Why You Lead Will Decide How Well You Lead

Your Motivation To Lead Is What Leads to Greatness or Ruin

Andy Chan
Andy Chan
Sep 22, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

“Why do I want to be a leader?”

The answer to that question is significant: it determines how well a person will lead.

For many, the reason why they lead is often a mixture — many will proffer a mix of extrinsic motivations (e.g. career progression, social-economic status) and more intrinsic, internal rationales (e.g. obligation to serve, believing in the organization’s mission). Sometimes, the leadership role is thrust upon them without them knowing: such is part of professional development. Oftentimes, the reasons why they lead are usually predominantly extrinsic.

Groups and leaders exist in almost every corner: from a small, unassuming elementary school to publicly-listed tech giants, it is clear that having great leadership is instrumental to success in any context.

While the demand for leaders is inherent like our world, the supply of good leaders is simply not meeting the demand fast enough. As technology advances, demands for all-rounded, knowledgeable leaders are ever-increasing. Companies seek to develop their leaders from within, and companies that help companies to develop spring up from every corner — the leadership development industry is a $366bn industry.

That’s about 8 times larger than the Big Data industry.

Ironically, as spending goes up, more criticism for the effectiveness of leadership development programs appears. According to Michael Beer et. al, such programs fail because people will simply revert to their old ways, as written in a Harvard Business Review article.

In a McKinsey article, Pierre Gurdjian and other authors criticized such leadership development programs, noting that lack of context, underestimation of mindsets and failing to measure results make up the reasons as to why such programs fail.

On top of falling short of expectations, most companies are also poor at recognizing a person’s potential to be a great leader.

Great leadership is born from a mixture of nature and nurture — different blends of personality traits form different leadership styles, but the experience is what gives them the competency.

For example, introverted individuals lead very differently from extroverted individuals, but they are not necessarily great leaders from the start. Failing and experimenting along the way is what will level up their leadership competency — hence the term “nurture”.

While nature and nurture are huge factors in determining how well one leads, knowing why a person leads is paramount.

xtant leadership research has begun paying increasing attention to finding out why people lead. Also termed motivation to lead (MTL), it is an individual construct that strongly affects leadership processes and behaviors. This construct is a culmination of many different factors, from personality traits to internal motives.

Even though there is research dating back to 2007, scant knowledge in how much the motivation to lead can affect a person’s leadership capability has prompted researchers to look into industry-specific effects. For instance, it was found that when authority was distributed in individual hospital departments, physicians are less efficacious in their work, according to this study in the International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Having More Motivators ≠ Great Leadership

Many people have different combinations of motives to lead. As mentioned above, extrinsic and intrinsic motivators both come into play. For most, it seems intuitive and reasonable to assume that having a combination of both factors results in having committed, high-performing leaders — after all, the more motivators you have, the less susceptible you are to performing poorly so as long as the motivators exist.

This Yale study disagrees.

Over 14 years, Amy Wrzesniewski and her team analyzed and observed over 10,000 cadets at West Point, also known as the United States Military Academy. During this period, the team studied these army leaders from their initiation to graduation and well into their careers.

The team examined the motivations behind why these people attended the Academy and became Army leaders, as well as their performance and potential as leaders following their graduation.

For instance, a person identified with early promotion potential will score higher on the ‘leader performance scale’, as he was deemed capable of leading at a higher position by his immediate and higher superiors.

Though it is common to find that people with internal, intrinsic motives performed better than those with external, extrinsic motives for their service, the study gave an interesting insight: those with both internal and external rationales are not on par with leaders that are predominantly motivated from within.

More External Motivators ≠ Great Leadership

Considering that many studies have examined using incentives to influence behavior, it may seem reasonable to assume that adding more incentives would influence positive behavior in humans — the flaw is that it works in theory, but only in practice if we were lab rats.

For instance, the Veteran’s Health Administration (VA) has leaders who are predominantly influenced by internal, intrinsic factors; they desire to serve America’s veteran. Yet, in 2014, the White House and the Obama Administration had to step in to reform the scandalous healthcare system: it was broken, and it rewarded unnecessary performance bonuses.

“VA loves to tout its bonus program as a way to attract and retain the best and brightest employees,” said then-Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller.

“Unfortunately, oftentimes the employees VA rewards with thousands in taxpayer-funded bonuses are not the type of people the department should be interested in attracting or retaining.”

The rewarding program got so overboard that a bill was passed in 2017 to ban VA from using any funds in the legislation to reward senior executives.

Clearly, with more extensive external incentives — and if left uncontrolled — the people lost sight of the purpose of the organization.

Here’s the bigger question: “How do we develop our leaders?”

Leadership development has always been split between two schools of thought. Some programs emphasize teaching leadership as skills to create high performance, thereby being easier to measure. Others underscore a value-based model, where they teach leadership as a complex moral relationship between the leader and the follower — thus being difficult to measure.

From the studies, it shows that external motivators often fail to motivate, especially within leaders. Those who lead primarily from value-based motivations outperform those who lead with additional rewards.

Companies must be extra meticulous: external consequences should not become external motivators. Performance bonuses from completing a big project as a leader are great, but it does not mean that the leader is being rewarded for being a leader.

If leaders who adopt external justifications — such as an increase in shares, better pay — are developed by companies, they are less likely to be as successful as those who seek to lead for more internal, intrinsic reasons alone, even if they are not being developed.

For all leaders, asking yourself “Why do I want to be a leader” will be telling; what you answer, as it turns out, will be indicative of how well you will lead.

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The Human Business

We’re all about the humans in the business.

Andy Chan

Written by

Andy Chan

UI/UX at The Iterative | Founder of Singapore’s first collegiate UI/UX student organisation | CS @ UOL

The Human Business

A leadership publication that focuses on human-first management philosophies.

Andy Chan

Written by

Andy Chan

UI/UX at The Iterative | Founder of Singapore’s first collegiate UI/UX student organisation | CS @ UOL

The Human Business

A leadership publication that focuses on human-first management philosophies.

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