How spirit animals and growth targets fuel inspiration

Drucker Breakfast - stack of books title Capitalism in America

In case you missed it, I’ve spent the last couple weeks talking about some of my favorite, and most interesting, takeaways from our March event featuring Adrian Wooldridge.

Adrian is a political editor with The Economist and recently co-authored the new book Capitaliam in America: A History, with Alan Greenspan. He’d been invited to a Drucker Executive Breakfast London session – co-sponsored by Emergn and the Global Peter Drucker Forum – to share his thoughts on, among other things, innovation, what defines innovation and what drives innovators.

I’ve written about a couple of these already in previous posts: the links between entrepreneurism and innovation and the dual role that creative destruction can play in innovation. But for my final post in this series, I want to focus on a couple big leadership lessons that Adrian talked about, particularly two ways in which leaders can generate true inspiration for workers.

Having a ‘spirit animal’ at the top

The idea of empathetic leadership is something I’ve talked about a few times before. It’s not just another buzz word or empty value we aspire too, it’s one thing I think is critically important to what makes for good leaders in the first place. If the C-suite lacks empathy for everyone they serve in an organization, then you run the risk of a serious disconnect, where leaders are not attuned to the needs or concerns of their workers and the workers, in return, have no reason to care about carrying out the mission that those leaders had set. You can see the Forbes article that I had the pleasure of co-authoring with Sunnie Giles on why values are only meaningful when they are recognized behaviors.

Adrian put this another way: we need spirit animals at the top of the chain. Someone you can look to, if not for inspiration, at least for guidance and that feeling of “I’ve got your back.” While I can’t say the phrase “spirit animals” resonates with me, the meaning behind it does. When leaders project that sense of familiarity, like we’re all on the same team and operating from an equal playing field, it raises confidence across the entire organization. People are more willing and driven to work toward their company’s goals, and invest themselves personally in that mission, if they know that their leaders are walking that same path right there with them.

Setting ambitious growth targets

And by growth targets, I don’t just mean hitting a certain revenue threshold. That’s important, but how many people across an organization will really feel inspired at work if they think their end goal is just a revenue figure? Leaders should think bigger than that.

Leaders should instead set goals that are ambitious and designed to stretch the organization and its stated vision and mission. YouTube is a great example of this: in 2012, they set a goal of reaching 1 billion views in a single day. They galvanized their employees and rewrote their recommendation algorithms to push everything toward this goal. Four years later, they achieved it. Would that have been possible – or at least, possible within those four years – if YouTube had initially set out with a goal of 500 million views per day? Or 100 million? We don’t know but we do know that we tend to reach for stated goals and few people reach beyond them.

Laying down big, bold ideas like this is exactly what motivates workers in striving ahead and pushing their company forward. Even if the goal seems audacious from the outset, just making it a goal and tasking people with making it happen can make something seemingly unrealistic suddenly feel more feasible and within their grasp. The results might surprise you.

Growth is good. It’s not just good for the company’s bottom line, which is obvious, but good for workers’ collective head space. It gives everyone something to rally around, work toward, feel inspired by and ultimately feel like they have something to contribute to. Growth and big goals for achieving growth change minds about what is possible.

This article is the third and final part in a series of posts related to the 2019 Emergn & Drucker Executive Breakfast London Series. In case you missed them, you can also check out my first two articles in this series, on entrepreneurs vs. inventors and the role of creative destruction in innovation.