How to Inspire When Things Aren’t Going Well

Plenty of leaders are effective when things are going well. But how about when things aren’t going so well? How do you inspire your teams then?

Say your team is doing a project and everybody’s away from home, working seven days a week. It’s a tough job that’s not going well. Your workers' morale is continuing to decline.

How do you as the leader inspire your people to keep pushing, when they’re already in a pretty rough place? They haven’t seen their kids for a while. They’re basically exhausted.

The solution is simpler than you may imagine.

You ‘rack up some wins.’

For Willink, this potentially complicated situation can be fixed with a single four-word strategy: “Rack up some wins.”

When things aren’t going well, that, for Willink, “is the morale killer extraordinaire. Look, it's horrible when we can't see our families. But when we can't see our families, and we're losing, that's what really starts to tear us apart. So let's rack up some wins.”

As the leader, what can you do? What target or priority can you focus on so that your team starts getting some wins? Wins that will get your momentum moving in the right direction.

What to do is clear for Willink: “We're gonna start winning. I don't know what we're gonna win, but I'm gonna find some stuff we're gonna win at. And I'm gonna make that happen. As much as I say, ‘Oh, well, you don't want to impose your will. You don't want to impose a plan.’ If I've gotta, like, step in, and I've got to make us get some wins? I'm gonna do that.”

As the leader, go back over any open work requests and see where you may be able to gain a foothold. Has a less important task led one or more team members down a time-consuming rabbit hole? Are you attacking the right goals, or would it be smarter to focus on a different aspect of the project, simply to change things up?

What about stopping long enough to talk about what’s not going right? Sometimes, when we’re busiest, we don’t take the time to step back and assess what’s really happening…and things continue to spiral out of control.

Failure is not an option.

With morale already at its lowest, what you and your team need, as explained above, are some serious wins. And quickly. Anything to get your work turned around and headed in the right direction.

“If we're having bad morale. I'm not gonna allow us to fail. So what is it we're trying to get — we're trying to get back on the critical path? Okay, cool, here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna pull this off,” said Willink. “Watch this: We're gonna bust our ass. We're gonna work, you know, seven 14-hour, 18-hour days in a row, whatever it takes. We’re gonna get back on the critical path.”

“And guess what? Then I'm buying pizza. And we're gonna chill out for four hours, or take a morning off. We’re gonna do something. There'd be a reward. That's what we're doing. I'm gonna rack up some wins.”

In the spirit of extreme times calling for extreme measures, it’s important to celebrate as hard as you work. When your team overcomes a tough mental and physical challenge, reward them.


Leading is easier when things are going well. It’s when things are not going well that your true skills are challenged.

When a team’s work is going particularly badly, it’s time for the leader to step in and lead.

The more aspects of the job that are in trouble, the simpler your solution needs to be: Are people frustrated by the lack of progress? Overtired from being away from their homes and families? Struggling under unmeetable deadlines? Then find a way to rack up some wins.

As Willink said, there has to be something you can win. Find it. Be as relentless as you need to be, but get those wins and put your team back on track. And, when they succeed in turning this bad situation around, celebrate with them.

Your crew needs to know you have their backs, in both good times and bad. And, as consultative a leadership style as you may have, this is not the time to send something to committee. If morale fails and the project continues to go off the rails, that’s on you. Focus. And go rack up those wins.