Debunking Leadership Myths #5 — Inspiration Matters, But Not That Much

In my last article, we debunked the myth that fear doesn’t matter that much when it comes to the decisions we make and the actions we take at work and beyond. Today, we’ll tackle a myth at the opposite end of the same spectrum: Inspiration matters, but not that much. In truth, feeling inspired is one of the most powerful motivators available to us. This is because your inspiration – whether you realize it or not – is often integral to something even more significant you may not have seriously considered before: your sense of purpose.

At first glance, you may find this concept to be a little too touchy-feely—reminiscent of crystals, incense, perhaps a tarot reading or two. But there’s nothing the slightest bit fluffy about tapping into purposefulness to achieve something important.

Hundreds of research studies make that clear; they demonstrate that big-picture objectives—like impact, one’s legacy, and an overarching purpose—are catalysts for inspiration and success-generating actions. This is because our emotions are a powerful driver of our behavior, which we’ll unpack shortly.

First, let’s understand why purpose—the fuel of inspiration—is so important. Research has shown that we weigh a negative outcome twice as heavily as a positive one. Studies have reliably demonstrated that when offered the option to take a particular bet, people begin to agree to it only when the potential for gain becomes twice the magnitude of the potential for loss. This can be expressed as a simple equation – 2I >F – to remind us that to take meaningful action, our level of inspiration (I) must be greater than twice the magnitude of our fear (F).

The implication of this effect is that to gain ground and take action, we have to raise our inspiration to twice the level of our fear, overriding fear’s tendency to hijack our plans. One way to keep your level of inspiration high is to maintain a strong locus of control: the belief that you have power over the circumstances of your life. When you have a strong locus of control, you stay true to yourself, your purpose, and your plans. Meanwhile, lacking a strong locus of control has the potential to derail us personally: Being swayed by others’ plans and opinions is a massive consumer of dreams and aspirations. There are thousands of would-be chefs and musicians out there who were convinced to be doctors or lawyers instead, and it’s not unusual to hear them mention their regrets twenty or thirty years later.

My friend David serves as an excellent example of how your life can change when you clarify and lean into your purpose. When we first met, David was a practicing attorney working eighty hours per week. His quality of life was miserable, and neither a pay increase nor promotion to partner—what is well established to be the peak of one’s legal career—would change that. He started thinking about a change of course, and to do that, he began considering what he was passionate about. He was a licensed pilot, and he loved flying—though he rarely had the opportunity to do it. While many people told him how great it would be to become an attorney, unsurprisingly no one encouraged him to become a professional pilot, and he knew many of his friends, family members, and colleagues would be critical of his decision if he chose to make the switch. Still, he decided to follow his own locus of control. He quit his job at the law firm and earned his flight instructor certificate.

Today, David is a full captain working for a leading fractional jet ownership company. He works a total of twenty-one weeks per year—seven days off, seven days on. Not only does he have the kind of flexibility and freedom that he could have only dreamed of as an attorney, but he also loves his work. He found his life’s purpose and made the conscious decision to honor it.

Doing so boils down to making choices you believe in and taking actions that promote them. How do you ensure you’re doing that? Consider your yes-to-no ratio. How many things do you commit to in a short period of time? For many of the CEOs I work with, it’s far too many. We can chalk some of this up to our culture’s fear of missing out (or FOMO), but it is mostly due to lack of purpose. And unfortunately, saying yes to something is effectively saying no to other potentially important things that could, in fact, be highly aligned with your goals.

You have a yes-to-no ratio whether you realize it or not. It’s a simple, easy-to-track key performance indicator (KPI) that you should track periodically to assess the quality of your focus as a leader.  To check your yes-to-no ratio, try counting all of your “yes” responses—including head nods and terms like “sure,” “yeah,” and “why not”—and all of your “no” responses for a full week. To achieve optimal focus, most leaders need to reduce their yes-to-no ratio by a factor of ten. Think about what you could accomplish if you tightened your focus by saying “no” more often—and then do it! But there’s even more you can do to make sure your inspiration significantly outweighs fear.

If you’ve read the previous Leadership Myths in this series (starting here), you’ve learned about Activators: handy strategies and techniques that shift thinking and behavior. When attempting to dial up inspiration to outweigh fear, look to Activator #2: Increase Inspiration.

Increasing inspiration is analogous to reducing fear—and just as important—but with one critical difference. The mechanism of fear reduction is to replace emotional thinking with logical thinking. The mechanism of increasing inspiration is the exact opposite: to replace logical thinking with emotional thinking! When you believe in what you’re doing and where you’re headed, you tilt the 2I > F equation in your favor and greatly increase the odds that you’ll act.

The Know Your WHY tool, which you can find here, can help you increase your emotional thinking; assess your yes-to-no ratio; and consider whether your business decisions, choices, and actions are self-directed—making it a vital companion in your ongoing efforts to increase inspiration and accomplish more.

Next up in this series is an easy-to-justify, insidious Leadership Myth that costs us much more than we realize: it’s okay to avoid actions that make us uncomfortable.

Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

What is Loss Aversion?
Losses Attract More Attention Than Comparable Gains

We don’t like to lose things that we own. We tend to become extremely attracted to objects in our possession, and feel anxious to give them up. Ironically, the more we have, the more vulnerable we are. Having accumulated wealth implies that we have more to lose than to gain. However, emotion regulation, such as taking a different perspective, can reduce loss aversion and help people overcome potentially disadvantageous decision biases.

Why are we so afraid of losing? Our aversion to loss is a strong emotion. The aversive response reflects the critical role of negative emotions (anxiety and fear) to losses. In other words, loss aversion is an expression of fear. This explains why we tend to focus on setbacks than progress. Negative emotions, such as from receiving criticism, have a stronger impact than good ones, such as from receiving praise. As Charles Darwin once said, “Everyone feels blame more acutely than praise.”

Stop Preparing for the Last Disaster

When something goes wrong, we often strive to be better prepared if the same thing happens again. But the same disasters tend not to happen twice in a row. A more effective approach is simply to prepare to be surprised by life, instead of expecting the past to repeat itself.

If we want to become less fragile, we need to stop preparing for the last disaster.

Consumers Are Becoming Wise to Your Nudge

I’m interviewing Chris, a 52-year-old man living in a small coastal town, for the second time. We’ve been exploring the new checkout process for a hotel’s redesigned website. The new site isn’t performing as well as the company thought it would, so I’m exploring why and seeing what we can learn.

“Only 2 rooms left? They don’t expect me to believe that do they? You see that everywhere.”

For Chris the implication was clear: this “scarcity” was just a sales ploy, not to be taken seriously.

We wondered, was Chris’s reaction exceptional, or would the general public spot a pattern in the way that marketers are using behavioral interventions to influence their behavior? Are scarcity and social proof messages so overused in websites that the average person does not believe them? Do they undermine brand trust?

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…