“What’s my motivation?” That’s the question crossing our minds when the alarm goes off at 6:00 in the morning. That’s the question we pose to ourselves at the office when the clock rolls past 5:00 pm and there is still work needing to be done. At some point, all leaders must consciously face the “motive question”—Why am I doing what I am doing? Why do I want to lead, really? Why do I desire influence?
Experience has taught me that why we do something will ultimately determine what we do. Action flows from intention. For this reason, it’s imperative for us, as leaders, to regularly evaluate our primary motivations.
Our motives have as much to do with accomplishing our mission as do our gifts and talents. Bono, lead singer of U2, recalls a time when he and his bandmates asked, “Can we relax?” following their early commercial successes. In that moment, he pushed the group to continue its quest to be relevant. “If you’re judging where we are by [what we can afford to buy], it’s a dangerous measure. I judge where we are by how close I am to the melody I’m hearing in my head, and how close are we to what we can do as a band to realizing our potential.” U2’s long-running influence has perhaps been driven as much by the group’s passionate drive to reach its potential as by its musical genius.
People can perceive wrong motives in their leaders, given enough time. That is, any gap between a leader’s stated reason for acting and the actual source of their behavior eventually comes to light. Now, it would be disingenuous to deny that we occasionally act inconsiderately, or for self-centered reasons. The key is to admit these lapses in judgment. People are less forgiving about the wrong motives we fail to acknowledge, than they are with the wrong behaviors we confess.
Right motives are crucial because leadership functions on the basis of trust. As leaders, our motives reveal our heart, and our teammates must believe we have their best interests in mind in order for us to be credible. Otherwise, people feel like we’re using them to advance our personal agenda instead of feeling as if they are valuable contributors to the organization’s vision.
Questioning your motive is different than questioning your character. Motives are usually attached to specific situations and are often short in duration. Character, however, is connected to the heart, and is with you in all situations. Therefore, you can have a temporarily flawed motive and still possess a solid character. Usually, character serves as a corrective for misplaced motives. That is, we tend to bring motives into alignment with who we are on the inside.
As a leader, you likely are driven by one or two of the following motives. Examine them, and respond as honestly as you are able. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10, with “1” indicating low motivation and “10” representing high motivation. Notice your two highest scores.
MOTIVE 1: You want to advance yourself. (Your personal status, wealth, power)
MOTIVE 2: You want to advance a project. (A new product or service)
MOTIVE 3: You want to advance a cause. (A specific mission, hidden or unhidden)
MOTIVE 4: You want to advance the organization. (Success/revenue for the company)
MOTIVE 5: You want to serve and benefit people. (Improve people’s lives)
Note: None of these motives are essentially wrong. Knowing your primary and secondary motives, however, may shed light on your behavior, your emotional reactions to decisions, and the tone of your relationships within your organization.
Having considered the forces driving you to seek increased influence, what steps can you take to monitor your motivations on a regular basis? I would be grateful to hear your ideas.