Joshua Spodek’s (PhD MBA) book, Leadership Step by Step, launches in February. He is an adjunct professor and coach of leadership and entrepreneurship at NYU and Columbia. His courses are available online at and he blogs daily at

Everyone feels inspired in late December to get fit. Then, come Valentines Day, the gyms are empty.

Yet Martin Luther King inspired people to march, boycott, and go to jail for years.

At some point, everyone has felt inspired to set their alarm to wake up and do something important, no matter what. Then, when it goes off, they snooze and snooze until it’s too late to do that thing.

Yet Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison to emerge a more effective leader than when he went in, inspired, showing no bitterness or hatred.

Why do we sometimes feel inspired, yet lose it before achieving anything meaningful, but other times inspiration elevates us to acts beyond our wildest expectations?

For those of us who lead, or aspire to lead, how can we inspire people, and ourselves, like great leaders, to achieve?

The two kinds of inspiration

First, recognize that inspiration comes in two types. Actually, more like a spectrum, but I’ll describe the two poles.

Both work, but they do different things.

The archetype of the first is the late-night infomercial. It presents a kitchen gadget that can transform your cooking. You think, following the infomercial’s message:

With that gadget, I can save time, I’ll transform my cooking, I’ll eat healthier, I’ll impress my guests, … I’ll get it! Today is the first day of the rest of my life!

The archetype of the second is the I Have A Dream speech:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

In both cases you feel inspired. Yet one creates long-term results and the other leads to a gadget gathering dust in a kitchen cabinet.

What’s the difference?

The difference in effect is that the first type gets you to act in the moment but not the long term. The differences in cause are several-fold.

The biggest difference is that short-term inspiration tends to be about you: I can save time… I’ll impress my guests… the first day of the rest of my life.

Long-term inspiration is about others. King acted for his children, but didn’t stop there, continuing:

.. we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children …

That’s everyone: black, white, of all religions, etc. Mandela opposed white rule, black rule, and any kind of rule except democratic.

The next big difference is that short-term inspiration tends to focus on external incentives. The gadget enables you to impress others. You can show off.

Long-term inspiration tends to focus on internal motivations. King’s goals were universal: equality and freedom. You don’t show off that you have equality. You live it.

Next, short-term inspiration tends to come from outside — that is, someone gives it to you. If you didn’t know about the gadget, you wouldn’t think about it and you wouldn’t miss it.

Long-term inspiration reveals what you already have inside. Everyone wants freedom. King didn’t make up an idea, he revealed what they already wanted.

Long-term inspiration tends to involve personal sacrifice or investment. Short-term is more get-rich-quick.


Consider times you feel inspired or you try to inspire others. Where along the spectrum do the following cases lie:

  1. You offer someone you manage a bonus or extra vacation time if he finishes a project on time
  2. A customer emails you that your product improved her life and can’t thank you enough
  3. The CEO tells the company that if profits don’t increase, bonuses will be smaller this year
  4. A soldier senses danger to his team
  5. A coach tells an athlete if she practices enough, she can become famous
  6. A coach tells an athlete if she practices enough, she can win the gold medal for her nation
  7. You tell your child if he excels in school you’ll buy him a gift
  8. You tell your child if he excels in school, he’ll be able to make his dreams happen
  9. A TED talk illustrates a technique that you can use to get ahead
  10. An article tells you about inspiration and you think of how you can use it to get ahead
  11. An article tells you about inspiration and you think of how you can use it to serve others

How do I get the results I want when I lead?

To get the results you want, first know your goals.

If you want short-term results, use short-term inspiration. Late-night infomercials make a lot of money using short-term inspiration. If you need your team to finish a project tonight, pizza and a day off tomorrow may inspire them best.

If you want long-term results, you’ll likely have to think more — -more empathetically, to be precise.

  • What do the people you lead value?
  • What motivates them internally?
  • How can you communicate your message so they’ll understand?

To get your team or yourself giving their best, what will motivate them most:

  • Getting a bonus for themselves?
  • Helping each other as a team?
  • Beating the competition?
  • Delivering value to the company?
  • Delivering value to the shareholders?
  • Delivering value to the customers?

There are no hard-and-fast answers that are right for everyone all the time. On the contrary, each situation and each person calls for unique inspiration. Arnold Schwarzenegger started going to the gym and never stopped.

As a leader, know what works in what situation with which person. Know yourself and your team. Learn from your role models. Talking like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross won’t likely lead a nation to the moon, but nor will talking like John F. Kennedy may not help your team hit its target by tomorrow.

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Originally published at