Creating inspiration, part 7: Define the needed steps

Dr. Wernher von Braun explains the Saturn Launch System to President John F. Kennedy. NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans is to the left of von BraunThis post describes the last of the seven building blocks that you can use to inspire yourself and other people during times of change.

This building block is about defining the actions are needed and showing that they are achievable. That might sound straightforward, but as three examples will show, what it looks like in practice can vary enormously.

The first example comes from General George Patton. In 1944, the outcome of World War II depended on his ability to motivate the inexperienced Third Army to follow up on the largest seaborne invasion in history. This task was probably larger than anything you or I will ever be called on to do and, in succeeding, Patton gave us a fine example of how to apply this seventh building block to create inspiration.

Patton inspired an army to do something huge and terrifying they had never done before, mostly by telling them what was needed and showing them it was achievable.

He did this on three levels:

  • First, he reminded his team of the general behaviours he expected from them, such as “constant alertness” and “instant obedience.”
  • Second, he described specific examples of the kinds of actions they would be called upon to perform and he reminded them that other people before them had already done these things:
    “You should have seen the trucks on the road to Gabès. Those drivers were magnificent. All day and all night they crawled along those son-of-a-bitch roads, never stopping, never deviating from their course with shells bursting all around them.”
  • And third, he told his people how he wanted them to behave emotionally — he reassured them that the role of every one of them was important and that they would not be alone:
    “An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, and fights as a team. This individual hero stuff is bullshit.”

The language Patton used might not be appropriate for your audience but it was entirely appropriate for his and for the task he was calling on them to perform. Historians have called this one of the greatest motivational speeches of all time. You can read it in full, here and elsewhere.

In 1962, US President John F Kennedy approached this same building block in a very different way. Announcing his ten-year plan to put an astronaut on the moon, he defined only the high-level resources that would be assigned:

“During the next five years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to double the number of scientists and engineers in this area; to increase its outlays for salaries and expenses to $60 million a year; to invest some $200 million in plant and laboratory facilities; and to direct or contract for new space efforts over $1 billion from this Center in this City.”

This, again, was appropriate for him — at this stage it was the most that anybody knew.

And as a third example, let’s look at Tim Cook in 2009, soon after he was appointed CEO of Apple. Laying out a vision for the firm, he briefly described its purpose (“to make great products”) and then focused on the ‘steps’ that would be needed to achieve that purpose.

Here’s what he said, with emphasis added:

“We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. And I think regardless of who is in what job those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.”

In this case, the needed ‘steps’ were not one-off actions but rather the ongoing attitudes, competencies, values, and behaviours that would enable the company to succeed — no matter what happens. (And I would argue that the recent dip in the company’s share price is because it has failed to achieve this vision, not because the vision is wrong.)

To summarise, this seventh building block is about defining the next steps you want to take (not the whole journey) and showing they are achievable.

Defining this block well gives people the confidence they need to take the first step.

How you do that best depends on you, your task, and your audience.

Are you trying to shift someone to take action? Would defining the next steps and showing they are achievable be a useful way to inspire them to support you?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By NASA on The Commons via

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