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It’s 4:30 in the morning and you’re wide awake. Maybe you’ve been jolted by the classic anxiety dream of being chased by something villainous, but your legs refuse to move. Suddenly, startled half to death, you pop out of bed, wide awake for the day. Or how about when you were so excited for the day to begin, you woke up at 4:30 a.m. without the alarm clock? Most of us can remember feeling this way when we were kids, in anticipation of a birthday, or going camping, or maybe taking a first trip to Disneyland.
That’s the ultimate leadership challenge today: generating the kind of excitement that gets employees up each day with enthusiasm. One of the early founders of our firm, the late David McClelland, published seminal books that addressed motivation: “The Achieving Society” (1961), “Human Motivation” (1973) and several others. In his breakthrough work, McClelland identified the three motivators that have the biggest effect on behavior in the workplace: achievement, the desire for mastery at the individual level; affiliation, establishing and maintaining relationships; and power, having an impact or influence.
Being an effective leader starts with knowing how to inspire people—to transform individual self-interest to shared collective interest. This happens most often by clearly defining the “why” of the organization—its common purpose. I recall sitting down with Lt. Gen. Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck, a three-star general (now retired) who over the course of nearly four decades of military service, commanding thousands of men and women, demonstrated the twin leadership strengths of competence and compassion. While leading a dangerous mission on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the general had confidence that his commanders could accomplish the necessary tasks, without taking unnecessary risks with their subordinates.
“Creating alignment starts with the top, with senior leadership,” explained Lt. Gen. Hagenbeck, who also served as superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. “You have to be able, in our terms, to give mission statement and commander’s intent. We will typically give bright lines—right and left limits of what they can do.”
The key to creating alignment is purpose—defined and embodied at the top of the organization, and embraced throughout. For businesses, purpose defines why they do what they do. It isn’t simply to make money; that’s an outcome, not a purpose. In the same vein, people are motivated when they are contributing to something bigger than themselves—something with purpose and meaning. They derive more satisfaction knowing they belong, that they matter.
That’s why the most potent motivation has nothing to do with money. Yes, people want to be compensated fairly, and deservedly so. But once their basic needs are met, financial rewards rank low on the list of top reasons why people get out of bed in the morning. Research bears this out: In a recent Korn Ferry survey, nearly three-quarters of executives said their biggest personal driver is the belief that their work has purpose and meaning.
The more aware leaders are, the more they are able to “read” their team members to discern their motivation. CEOs and other top leaders must also be aware that their roles amplify the impact of their words, positive or negative.
I was reminded of this lesson during a recent intense discussion with a senior colleague. Afterward, the conversation just didn’t sit right with me. On my way home, I hadn’t driven for more than seven minutes when it hit me: I had gone overboard without adequately acknowledging this colleague’s efforts. I pulled the car over and called—first to apologize for any upset I’d caused and second to affirm the sound direction the colleague was moving in and express my gratitude for the leadership courage being displayed. That message couldn’t wait; I needed to say it as soon as possible.
It takes sincere and consistent effort on the part of the leader to cast a vision of the company’s purpose and help people see how they can contribute directly to it. Then the leader must create the conditions in which people do their best work. The ROI for such efforts is measured many times over in enthusiasm and motivation—the kind that gets people up in the morning, with no alarm.