“We All Need Inspiration, Francois.”

Last week I spent two days in a windowless conference room, discussing “inspirational leadership” in one-on-one meetings with 15 Taiwanese high-level male managers.

It was a departure from my usual work with women leaders, to be sure. The fact that they are male leaders is coincidental; the opportunity to work with people interested in expanding their influence skills in a company invested in developing a strong leadership bench deepens my understanding of culture and human behavior in ways I never expect.

I’ve been traveling to Hsinchu for three days every quarter for the past year now to work on this project. Hsinchu is an industrial city about an hour northwest of Taipei. The Hsinchu Science Technology and Industrial Park is home to more than 360 high-tech companies, and six universities bless the 40-square miles of this provincial city of less than half a million people.

In this program, we spend one full day in a group learning session, and two more days in individual coaching with the participants. I had given the group the homework assignment to watch the 2009 movie, Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The movie highlights the story of Nelson Mandela’s quest to unite South Africa through rugby, as the newly-elected post-apartheid president. I often use the movie as an example of John Kotter’s 8-step change model, as the story almost perfectly follows the sequence of stages outlined in the model. But more importantly, I love how the story highlights the importance of inspiration in changing people’s minds and behaviors. 

This is my favorite scene from the movie, and I use this clip to emphasize the need for inspiration in leadership to win people’s hearts and minds.

In the scene, President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) has invited François Pienaar (Matt Damon), the Springbok rugby team captain, for tea. In their conversation, Mandela references the poem, "Invictus" written by the English poet William Ernest Henley in 1875.

I don’t know if these passages are actually from Mandela or the result of great script writing, but I like them nonetheless:

Mandela is interested in Francois’ philosophy of leadership is and asks him,

“How do you inspire your team to do their very best?”

 The young rugby captain replies,

“By example, sir. I’ve always thought to lead by example.”

Mandela follows with:
“That is correct. But how to get them to be better than they think they can be? That is very difficult.”

“How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing else will do? How do we inspire everyone around us? I sometimes think it is by using the work of others. On Robben Island, when things got very bad, I often found inspiration in a poem—a Victorian poem. Just words…but they helped me to stand when all I wanted to do was to lie down.”

 Photo credit: Mosaic Movie Connect Group

 Photo credit: Mosaic Movie Connect Group

“We all need inspiration, François. Because in order to rebuild our nation, we must all exceed our own expectations.”

Each time I’ve given this assignment, I take the time to watch the movie again, and I see something new in it with each viewing. I was really struck this time by the idea of borrowing inspiration from others—seeing others’ viewpoints through their writing, art, photography, movies, speeches, or even simple conversations, and sharing the emotions that later become catalysts to actions in our own lives. The idea that we can “borrow” some emotional energy—without depleting the source—is really quite amazing when you stop to think about it.

There is an abundance of inspiration available to us, if we just allow it in.

Merrilee Buchanan

But the corollary to this idea is that inspiration must be fed in order to grow, and getting a daily dose of inspiration allows us to keep our energy focused in a positive direction to achieve the things that are important to us. (The opposite is true, too, if we feed our minds with negative inputs that fill us with desperation. But that’s a story for another day and another post.)

The truth is, sitting in a windowless conference room for two days talking about inspirational leadership with talented, creative individuals whose daily experiences are quite different from my own was actually quite inspiring for me. I understand very little about technology or the way it works, but I am eternally grateful that it works. Every person’s story—what they know, what they do, how they see the world—has value for us, especially when it’s different from our own.

Borrowing from the work of others for inspiration is really quite easy. In a way, it’s like opening a window for fresh air, but instead, opening your mind to new ideas. It’s all out there if you look, listen, and take it in.


William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.