Great Leaders Use This Formula to Motivate People


As I was reading about athletes and the long term effects of multiple concussions, I made a startling connection. These people willingly subject themselves to brain damage in the pursuit of their career. I have witnessed the same phenomenon during PowerPoint presentations. It’s hard to imagine a more ubiquitous form of corporate torture. (If Al Qaeda ever wanted to break me, all they would need is a laptop and a projector.)

The common talent of great leaders is their ability to communicate an irresistible idea. These ideas take on a life of their own by touching the soul of the follower. Who can deny the power of Martin Luther King’s dream of a world where people are judged solely on the content of their character? Try putting that on a PowerPoint.

Ralph Stayer, the CEO of Johnsonville Foods, tells a story about a large company who hired him to turn things around. Sitting in a beautiful conference room surrounded by big wigs Ralph sat through a presentation that explained in excruciating detail why their division would lose $90 million dollars that year. (Hey, PowerPoints don’t lie.) They concluded proudly that this loss represented a $30 million dollar improvement over the previous year. (Can’t you just see the forced smiles as they laid that turkey on the table?)

Ralph turned to the group and said, “How can you look yourselves in the mirror?” No response. “What do you tell your neighbors when they ask what you do for a living? Do you tell them you lose $90 million dollars a year?”

That comment broke the room. “We hate it!” they replied. “We feel like failures.”

“Well, then,” said Ralph, “Let’s agree to make at least one dollar next year. Our goal will be to make a buck.”

That one idea ignited the organization. In the hallways and elevators you started to hear the same mantra, “Make a buck, make a buck, make a buck.” The end of the story is they posted a $20 million profit.

Of course, it wasn’t easy. People had to do things differently and of course it required a lot of good thinking and execution. But it all began with a dream that overwhelmed the reasons for doing what had always been done. A real power point is the one big idea that is so grand in its intent that it inspires extraordinary results from ordinary people.

The next time you need to rally the troops, forget the laptop. Look people in the eye and ask them to join you in something really worth doing.

To find your power point try this:

  1. Ask yourself, “What does the enterprise most need right now?” Forget what your ego wants to do and connect yourself to doing right by the organization.
  2. Challenge whatever comes up by asking “Why is that important?” (Keep asking why until you have a benefit that really means something to the people who have to make it happen.)
  3. Dig even deeper and ask “What is the result of experiencing that benefit?” (Keep at it until you can describe the desired result in crisp, vivid language. Dr. King’s description of his dream is a clear example.)

Leaders naively think the benefits of some new initiative will be obvious to all their employees. It’s not true. Sure, your people will nod and agree with you, but they are signaling intellectual understanding, not emotional commitment. As a leader you need to win people over, one at a time, face to face.

To do it, memorize this equation: (Discomfort) x (Preferred Vision) x (First Step) > (Resistance)

  • Your job is to overcome the natural resistance to change. First, identify or create as much discomfort as you possibly can with the status quo. The intent is not to point fingers but to confront an intolerable situation and face the brutal facts.
  • Next share your vision of a preferred future. Describe it in a way that makes it easy for your followers to see themselves participating in and enjoying that future.
  • Share the first steps to make that vision a reality.
  • Tell the story over and over again. Don’t stop. Words are generative. Every time you describe the future you create it in the minds of your people. After you’ve told everyone what you want so many times you think that by now they must get it . . . tell them again.

These three components: Discomfort, Vision, and First Steps, when strong enough, will overcome Resistance. Once you master them, you may never need a projector again.

This article was written by Bill Mills and originally titled “Power What’s Your Point.” Bill Mills is an award winning author and speaker on business innovation. He directs Executive Group Inc. an entrepreneurial think tank for almost 70 Minnesota business owners and CEO’s. or

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