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Two Keys to Inspire Greatness

Early this morning, I was listening to a podcast with John Dickerson, a popular journalist from Slate and CBS news, speaking about the passing of a dear friend. He credited his friend, Neal Tonken, with inspiring him to excellence by having both rigorous standards for the people he worked with, but also full empathy for the human experience.

Tonken was Dickerson’s high school English teacher. The thousands of emails Tonken received in recent weeks are evidence of the masterful work he did as an educational leader in balancing excellence with grace.

As my wife and I plan for the start of our son’s formal education (he’ll be attending preschool soon) we have a great desire from him to be in an environment where the educational leaders challenge his mind with high expectations and encourage his heart with love.

Whenever I hear of someone speak about a leader who has inspired them to greatness (whether that leader be a manager, colleague, teacher, or parent) almost without fail I hear elements of both of these following key principles. You too, can use these principles with sincerity to inspire others to greatness:

1. Set the Standard for the Finest Reputation

In many of our courses, we highlight one of Dale Carnegie’s key principles for leading people:

Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.

It’s incumbent upon those of us who have experience to set the standard high if we expect to inspire people to greatness. Experience allows us to see further than the other party is able to see on their own.

It’s one reason that business, life, and even sports coaching has become so popular in recent years – top performers are acutely aware that in order to be their best, engaging someone else with experience will push them much further than they could go on their own. That’s a big reason you’ll rarely see an Olympic athlete without a coach.

There is of course a clear line between setting the bar high and expecting the impossible. Absolutely you should encourage people to stretch themselves beyond what they can see for themselves.

They don’t need to know how they will get there yet, but you do. However long and difficult the path may be, greatness needs to be clear in your mind and your own commitment in place to support them in the journey. If either are missing, you may be expecting too much.

2. Be Sympathetic With the Human Being

Equally important with high standards is the care for each person as a human being.

The chapter titled “The Best Marketing Strategy Ever” of Gary Vaynerchuk’s bestselling business book Crush It has only a single word:


Caring means that in addition to high standards, you also show up as a human being who is willing to listen gracefully, offer support, and meet people where they are on their journey to becoming a better employee, leader, parent, or friend.

Dale Carnegie said it simply:

Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.

That means when someone is telling you about the fun weekend that had building a model train set with their child, you take a moment to be genuinely interested in what they did and why they love it so much (hint: people figure out when you’re just pretending to show interest).

What if you don’t like model trains? Irrelevant. It’s about what they like. When you care about someone genuinely, their interests should be of great concern to you, even if they aren’t personal interests of yours.

The Real Secret to Inspiring Greatness

The leaders who best inspire greatness do both of these things well. However, their real secret for inspiring greatness is demonstrating both of these principles…

…at the same time.

In the blockbuster movie Good Will Hunting, the late Robin Williams earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of therapist Sean Maguire. Throughout the movie, Maguire challenges Will Hunting to make peace with his past in order to fully embrace his future.

In a famous scene of the movie, Maguire repeats the words, “It’s not your fault,” to a stubborn and angry Hunting, refusing to back down. It’s a great example of a leader having the courage to challenge, while showing great sympathy.

You and I both know leaders who play to their strengths with only one of these principles.

Leaders who only set the bar high but show little concern for the human being rarely inspire greatness. Those who are kind but unable to challenge people to higher standards are nice to be around, but often ineffective.

Which Are You?

Most of us favor either setting a high standard or being sympathetic in our dealings with people. I’ll bet good money you already know which one you default to.

Consider this: what could you do to enhance your skills with the other principle? One immediate action you can take is to read or review both of the chapters corresponding to these principles in Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Each chapter is just a few pages. It may help provide your own roadmap for greatness.

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