What Truly Great Leaders Have in Common: Hope, Vision & Inspiration

Marc D. Kirshbaum

© 2016

In connection with last month’s 30th anniversary of the devastating and shocking explosion on take-off of the space shuttle, Challenger, I played for my thirteen year old daughter President Reagan’s address to the nation that he delivered on the evening of the disaster. President Reagan was supposed to deliver the State of The Union address that evening in front of Congress, but instead decided to deliver a televised four minute speech from behind his desk in the Oval Office directly to the American people.

This poignant, direct, inspirational and comforting speech, written by the extremely gifted Peggy Noonan, was a brilliant example of situational leadership that lifted and inspired a nation at what could have otherwise been a time for finger-pointing or negativity. Worse yet, would be “willful blindness” – the all-too-common concept described in detail by Margaret Heffernan of knowing there is a problem but refusing to do or say anything.

Hope, Vision & Inspiration

Political views aside, Ronald Reagan, through his speech that night and other speeches he delivered (e.g., declaring in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”), is a singular example of a leader that has the ability to lead with: hope, vision and inspiration.

In politics, one can include as other examples the likes of Abraham Lincoln and The Gettysburg Address. In social action, this group of leaders includes Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as Nelson Mandela and his “I Am Prepared to Die” speech delivered at the time of his trial in 1964.

A great leader’s commitment to leading with hope, vision and inspiration transcends words. It is reflected in actions that are consistent with the words. For some leaders, these actions exist without either the gift of, or need for, such public speech. Case in point: Mother Teresa can be placed in this same category for the way she led her life and quietly – both directly and indirectly – positively affected the lives of millions.



“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”


Mother Teresa (1910-1997)



Defining & Illustrating Hope, Vision & Inspiration

The ability to articulate and mobilize hope, vision and inspiration creates the foundation of sustainable progress for any organization, business or community. But how does this formula work for leaders? The following definitions highlight the natural progression and direct correlation between hope, vision and inspiration:

Hope: Identifying that which is positive and aspirational.

Vision: Creating a clear image of that which is possible to achieve.

Inspiration: Leveraging words and actions to transform hope and vision into positive results. 

Paraphrasing components of President Reagan’s Oval Office speech regarding the space shuttle disaster illustrates a leader’s ability to convey hope, vision and inspiration:

Hope: “That the nation has a daring and brave hunger to explore the universe and expand man’s horizons.”

Vision: “That we will be able to learn and advance both technology and our society through space exploration and discovery.”

Inspiration: “That even in a time of pain and national loss, the nation is committed to its space program and the work of NASA to continue the pursuit of space exploration and putting more astronauts into space.” 

I have been fortunate in my lifetime to be inspired by leaders who “talk and walk” with hope, vision and inspiration. One of these leaders was a mentor of mine who went from the proverbial mail room to the board room, eventually leading a 20,000-person organization. When we worked together, I witnessed this leader doing an amazing job articulating: the opportunities for the business (hope); the strategy of the business (vision); and goals and results, including calling out shortcomings as well as praising individuals and groups for delivering results (inspiration).

Beyond words, he also responded to any and all e-mails the same day, and spent time in person with thousands of employees across more than ten offices throughout North America four times a year. I can say that during his tenure, employee loyalty and morale were strong and the business results equally strong.

The Antithesis of Hope, Vision & Inspiration

The opposite approach to words and actions of hope, vision and inspiration is an approach based in fear and limitation. All too often I have seen so-called leaders in all types of organizations – businesses, charitable organizations and government – use this style to try to lead. It is highlighted by focusing on the bad things that could happen in a world of limited options.

This alternative approach of fear and limitation is reflected in the comments of both the pessimist and the optimist in one of my favorite jokes. Do you know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist? A pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse,” while the optimist says, “Oh yes they can!”

Yes, this approach can lead to short-term gains, such as we have seen of late with the approach politicians have taken to win elections and govern, but it is never sustainable and does not create long-term value.  Put succinctly, it is not truly leadership.

If you have been part of an organization where morale is low, turnover is high and no one feels safe questioning authority, it is highly likely that the leadership and culture of that organization is one of fear and limitation.

Make the Commitment to Do “Small Things” That Build and Create

Ronald Reagan addressed the nation directly at a difficult time. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the front row of the march in Selma. Nelson Mandela toiled in prison for 27 years before leading his nation. Mother Teresa worked in her hospital with sick patients every day. These leaders’ communication of hope, vision and inspiration led to results that positively impacted the lives of millions.

One need not be a leader of millions or even hundreds to leverage hope, vision and inspiration to positively build and create. Every interaction we have with others provides this opportunity and we all have the ability to choose our words and actions in each situation.

May hope, vision and inspiration always win out in a way that builds solid foundations for growth and opportunity across organizations, businesses and communities. 

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