How to inspire: Become a possibility thinker

The Norwegian George Harbo was 32 and his fellow countryman Frank Samuelson was 26. In 1896, they invested all the money that had saved into a six-meter wooden boat. They had a very clear ambition: they wanted to be the first to row from the USA to Europe. From New York to Le Havre in France, a journey of over 5.000 km or about 2.700 nautical miles. In those days such an adventureous journey was considered completely crazy. The New York Herald wrote on 6 June 1986: “They are very confident that fortune is ahead of them, but seafaring men say it is nothing short of suicide”.

Harbo and Samuelson packed their boat with the necessary provisions: almost 200 liter of water, canned beef and ham, biscuits, coffee and eggs. To navigate their way to Europe, they carried a compass and a sextant. That’s it. Harbo and Samuelson calculated that they would arrive in France in 54 days. After several weeks on the Atlantic Ocean, they crossed the German steamer SS Fürst Bismarck, an ocean liner that did transatlantic crossings between Hamburg and New York. The New York Herald described the meeting as follows: “The captain of the liner waited until they got within hearing distance and then shouted, “Are you shipwrecked?” “No. Bound for Europe.” “In that boat? Never. Better let me take you back.” “Thanks, no,” they replied. “Are you crazy?” “No, indeed.”
Every ship they met on the ocean offered to carry them home, but Harbo and Samuelson would not be persuaded. Rough water, near-death experiences and heavy storms did not stop them and they finally arrived at Le Havre on 7 August 1896. That was 62 days after leaving New York.

If you look at their achievement in hindsight, it was a truly heroic journey. Harbo and Samuelson were the first to cross the ocean in such a small boat and for 114 years it was also bookmarked as the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Today, rowing or kayaking across the Atlantic is no longer an exception. However, most people take advantage of the subtropical current by going from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. Harbo and Samuelson took a more demanding route: from west to east across the volatile North Atlantic Ocean. Their record was finally broken in 2010 when CNN headlined on 1 August “Team breaks North Atlantic rowing record”: “The Artemis Ocean Racing team, led by Leven Brown, finished in 43 days, 21 hours, 26 minutes and 48 seconds, knocking more than 11 days off the 55-day record set by a pair of Norwegians in 1896”.

The biggest achievement of George Harbo and Frank Samuelson was that they changed the perception of what is possible – and that’s exactly also what inspiring leaders do when they communicate. In “The Leadership Challenge”, James Kouzes and Barry Posner argue that “leaders are possibility thinkers, not probability thinkers”. That sentence captures for me the essence of inspirational leadership communication quite well. There are so many situations in life that involve some elements that you can change and some that you cannot. The critical skill is spotting the difference.

As probability thinkers, inspiring leaders create options and they don’t let barriers cloud their vision. History is full of examples of possibility thinkers who envisioned something that did not yet exist but could become reality by ignoring limitations: the Wright Brothers who made failure their friend and who pointed out possibilities that the whole world thought were unattainable or that they never dared to dream or expect. Or Robert Bannister, the first man who ever managed to run one mile in less than four minutes. They all saw possibilities instead of limitations. They all dreamed one size bigger and that had an inspiring effect. Nelson Mandela was that type of leader too.

On 10 May 1994, he was inaugurated as President of South Africa in Pretoria. The speech he gave showed that it was possible to go against a wrong system and that change was possible: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement!”

As probability thinkers, inspiring leaders also create a new perception of reality: they help people forget their limitations and they affirm the possibilities and the joint capabilities of their team. In their communication, they focus on people’s strengths and contributions. In his classic book “The Effective Executive”, published in 1967, management guru Peter Drucker wrote: “Strengths are the true opportunities”. So when leaders want to inspire, they focus on strengths. They remind people of their positive qualities and of what they are capable of accomplishing. That’s how they create possibilities in the people they lead – even if their current performance is below par. They know that current performance is not an indicator, but a hypothesis.

To change the perception of what is possible, they also help people to forget their failures – simply because inspiring leaders are immune to the recency effect. The recency effect is a psychological term that simply means the most recent experiences we go through are the ones we are likely to remember and we assume those experiences will continue into the future. Inspiring leaders are immune to the recency effect because they understand that no difficult situation is ever as bad as it seems in the moment. They understand that the last thing that happened is almost never an indication about what’s coming next. Indeed, the past does not always contain the best information about the future. Finally, these leaders also understand that the linear thinking of simple cause-effect reasoning, often so typical of the human mind, is not always a good tool to inspire actions and decisions.

So if things go wrong, they take the long view and they see the big picture, reminding their colleagues of the long-term. At the same time, they acknowledge that there can be hard times ahead, but they combine it with a “we can do this together” attitude. In his inauguration speech in 1994, Mandela said: “We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world”. Uniting people to make a vision possible is a key characteristic of an inspiring leader.

Uniting people is also what New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern did during her lockdown speech on 23 March 2020: “Together we have an opportunity to contain the spread and prevent the worst. I cannot stress enough the need for every New Zealander to follow the advice I have laid out today. The Government will do all it can to protect you. Now I’m asking you to do everything you can to protect us all. None of us can do this alone. Your actions will be critical to our collective ability to stop the spread of COVID-19”.