Great Leaders Unleash the Power of Aspiration

Mediocre leaders focus on having their teams perform carefully proscribed functions for pay. But those companies that excel, those that create extraordinary results in the challenging world of business are those whose leaders raise the bar to exceptional heights with aspirational ambitions.
Aspirational ambitions are established by smart leaders who understand the nature of people. They know that creating something beyond the ordinary requires focusing people on the extraordinary.


Aspirational Ambitions are created to stretch your team. JFK explains the essence of an aspirational ambition in his speech announcing the challenge to reach the moon, saying “We don’t do it because it is easy. We do it because it is hard….We do it because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” That is the exact purpose of an aspirational ambition.

Aspirational Ambitions are also grounded in a larger Mission. A mission that is so strong, it taps into a larger purpose. Sergey and Page founded Google on the aspiration to “facilitate access to information for the entire world, and in every language.” Kevin Plank created Under Armour and changed the way athletes dress with the ambition to “make all athletes better” and now rules the athletic wear category. Mary Kaye transformed cosmetics and lives with her Pink Cadillac and the aspiration to “enrich women’s lives.” Steve Jobs aspired to “put a dent in the universe.” When Martin Luther King spoke “I dream of a day when my children will be judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin,” he tapped into the essence of the black American’s dream and struggle. These missions provide the motivational background to create a shorter term aspirational ambition.

Great leaders use a well-crafted aspirational ambition that fuels the fire in the belly of the team and gives them the determination to prevail over all challenges they encounter along the way to achieving their mission. They raise their team’s minds, hearts and results by asking the simple question, “What’s the one thing we need to do to excel?”

It could be qualitative such as communication, a different attitude, or better execution. Or it could be a business-focused goal such as understanding a new market, building a new factory, or overcoming technology limitations.

Whatever it is, it is one thing to focus on excelling. So when a team gets stuck, they will remember their ambition. Colleagues will talk about it. The leader will remind them of it. This will keep them aiming higher, despite the challenges.

I have seen teams facing tough business challenges transcend them by creating aspirational ambitions such as “Organic interplay to raise EBIDTA,” “More results AND more life,” and “Amp it Up.” On their own, these words may not mean anything to you reading this, but they had meaning and gave energy and enthusiasm to the teams that created them. How?

* Created as team – Creating an aspirational ambition WITH your team instead of FOR your team unleashes their creativity and enthusiasm in reaching the ambition.

* Develop measures of success – Each of these had an accompanying set of measurements that the team developed by which they could track their progress. Some were qualitative and others were quantitative. What matters most is some agreed-upon way to track progress.

* Solved a problem – Each of these teams were facing what seemed like a huge problem of resources, reputation, or business conditions. This real business pressure challenged them to collaborate and rally together to identify the solution: their aspirational ambition.

* Use as a carrot, not a stick – Recently Emirates Air was in the press for flight attendants complaints. Emirates is growing rapidly and it is putting strain on the workforce. Their CEO made an error as quoted in a WSJ article and used their aspirational ambition as a stick. He said “keep away from naysayers and instead focus on our ambition to be one of the most loved lifestyle brands.” How can they be most loved when employees are not happy with their work situation? Instead he could have used it as a carrot and said “Our ambition is be one of the most loved lifestyle brands, and that starts with our employees. So, we will address these issues.”

Great leaders use an aspirational ambition to inspire their teams to achieve the unthinkable. The bonus is that when the team starts achieving what seemed inconceivable and unachievable, members develop a fierce pride. The ability of the team to achieve the ambition lets employees see that they are part of something very special. Success then breeds more success. This fusion of great leadership and superior efforts of people creates what all leaders want: one plus one equals three.

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