Creating inspiration, part 7: Define the first steps


The last of the seven building blocks that you can use to inspire yourself and other people during times of change is to define the first steps that are needed and show that they are achievable.

That might sound straightforward — but as two examples will show, it can vary enormously.

The first example comes from President John F Kennedy in May 1961. Announcing his plans to put an astronaut on the moon, Kennedy didn’t lay out every single action that would be taken. Instead, he defined the high-level resources that would be assigned as first steps:

“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.”

At this stage it was the most that anybody could know. And it was enough.

The second example comes from 1944. In May of that year, the outcome of World War II depended on the ability of General George Patton to motivate the inexperienced Third Army to follow up on the largest seaborne invasion in history. To succeed, he needed to inspire a large number of people to do something terrifying and huge that they had never done before. He succeeded. And the way he succeeded was almost entirely by using this building block: defining the first steps.

He achieved this on three levels:

  • First, he described specific examples of the kinds of actions his people would be called upon to deliver and he reminded them that other people had done these things before:
    “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.”
  • Second, he reminded his team of the general behaviours he expected, such as “constant alertness” and “instant obedience.”
  • And third, he told his people how he wanted them to behave emotionally“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. Historians have called his speech one of the greatest motivational speeches of all time. We can learn from his example.

This seventh building block of creating inspiration involves describing the next steps you want to take — not the whole journey — and showing that those steps are achievable.

Doing this well gives people the confidence to take the first step.

Without that first step, nothing will ever happen. With it you have another key ingredient to becoming antifragile.

Are you trying to convince someone to take action? Would defining the first steps and showing they are achievable help to inspire them to support you?

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

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(And remember: you don’t learn to swim by reading about swimming, you also need to practice.)

Photo By NASA on The Commons via

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