The Myth of Motivation


Contrary to popular opinion, leaders cannot motivate anyone. The real challenge for leaders is to tap into and channel the preexisting motivation that resides in everyone.

Contrary to popular opinion, leaders cannot give motivation to anyone. As leaders, we would be foolish, and somewhat arrogant, to think we possess the power to bestow motivation upon another person. Actually, a reservoir of motivation already resides inside every person we meet. The real challenge for leaders is to tap into and channel that preexisting motivation. 

To stir up the innate motivation in others, we must see through their eyes and feel through their emotions. As a leader, your goal isn’t to provide people with the enthusiasm to act, but to discover the desires that naturally animate them. Over the course of an hour-long dinner conversation you can almost always identify what makes another person tick by asking three simple questions.

  1. What makes you cry? That is, what burdens your spirit or weighs heavily on your heart?
  2. What makes you sing? What activities bring you joy?
  3. What do you dream of doing or becoming?

Having pinpointed their primary motivators, you can then more accurately respond to their needs, position their strengths, and encourage their hopes.

People have different motivations according to their unique individuality. Moreover, what motivates you as a leader will not necessarily energize your teammates. This means that leaders have to take a highly relational approach to people development that accounts for a diversity of aspirations and interests.

Finally, effective leadership is a never-ending task because change is continual. People’s primary motivations evolve over time. Good leaders monitor the ever-changing motivations of their people and adjust their style of management accordingly.

Fred Bucy, former President of Texas Instruments, makes this point compellingly:

“What is effective in motivating people at one point in their careers will not be effective in motivating them later. People’s values change, depending on what is happening in their personal lives as well as their success with their careers. Therefore, one of the most important things that a leader must do is to continue to study how to be effective. This takes discipline. It is much easier to assume that what worked yesterday will work today, and this is simply not true.”

People will opt out of your organization unless you’re actively engaged in determining their motivations and giving them opportunities to thrive.


What questions can you ask to discover the internal motivators of your people? What is the best setting for asking those questions? How can you initiate conversations about burdens, joys, and dreams regularly in your leadership relations? Give us your feedback below!

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