This guest post was written by Tsun-yan Hsieh.
Early in my consulting career, the late Marvin Bower, one of the early pioneers and legends in management consulting, shared a story that inspired me. He told me he had decided to write a letter to a CEO, challenging him to consider that he might be at the heart of his company's prolonged performance problems. Marvin's forthrightness succeeded in inspiring the CEO to change course. Since then I have often reminded myself of Marvin's frankness. Human nature most often pushes us towards conflict avoidance, but Marvin gave me the courage to speak directly on tough issues, even if it has meant in some cases risking my relationships with my clients and colleagues.
Not everyone who knew about Marvin's actions at the time felt inspired. Some considered his behavior reckless, disruptive, and undiplomatic. For those of us who were inspired by his values, the important question is: What did I do with that inspiration?
Inspiration only begins its useful work when our spirits are moved to thought and action. The self is the weak link between all things inspiring and inspired thought and action. Blaming others for not inspiring us when we are not inspired externalizes the problem. And we cannot inspire others if we are not inspired ourselves.
To become self-inspired, I have found it useful to build three reinforcing processes within me -- evolving self, congruent self and courageous self.
Evolving self (a term used by Robert Kegan, an authority on adult development) is the first step in the process of achieving inspiring self. Evolving self occurs when one seeks to push forward to his full potential by willing to shed elements of their old self and induct new (and better) elements into their inner core. Ask people who are in their 50's or older, and they will tell you how they have changed in some important ways while remaining otherwise the same in the last 30 years. Some people change as a result of their responses to life events; others put in the hard work to evolve to become a better person and/or leader. Yet, many remain stuck well below their potential because the tensions between the comfort of staying with the familiar on the one hand, and the pain of shedding the skin in which we have grown accustomed, are often unbearable. Evolving self is the recognition, desire and action towards continuous learning about yourself.
Congruent self begins with the unwavering drive to be true to oneself. It results in a deep self-awareness and an unbroken flow from being and thinking to feeling and expressing. In other words: I say what I think, what I think is how I feel, and how I feel is who I am. Incongruence dampens the full emotional response to an inspiration and blocks the urge to act on it. It takes inner strength and hard work to resolve the tensions among conflicting desires in favor of truth about one's self.
Courageous self is the resolve to act consistently with our congruent self, even in situations that harbor significant risk. Consider whistle-blowers reporting corporate wrongdoing: they know that by speaking up they risk being discredited, oppressed, and made unemployable. But their will to abide by their own values in the face of adversity inspires them to act for the greater good.
Inspiring self is integral to the never-ending journey of becoming a better person. Without it, the inspiration we receive from others does us no good.
Tsun-yan Hsieh is Director Emeritus at McKinsey & Company where he has been for 30 years. He sits on the Board of Directors of Sony Corporation and is a member of Cue Ball's Collective brain trust.
This article first appeared on Harvard Business Publishing on July 2, 2010.