The 3 Secrets Of Inspirational Leadership
Getting leadership insight ideas

Written by Brent Mullins

Jul 15, 2022

Obscene. Foulmouthed. Profane. Nelson was the Global Head of Engineering and ever so colorful. It took something big to trigger his irreverent side, but you could count on remarkable creativity in his profanity when it did.

It was always about events, never people, and never publicly. Only the inner-inner circle where he let his guard down, really down, ever heard it. I once asked him where he earned his black belt in profanity; he shot back, quoting the former king of late-night, Johnny Carson, by saying, “Never use a big word when a little filthy one will do.”

Some might consider this part of him a weakness, and I’ll say that he wasn’t perfect, but he had nearly everything you could want in a leader. Self-aware, visionary, charismatic, and unabashedly outspoken in his commitment to customers, employees, and peers. A leader rich with strong opinions who was also compassionate and a lifelong student of leadership.

This blog is Nelson’s story about navigating stormy business seas largely by embracing relationships as the currency of leadership, and how he powered his battleship’s turn to the positive using three relationship-enhancing tools available to any leader; acknowledgment, values, and stories.

The executive challenge

After a lightspeed honeymoon with his new company, Nelson found himself staring down the barrel of a product portfolio that had grown bloated and a pipeline of new releases that had slowed to a crawl with enormous potential consequences. Strained cross-functional relationships broke down communication and team effectiveness; red flags at the project level somehow transformed into green lights by the time dashboards reached the senior leadership team. And while dependable NPI dates were scarce, there was an abundance of finger-pointing “explaining” the cause of their current challenges.

Nelson had inherited a challenge on par with his expertise in profanity.

As one who loved the thinking part of the job, Nelson’s perspective was that fixing structure, process, and operating rhythms was the easy part. The hard work was earning employee commitment and building a winning mindset throughout a globally distributed 600+ engineering organization.

Turning the ship would take all hands and require every bit of effort the organization had left to give. He believed the secret to results, commitment, and mindset is leadership, and the heart of leadership is relationships.

The power of acknowledgment

Here’s how Nelson described the importance of connection:

“People comply with rules but commit to people and work that’s important to them. No one gives more than what’s asked when they are complying, but if you can see what’s important to them and what they will stand up for, you can add jet fuel to the relationship. What better way to stoke their fire than let them know when you see them for what they hold dear and make them feel valued for it.”

Nelson didn’t know the term acknowledgment; to him, it was just one of the things that leaders contribute, but he nailed the crux of it. Acknowledging someone is to call out who they had to be to accomplish a praise-worthy action. It’s discerning what they did from what it took within them to do it. Acknowledgment recognizes the character of the person receiving it. In contrast, praise and recognition call out an individual’s action or behavior.

Understanding acknowledgment

Acknowledgment is different from praise, but they are often confused. Acknowledgments encourage and motivate. They give specific recognition without the disadvantages of praise, which can be too general and often includes a personal judgment.

Here are some examples to illustrate the differences:


  • Great job on the presentation.
  • I found your report insightful and compelling.
  • Nice work!
  • I’m really happy with the results you achieved.


  • You took a stand for honesty and integrity. It wasn’t easy.
  • You are a devoted partner.
  • You really showed your commitment to learning.
  • You consistently stand for honesty.
  • You are a loyal friend.

Henry & Karen Kimsey-House, authors of seminal coaching and leadership books as well as masters of acknowledgment, identify a host of its benefits. When acknowledging your people, you are:

  • Celebrating their internal strengths.
  • Calling out what they sometimes dismiss in themselves.
  • Giving them more access to the strength by recognizing a truth.
  • Seeing them in a way that is enormously moving and rare — to be seen and known.

How do you maximize acknowledgment?

  • Deliver it at the moment when it’s going to make an impact vs. days or weeks later.
  • Keep it short, approximately five words, and then be quiet.
  • Let it be heard, felt, and absorbed. You will sense it if it lands.

Acknowledgment creates positive experiences

Acknowledgment leads to positive experiences that help cultivate a sense of belonging, believing you’re meant to be there and have something great to offer. Coincidentally another executive engineering leader shared a similar perspective and was fond of quoting Maya Angelou by saying, “People are more than carbon-based life forms! They won’t recall precisely what you said, but they will forever remember how you made them feel.”

Nelson would give that a #$!% yes! As one of his more G-rated comments about a leader’s contribution, he was fond of saying, “It always starts with my leaders; we create the atmosphere. No one has a great work experience or accomplishes that much if they work for a turd with a bad attitude focused on themselves.”

As you might guess, Nelson held “direct communication” as a core value, which he vividly modeled.

Share your values, tell your stories

Stories are one of the most fundamental and ingrained modes of learning that ever existed. Nelson’s perspective was that stories are vital to the relationship because “that’s how people get to know the real you.” And telling the right story paints a picture that brings values to life and reinforces what’s important to the leader and the organization.

Nelson enjoyed sharing tales that toasted his self-given title as THE anti-perfectionist.

“You have to know the 80% that needs to be very good and the 20% that has to be excellent, but you’ll never be perfect — perfection is the enemy of the good, of the done, of progress”.

What did he mean by values exactly? Values are intangibles and not something you do—nature, family, integrity, or freedom, for instance. They’re something important to you that brings you great satisfaction or joy. Climbing is an activity that may honor the value of fitness or challenge. Favorite activities help pinpoint values by considering what they do for you or create in you. People say, “I value money,” when asked, “what does it do for you,” the deeper answer is often the actual value, a sense of security, freedom, or stability, for example.

Stories address the foundation of relationships; trust. Fundamental attribution error is the habit of attributing another person’s actions to their character or personality while attributing your behavior to factors outside your control. In other words, we judge others by their actions, and we judge ourselves by our intentions. As an illustration, if a colleague witnessed a coworker physically run into a peer on his way to a meeting, that person is more likely to explain the coworker’s behavior as carelessness rather than believing he was running late to an important meeting.

Value-centric stories build relationships

Sharing a value-centric story goes below the surface to reveal the thoughts or mastery of a topic that is not always discernable without discussion. Without the story, a team will make sense of or create a reason for their leader’s behavior that’s potentially wildly off the mark.

Instead, a story invites listeners into the leader’s introspections, motivations, and fuels imagination as it addresses a resonant truth.

Your stories make you more relatable and human while inspiring trust. Stories that connect your actions to your values help you convey consistency, openness, and integrity.

Value-centric stories say you can trust me because I act in alignment with who I say I am. In contrast, nothing undermines trust like saying one thing and doing another; if there is no trust, there’s little chance of a healthy or constructive relationship.

Nelson’s fate

Of course, the story ends well; otherwise, I would be telling you a different one! Hard decisions about the portfolio and new products made for painful, difficult times. Despite that misery, Nelson and his team saw a spectacular trend of morale increases year-over-year as measured by an internal climate survey.

The team took the gold medal for resilience and bounced back with renewed discipline and rigor; they evolved the engineering organization into a highly progressive, development-focused powerhouse. In short, excellent results were had, heroes were made, and awesomeness was embraced.

Summing it up

Relationship-building begins with acknowledgment and grows with your value-centric stories. Try starting by building your acknowledgment muscles. You can test it out at home, with friends, or on the job, and do it with a beginner’s mindset, seeing each attempt as an experiment from which you can learn. You might be shocked at how powerfully your words land.

We know that Olympic-level profanity is not required to be a great leader. But what Nelson did extraordinarily well was be tuned into his most essential values, not what society said he should hold as important, but the ones in his work and personal life that added up to a life well-lived.

Using your own-value centric stories can achieve similar results for you. Doing the job to identify them and assess how well you are living them is an integral part of becoming a successful and inspiring leader.

Need help on that path? Book a call with me here to explore what inspirational leadership and relationship building looks like for you.

About The Author

Brent Mullins is a Certified Executive Coach serving successful senior leaders in global organizations to create positive, sustained change and achieve breakthrough performance. Brent’s extensive real-life experience includes executive leadership serving as Global Head of Human Resources at Fortune 200 companies and 25+ years in leadership roles. His expertise in navigating complex differences in assumptions, values, beliefs, and core culture is at the heart of his work.

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