How to inspire people: Focus on the extreme

During the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara (Mexico) in September 2016, Elon Musk delivered a speech about the SpaceX Mars architecture and his ambition to make humans a multiplanetary species. His words are a nice example of the power of communicating highly ambitious goals and sparking strategic imagination: “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species. So how do we figure out how to take you to Mars and create a self-sustaining city? A city that it is not merely an outpost, but could become planet in its own right, and thus we could become a truly multi-planet species”. Furthermore he adds “If we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans.”

With that speech, Elon Musk made people dream. He communicated an aspirational goal to his audience and by doing so he planted a compelling and inspiring image in their mind. What also added to the inspiring and magnetic effect of his message was the fact that he focused on the extreme rather than the average. It makes me think of what Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.

Focusing on the extreme is also what John Chambers did in 2010 as CEO of Cisco. Everybody who was new at the company received his 3-minute video message that he ended by saying “We set long term goals and we almost always achieve those. We have no fear about entering a new market or taking on new peers in the industry but we have a lot of healthy paranoia about what could go wrong. And we are setting an aspirational goal that many will say is impossible to achieve but I think we can. To become the best in the world and the best for the world”.

If you as leader want to stretch your ambitions and your strategy, you first have to stretch people’s thinking. The goal of John Chambers’ message was to inspire his colleagues to greatness – which is, after all, what true leadership is all about, isn’t it? Setting high standards, without making unreasonable demands, can force imaginative thinking – especially so if you as a speaker also convey confidence in achieving them. By doing so, you also enhance people’s self-esteem and self-worth.

In your next presentation, it’s that (sometimes crazy-sounding) ‘message from the future’ that could become an inflection point for your audience to reimagine the potential of the company or their potential as a team.

In fact, I couldn’t agree more with a statement in Rotman Magazine in September 2019: “Companies need to learn to compete on imagination, which lies upstream of innovation: in order to realize new possibilities, we first need inspiration (a reason to see things differently) and then imagination (the ability to identify possibilities that are not currently the case but could be)”. Think about it: great 21st century inventions like robotic exoskeletons, touchscreen glass, capsule endoscopy, e-readers or Elon Musk’s multi-use rockets would never have been possible without first imagining them. The chief source of all these inventions was indeed imagination.

However, in an era where success has become less permanent, it’s a pity that some companies create an imagination gap by focusing blindly on the short term. Dear leaders of the world, you have an obligation to imagine. So dare to shake reality and set highly ambitious goals.