By Tony Mulkern

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UNLEASHING INSPIRATION is the fourth engine of entrepreneurial ascent. The term itself suggests that there exists an energy in people that is restrained, held back, and that if the leader can liberate it, then great things can be accomplished.

This image of suppressed potential has a long history. In 1854 the American writer Henry David Thoreau published his oft-quoted claim that the mass of humanity “lead lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau was not commenting on people elsewhere in the world who lived under brutal tyranny. Rather, he was recording his observations of his fellow U.S. citizens in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

We might think that, even if Thoreau had a point, surely this cannot apply to the U.S. and the industrialized West in the 21st century, with our far greater wealth, health and opportunity beyond anything Thoreau and his contemporaries could have imagined. A little reflection would indicate that we would think wrongly. Consider the facts of the opioid epidemic, the death rates from heroine and fentanyl, the scourge of crystal meth, the increasing suicide rate in the U.S., high profile suicides among the rich and famous, mass shootings, pervasive pop music filled with rage and resentment, and young people joining ISIS to practice stonge-age barbarism. These cases of not-so-quiet desperation indicate the likelihood of the continued relevance of Thoreau’s observation that there exists a deep well of hopelessness and resignation, a deep reservoir of energy that if properly tapped can result in extraordinary achievement.

Not only do entrepreneurs provide the backbone to a growing free market economy, then, they can also provide the sense of purpose that so many of their fellow citizens are so desperately seeking—or worse have given up on seeking.

An immensely entertaining illustration of what it looks like to tap into this energy is found in the Bruce Willis movie “Armageddon.” A contemporary group of West Texas, wildcat oil drillers, leading aimless, wasted lives is brought together by their entrepreneurial and visionary boss to help NASA destroy an enormous asteroid that threatens humanity’s continued existence. Their mission has a slim chance of succeeding, their survival is questionable, yet suddenly their lives have meaning, and they execute heroically. This part comedy, part tragedy work of science fiction evokes that yearning each of us has for a purpose that gives rise to commitment, persistence, and the willingness to sacrifice for something larger. Unleashing inspiration does that, and entrepreneurs are especially well-positioned to play that role.

The key to inspiring others is being extraordinarily clear on what inspires you, whether that be modest or grandiose. We have seen from a previous article that inspiration can be found in selling flowers or in cleaning offices. The leader’s inspiration cannot be manufactured, and without a clear expression of it “employee engagement” efforts can seem like simply another management fad of the month or can make it appear that what you really mean is, “please get excited about making money for me.”

So how do you get clarity on what truly inspires you?

In the early years of a struggling business, you may wake up at 2:00 a.m. and sit on the edge of the bed, head in hands, and ask yourself “why am I doing this when there are so many easier ways to make a living?” How do you answer? Michael Novak, the philosopher and theologian of business, once said impishly that behind every successful entrepreneur there stands a spouse asking, “Why don’t you get a real job?” The serious question every entrepreneur must ask is this: “what is so important that you will risk severe financial and emotional strain on marriage and family to achieve it?”

Many very accomplished professionals and managers will say, sometimes perhaps because they are expected to, that family comes before career. I am not sure many great entrepreneurs could honestly say the same thing, just as few great scientist, artists, writers, generals, clergy persons, or political leaders could. It is not that they are neglectful or irresponsible, for I have known many successful entrepreneurs with stable, long-lasting marriages and very close families. Rather, they are clear on how they want to make a mark on the world, to use Steve Jobs’ phrase, and have made clear to spouse and children that pursuit of their purpose is so central to their identity, that if they tried to live some other way they would scarcely be worth living with. The result is mutual understanding, respect, acceptance, and support. If they do the same thing with their core team and employees, they have the formula for a system of shared inspiration.

There is nothing wrong with having a stable business that provides a useful service or product and produces a good living for those who work in it. Just be prepared that it will not “take off” without something bolder in mind. The movie “The Founder” depicts how Ray Kroc of MacDonald’s bought a regional restaurant chain with a few locations and through relentless pursuit of what he saw to be the possibilities transformed it into a national and then international, billion dollar company. The fact that Kroc’s tactics were often far from admirable does not alter the principle. Without the larger vision, you risk having your business be overtaken by competitors who are inspired by imagined enhancements, improvements, and levels of service and achievement unheard of before. You may be building a vehicle for commercial success and a comfortable living. But is it not a rocket that will soar.

On a lighter side, I was watching a college football game on TV with a number of friends a few years ago. After one particularly audacious display of athletic ability, the room was filled with shouts of “unbelievable!” and outbursts of loud laughter. A friend’s wife, who was not that much into the game, turned to me and asked, “Why do men laugh when someone makes a big play?” The question annoyed me at the time (I am not always in a philosophical mood, and not only men celebrate success with laughter). Upon reflection, I came to see that inspiring success and a sense of humor seem to go together.

For example, Google and Yahoo are well known as high-tech giants, and the former has become a common verb as well. We forget how silly and whimsical their names were intended to be at the outset. We hardly notice anymore that Apple’s logo is mischievously evocative of the fruit of the tree of knowledge from which Eve took a bite in the Old Testament account. When a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage crashed in a fireball during a botched recovery landing after launch, company founder Elon Musk remarked with characteristic coolness that the rocket did not blow up; it simply underwent a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Safely flying airliners filled with hundreds of passengers is at least as serious as emergency surgery, but Southwest, one of the most innovative and profitable airlines, is known for its flight attendants who are virtual stand-up comedians. You cannot inspire with a thin skin and grim demeanor, nor can you fake light-heartedness. If you feel that your business gives you little to smile or laugh about, why is that, and what can you do to fix it, either in your business or in your limiting beliefs?

If this article raises questions that give you pause and you would like to share your thoughts and questions in confidence with a good listener, give us a call. If you are up to the challenge, we have a process using the proprietary “Leader’s Dashboard” that will take you as deep as you dare to go in the search for your answers. You will come out of the process more inspired and more inspiring.