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Does the Leader REALLY “Motivate?”

It’s an interesting question.  I’ve done a lot of reading, research, teaching, and introspection of my own experiences regarding the true catalyst (or nature) of developing intrinsically motivated individuals.  Many believe that the leader is mostly responsible for providing the inspiration and influence necessary to inspire and stimulate in followers the desire to work to their fullest potential and, at the same time, derive the most personal meaning and satisfaction from those efforts each day.

Others may put the onus of the motivation equation on followers.  They are responsible, according to this perspective, for maintaining the internal drive to get out of bed each morning, strap on their shoes/boots, get to work, and drive home that evening feeling good about what they accomplished.  Such self-motivated individuals perform tasks at work or elsewhere, without the need for others to encourage them, and do them well. “I must be self-motivated,” so says the self-motivated.  At least that’s what the job description indicated was a requirement for this job.  “And so I will be,” irrespective of the job, the organization, the leadership, etc.

Where do I stand on this continuum of who is ultimately responsible for the motivation of followers, co-workers, colleagues–whatever terms you wish to use, in this case–towards the fulfillment of organizational vision and mission?

Well, certainly leaders can have a part in motivating others.  The models of charismatic and transformational leadership have leaders playing a fairly central role when it comes to inspiring and arousing commitment in followers.  Yet, we know, historically, that if such leaders are themselves motivated by self-centered, non-altruistic reasons, (what has been called “the dark side” of leadership and “pseudo-transformational” leadership)followers can easily be misled and become captive to a false message.

However, leaders must go further than inspire only by their persona.  In addition, they must address a fundamental responsibility when it comes to the deep, sustained, intrinsic motivation of followers.  LEADERS MUST CREATE THE ENVIRONMENT THAT SUPPORTS AND ENCOURAGES OTHERS TO BE SELF-MOTIVATED.

What does this type of environment look like?

Kenneth Thomas argues that there are four components to a self-motivating work environment. A sense of:

  1. Meaningfulness–believing that your work matters in fulfilling vision and mission

  2. Choice–having a choice in what you do and how you do it

  3. Competence–knowing that you have the ability to do good work

  4. Progress–seeing that what you are doing is really accomplishing a purpose

Others have also identified a sense of progress and choice as characteristics of a highly motivating workplace.

Therefore, leaders–realize that true motivation comes from within and you have a responsibility to create positive workplace environments in which employees can develop sustaining, self-motivation.

If you are not in a “leadership” position and don’t have the direct wherewithal to craft such a motivational environment, become an “exemplary follower” and work to influence your leader about doing so and the many benefits that can accrue towards the fulfillment of your organization’s vision and mission as a result.

Intrinsically yours,

Jim Dittmar


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