrayed them. Hitler inspired and dazzled the Germans for a decade. Putin, Trump and Erdogan are doing it now; we do not know how long?


Emotions like thoughts play a critical role in inspiring others. Power is the potent emotion for inspiration. Power instils confidence; Power reassures; Power attracts, Power binds; Power energises. Make no mistake about the power of Gandhi or Mother Theresa. I am not referring to charisma alone. Charismatic power does add an extra bit. Even when a leader’s power is not charismatic it has be manifest for others to feel it and experience it. Power ambivalence is an inspiration dampener.


Care and compassion inspires as much as power does. Nurturance is a powerful emotion which drives inspiration. Power with care, compassion and nurturance is a potent combination of emotions, which you will find in most inspiring leaders. Inspiring leaders build an emotional bond, on which the call to action travels.


High standards, pursuit of excellence and duty conscious ness trigger emotions linked to values. Liberty, equality, justice, right to life, egalitarianism, courage etc. are values when demanded and exemplified by leaders, they inspire. Every call for change, movement for freedom from oppression or the march into the new world of tomorrow was born out of this kind of clarion call.  


The risk appetite which leaders display has material impact on Leadership. Daring leaders inspire people. Demanding leaders inspire people, Defiant leaders inspire people. Decisive leaders inspire people. Optimism is the magic potion of Inspiration. Ownership for outcome and willingness to take accountability for outcomes, no matter what they are, inspires others. 


Napoleon, Churchill, Gandhi Busby, Kamath and Naryanaswamy sir exemplified most of these inspirational leadership behaviours. 


Clinical, self-centred, inarticulate, incremental, activity-obsessed, power ambivalent, vacillating and risk-averse behaviours induce banality and hence are uninspiring to others. Dr.Manmohan Singh for all his erudition and duty consciousness could not inspire anyone. 


Inspiration seeks value creation and hence believes in pursuit for success, Banality obsesses with value protection and is fearful of failure. In the end inspiration is driven by belief of success. Any doubts, why we remember leaders who inspired us and forget the banal ones?


Search for the inspiration in you. Gain insights on how you may deploy it to inspire others. That is what matters. Do not use this article to judge others. That is uninspiring.


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