How to Choose Goals That Motivate and Inspire Your Team


One of Stephen Covey’s most well-known habits, of his famed seven, is to begin all pursuits “with the end in mind.” If you can’t clearly envision your desired outcome, you can’t proactively bring it fruition. This is doubly true in leadership.

For leaders to succeed, they must have clear goals that guide the direction of their team, or even their entire organization’s efforts. Whether it’s an incremental quarterly sales goal, or a big-picture direction for the entire scope of your company, there must be clarity about where you’re headed. Your people need to know which way to go. If there is not a shared vision that everyone agrees to and understands, the work will lack discipline and focus — and you could end up toiling in vain, misdirecting resources, and wasting time.

So how do you decide which way to go? How can you determine a direction that is highly motivating and aspirational but also practical and achievable?

The key is to remember this motto: Pursue the Ideal; stay anchored in the Real.

The goals that inspire engagement and activate your team should be idealistic AND realistic. If you dream too small, nobody gets excited. Where’s the rush in maintaining mediocre standards? There’s no opportunity for growth. And the feelings of fulfillment after the goal is accomplished are muted, even dull. Nobody had to exert too much effort so they don’t feel the pride of a tough job well done.

You have to start where you are.

If you dream too big, people become demotivated and failure-adverse which can trap them in a cycle of inaction. What’s the point in trying if the goal is unachievable anyway? Why expend so much effort if the inevitable result is disappointment, and worse, a blow to one’s self-esteem and personal pride? People need to feel that there is a meaningful opportunity to show what they’ve got. They want to thrive.

The sweet spot for leaders lies right in the middle. By smartly embracing the tension between the ideal and the real, you can create a direction for the people in your organization that is unifying, inspiring, and invigorating. If you choose the right goals, you’ll be able to rally everyone around a shared vision. And it will be easier to keep the momentum going when obstacles rear their head. Best of all, when people are activated by the right goals, the challenge becomes fun, and the thrill of pursuing it, deeply satisfying.

There are three things to consider when choosing goals that pursue the ideal while staying anchored in the real:

1. Confront the worst, first. To effectively honor the “real” part of the equation, you’ll need to make a clear-eyed assessment of where you are now. The ugliest stuff. The things that get swept under the rug, skipped over, and omitted completely in glossy quarterly reports. To move forward, you have to start where you are – where you really are. Before you begin crafting your perfect goals, confront the brutal facts facing you, your team, and your organization.

 Ask questions like: What are the obstacles we face? Is there anything toxic about the team or company’s culture? What are the resource constraints? What assumptions have you been making that might not be true? What’s the level of trust? What old paradigms are crippling you? What’s your biggest strength? Your largest weakness? What grandfathered-in behaviors and practices need to be abandoned?

Query, push, probe. There are no wrong questions. Be rigorous. Get input from everyone involved. This is the time do it, before you’re already mired in the exciting complexity of your new direction. Do an audit of your team’s performance as is stands right now. Make a list of issues of concern. And make a list of strengths and opportunities. Doing this exercise is not just academic. It will truly put you in the right position to choose the right goal(s).

2. Honor every stakeholder. If you’re really going to choose a goal that is aspirational and achievable, you must ensure it motivates the most possible people. You might not be able to inspire everyone, but the more stakeholders you consider, the better the chance the direction you choose fires the organization up in a productive way. Take the time to think carefully about all the voices that touch the core issues. What are the different outcomes that drive them? Some might be solely interested in shareholder return, others in talent recruitment, others societal engagement and CSR. How can you build a bridge between all these different drives and influences? How can you creatively find ways to manifest a uniting vision?

Be thoughtful and thorough. Through a mix of personal touchpoints and data analysis, your imagination might be kindled in ways you never imagined. Look at it from another person’s perspective. Maybe what motivates them is the key to reimagining your goals in way that sparks your levers, too.

Have enlightening conversations. Ask people what propels them forward. When did they feel most engaged in their work? How can you choose a goal that helps replicate those conditions, but pushes it even further? What does the data say? When the things you’re measuring were good in the past, what were the conditions in the organization that led to that positive performance? How can you re-engineer those same conditions in the future and lift results even higher?

3. Be crystal clear. Once you’ve done your due diligence and developed a direction that pushes people AND gives them ample opportunity to deliver, it’s time to make absolutely, certainly, indubitably, beyond a shadow of a doubt, 100% sure that everybody is on the same page. This sounds like overkill. But there’s no such thing. At ConantLeadership, we always say that “clarity is next to godliness.”

No matter how many people you’ve spoken with, how many times you’ve refined the vision, how precisely you’ve honed the message – you probably weren’t as clear as you thought you were. You have to make sure. Dispel ambiguity. Triple-check that the expectations of the new direction are clear to everyone and that they are equipped with the tools they need to bring it to life.

Importantly, this is a step that occurs in perpetuity. You have to repeat the goal(s) earnestly and often. Don’t be afraid to be bold and brazen. The goal – if you’ve picked the right one — is the point of energized mobilization for the entire effort! Paint it on the wall. Put it in your email signature. Shout it from a megaphone. If you’ve completed the other two steps, and arrived on a message that is aspirational and achievable, and that honors all stakeholders, hearing it reinforced and celebrated shouldn’t be a drag; it should be a rallying cry. It should spur exhilaration and determination.

Don’t be afraid to be bold.

Sure, it may sound like a tall order. You’ve got to choose a goal that adequately inspires and motivates your team – that is idealistic AND realistic – and that creates a rallying point for the entire effort. But it is possible. And it’s worth doing your due diligence to make it happen. When you begin with the end in mind and follow the three steps outlined here, you’re on your way to paving a path of enormous achievement, growth, and enthusiasm.

Tried this process? Let us know how it went in the comments.

For more on goals:

Check out our roundup of 37 quotes on reaching life and leadership goals

Explore our post on how to reach your goals no matter what 

Learn how these 5 traits of a highly effective leadership H.A.B.I.T  can help you achieve greater impact. 

(Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash)

direction, goals, habits, inspiration, leadership inspiration, Leadership That Works, management, motivation, purpose,
  • Kirstin Lowry Sommers

    Douglas, thank you for all of your written contributions. Remarkable. You truly are a seminal thinker, communicator, teacher and doer when it comes to Leadership. Few experts strike the ideal balance between timeless, hard-lined, non-negotiable principles and gentleness of heart – both of which are necessary in today’s workplaces, court rooms, educational institutions, social circles and so on.

    • DouglasConant

      @kirstinlowrysommers:disqus Thanks for taking the time to read and to leave your kind and thoughtful comment. Agree that an abundant approach, that is both tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people, is essential in today’s organizations.

  • Dan Hogan

    Douglas,
    Well done; great advice! Regarding your “clarity is next to godliness” comment, we’ve successful used the team Work Agreement process to make certain all teammates are on the same page. What’s cool is about the process is that all teammates make the agreement after they, essentially, follow your first two steps above. Again, well done and thanks for sharing these steps. https://rightmindedteamwork.com/product/choice-work-agreements/

    • DouglasConant

      @disqus_txklohDsZ2:disqus Dan, thanks for reading and commenting — glad you enjoyed the post. Like the idea of a team “Work Agreement” for ensuring clarity.