Inspiration vs. Motivation

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My good friend Dirk Gorman, who you may be familiar with from an interview I did with him a few years ago, sent me this e mail today… I liked it so much that I’ve decided to share it with you here :)

Elliott, I have noticed you using “inspire” or versions of the word more often lately.  I had been asked to write the article below for several executives in Corp America and thought  the difference between inspiration and motivation parallels nicely with your mission.  Please keep up the great work.  I find your beliefs on: strength training techniques, supplements, and spirituality excellent.  Thank you for your consistent efforts. – Dirk

Are you a motivating or inspiring leader?

While these terms are often used interchangeably, as synonyms, uncovering distinct differences between inspiration and motivation will help us clearly articulate the most effective leadership style.

To begin, let’s review the etymology and definition of each word:
Motivate: [Latin, movere--to move.] 1. motivate, v. give an incentive for action (synonyms: incite, prompt, propel, impel, move to action)
Inspire: [Latin, spirare--to breathe.] 1. inspire, v. to breathe life into.

These definitions help illuminate the clear and distinct differences between actions that motivate and those that inspire. It is critical to understand these distinctions in order to appreciate the impact that each style of messaging has on employees. The goal of this leadership article is to provide the facts that define these two diverging leadership approaches. These facts combined with the resulting impact of each action help us decide which type of leader we are on the path to becoming–inspiring or motivating.

By definition–or, more precisely, by deep etymology–the motivational leader looks to impel and push employees to increase their productivity. The motivational leader is focused almost exclusively on the end result–i.e., increased production. Prioritizing the end result, these leaders therefore use whatever means necessary to achieve the desired goal. Motivational leaders use an assortment of techniques to coerce employees to achieve what management wants them to achieve. While some dangle reward and opportunity as an incentive, more often than not the motivational leader–due to frustration caused by sub-par performance–resorts to bribery, fear-mongering, and threats. Incentive-driven, motivational management embraces the philosophies of “carrot and stick,” “cause and effect,” and “the ends justify the means.” Motivational management, the prevailing leadership philosophy for business in the 20th century, has been proven effective for short-term bursts of activity and algorithmic (i.e., repetitive) tasks. However, in jobs that require creative solutions (e.g., sales) the carrot and stick approach both stifles creativity and decreases long-term productivity. (See Daniel Pink, Drive, on the problems caused by extrinsic incentives.)

Many sales leaders are ex-athletes who have been exposed to endless motivational half-time speeches during their athletic careers.

These emotional speeches are specifically designed to ignite the team to increase performance in the 2nd half of the game–short burst. Unfortunately, too many sales leaders regularly incorporate this half-time motivational style into their communication repertoire. Motivation reflects the Kick-in-the-Ass method (KITA), which coaches expertly deploy. The business world, however, is vastly different from high school and college sports; in the business world, KITA has a limited shelf-life. Business leaders can not afford to lose their best players every four years. Unlike high school and college coaches, who lose players to graduation, motivational leadership does not work because it exhausts employees and leads to turnover or tuning out. Both results are unproductive and create poor long-term performance.

In the famed movie, GlenGarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, Blake (Alec Baldwin) delivers a memorable and entertaining speech.

He berates the salesmen, calling them losers, tells them to put the coffee down–”coffee’s for closers,” and then explains how the sales contest will work: first prize–a brand new Cadillac; second prize–set of steak knives; and third prize–you’re fired. The speech is certainly entertaining–probably the most memorable scene of the movie–and also a vivid example of motivational leadership. Baldwin, the ass-kicker, delivers a coercive speech intended to motivate through fear and intimidation. He offers a reward for the highest performer and a threat for everyone else. Too many sales leaders emulate the Baldwin style rant. These carrot and stick tirades coupled with leadership’s glorious memories of high school half-time speeches have convinced too many leaders that motivational leadership is the way to go.

The barking-coach style is exhausting for both the leader and the led. The leader inevitably runs out of verbal ammunition and the staff eventually tunes out the rants and threats. The word-battered employees look for new jobs, the team’s performance fizzles, and leadership burns out. Ironically, the rah-rah rallying approach–when it goes on too long–only
serves to divide.

Unlike short-sided motivational leadership, inspiring leadership focuses on personal growth, improvement, and optimism. Etymologically speaking, inspiring leadership is literally “breathing life and vitality into” its followers. By creating a challenging platform for personal development and improvement, the inspirational leader increases the enthusiasm of both the individual employee and the company. The more energy and vigor each employee bring to work, the better the company will do. The best competitive advantage any company can have is a culture of enthusiastic, optimistic, and committed employees. To achieve the goal of high-performing employees and sustainable corporate performance, leadership must provide the tools and education required to improve performance over the long-term. Because its vision goes beyond short bursts of increased production, inspirational leadership successfully maps out a path for sustainable growth.

Previously, we used the Baldwin rant to dramatically depict motivational leadership. Returning, Baldwin’s debasing rant magnifies the sharp contrast between motivational leadership and and inspirational leadership. Unlike inspirational leaders–Ghandi, King, and Mother Theresa–Baldwin never provides a path for the salesmen to improve and merely uses threats to increase activity. This rant is not optimistic and is only focused on the end result. His goal, a short term burst of activity and the means to this end is the bullying directive–fight for your job or starve. In truth, how constructive was the Baldwin rant? He verbally abuses and mocks all the sales people, reinforcing their inferiority and creates fear by threatening jobs. Unlike simple-mined bullying, inspirational leadership requires more skill and sensitivity. The inspirational leader designs and communicates a clear pathway to individual improvement. Consistently cultivating an atmosphere of optimism and growth, the inspirational leader doesn’t brow beat with fear but instead energizes the team towards common pursuit. As the team develops and improves, the leader help each member evolve into a stronger and more independent version of him or herself.

We now need to state a frank truth: to inspire, leaders must have accomplished inspiring feats in their own pasts. When employees have faith in their leader’s legitimacy, the leaders then have the moral authority to lay out the vision, path, and destination that they will together achieve. It is this horizon-reaching vision that improves both the lives of the individual and the collective. The inspirational leader never takes a day off–they live, breathe, and communicate the vision continuously. The inspirational leader embodies the quest and delivers the vision with clarity and certainty. The inspirational leader makes the destination close enough to see and yet far enough to willingly endure hardship to reach it. Although they are not business leaders as such, heroic figures such as Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa are excellent examples of inspirational leadership.

The intent of this leadership review is not to completely dismiss motivational leadership, there are short contexts where motivational leadership certainly has its place in the business world–i.e., year-end push. But ultimately, motivational leadership has too many deficiencies to be management’s foundational style. By and large, the overall tone of leadership must be inspirational with motivational leadership sprinkled in at the occasional moment.

Inspirational leaders are inspired and inspiring.

Dirk Gorman (Businessman, Consultant, Inspiration and All-Around Badass!) <– according to Elliott :)


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{ 1 comment }

Al Kavadlo June 26, 2012

Nice post, Elliott! That scene from Glengarry Glen Ross is one of my all time favorite moments in cinema history. Baldwin’s performance is brilliant!

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