Recently I delivered a keynote address for a Fortune 500 firm’s annual senior executive retreat. With the economy unsteady and the company having undergone setbacks in their business, they wanted to hear about how to motivate stronger performance during difficult times.
To illustrate the steps that leaders and managers should take, I told a story that at first glance might seem to have nothing to do with business. But recognizing the motivational power that comes from being inspired, it had everything to do with what business leaders should do during difficult times.
I told these executives about my friend Grant Searcey, who nearly died in 1994 just before he finished high school. Despite being an athlete and appearing to be in perfect health, he suddenly collapsed from a previously undetected heart condition. He was rushed to the hospital and had inserted into his abdomen a defibrillator, which sent electrical impulses to regulate his heart rate.
It saved his life, for a while. But eventually the defibrillator wasn’t enough.
One day despite repeated defibrillator shocks his heartrate wouldn’t correct, and he barely got to the emergency room in time for the doctors and nurses revive him with manual CPR. Once again his life had taken an overwhelmingly unfair turn. He was only 28 years old, but he needed a heart transplant to survive..
At that point, Grant says, he knew he might get a heart or not, his body might reject it or not, he might live or he might die any day.
Facing conditions as challenging and limiting as any of us would want to avoid, he refused to be frustrated at the unfair hand he’d been dealt, and at the reality that his life would never go back to the ‘old normal’ even if he survived. Instead he focused on making the most of what he could do within whatever time he had left.
The courage and character Grant demonstrated in the face of this ordeal are inspiring. One of the choices he made was to focus on something he dabbled in but never fully gave himself the permission or confidence to pursue. He committed to not wait for ‘someday’ anymore but rather, with whatever time he had left, to develop his talent as an artist. He focused on his painting.
Thankfully, he got a heart transplant. He went on to become a highly successful gallery artist.
That’s how he and I met–Grant has done all of the incredible character designs, cover designs and illustrations for my series of leadership fable books.
In the executive presentation for the Fortune 500 firm, I showed a more recent video of Grant painting in his studio, filmed through the glass on which he was painting, as in a famous Picasso documentary. The audience could see his painting take shape, stroke by stroke, like magic.
In the video, one also can see Grant has no hair. After all he had endured, now he had been diagnosed with cancer, caused by the heart transplant medications. At the point of the filming, he was undergoing a course of six chemotherapy treatments.
Grant took on this challenge as he did his heart failure, with grace, determination, a resolve to keep doing what he does best, and to make the most of the opportunities that exist within the limits posed by the new illness, caused by the heart transplant medications. He and his doctors say there’s every indication he beat the cancer.
Grant inspires me, and the details of how Grant handled his situation with his wife, family, friends, doctors, nurses and everyone else around him inspired the audience of executives at the presentation too.
Grant’s example made memorable and motivating to the executives the steps that they and their people should take during difficult times. They are still talking about Grant, and referring to his example.
He illustrates the power of inspirational influence as compared to what managers typically try to use at work: instrumental influence.
Think of it this way: When we’re focused primarily on getting things done, our point of view tends to be instrumental: How can we get people to do what we want?
But when we broaden our focus to consider who helps us most, our point of view tends to be inspirational: How do certain people energize us to be our best selves?
Typically, as we think about what we need to get done and how we’re going to go influence, often what comes to mind are instrumental objectives and means.
But when we think about what is most impactful when we get influenced, the themes are about inspirational purposes and perspectives.
Even the words sound and feel different when you say them in your mind. Being “instrumental” causes you to feel like an instrument, a mechanism, and not fully human.
But “inspirational” influence is different. The roots of the word “inspiration” mean “breathe life into.” The feelings associated with inspiration are about being awakened, uplifted and ennobled.
There’s a time and place for both instrumental and inspirational influence. But there’s insight from the inspirational side of us that gets influenced that we can add to the instrumental side of us that goes out to influence.
If that’s true, then what works in the most meaningful ways on us is what we should do more of with others.
We can use how we get influenced in the most significant and positive ways to inform how we engage others.
In other words, what tends to work on us enduringly is inspiration. But pressure, stress and overload entice us to act instrumentally.
The excellent leaders and role models I’ve known over the years break this pattern. In the face of challenge and adversity, they act less like self-interested, short-term focused deal makers, and more like Grant Searcey–tapped into what is most meaningful, purposeful and authentic.
During difficult times, the best leaders interrupt instrumental influence. Instead, they aspire to inspire.
1. Who are your role models for inspirational influence? Who inspires you to reach for more than you thought you could achieve, contribute or experience?
2. What specifically are you grateful to each of them for giving to you? That is, what have you learned and internalized from them? What are you committed to do going forward?
3. Who will you tell about the impact your role models for inspirational influence had on you? That is, who else can be inspired by the people who inspire you? That’s a great way to honor their influence on you.
Do you have techniques that work for you? Any other thoughts or questions? Add a comment below!