Author: Joe Bower (LinkedIn)
Bio: Joe Bower is the Senior Manager of Customer Success at the cloud computing company Akamai. He was a people manager within Akamai’s award-winning Linode Customer Support department before pioneering Linode’s Customer Success Team, with the goal of drive value for customers using Akamai’s cloud computing products and services.

Welcome back to my two part series about Fitness for Leadership. If you haven’t checked out part 1 (“Why Technique Alone Won’t Make You A Great Leader”), it can be found here. Now that we’ve covered Core Values and how they contribute to a leader’s character, it’s time for another essential element of Leadership Fitness: finding your source of motivation.

Why can some leaders exude energy and motivate team members, even during the most difficult circumstances, while others deplete their team’s energy even on a good day? Why do some leaders seem to thrive under high pressure situations when others wilt? Why do some people have endless reserves of determination?

The answer lies in the nature of motivation, willpower, and self-determination. And a basic, powerful truth, supported by contemporary research:

Motivation is NOT Willpower

Your greatest source of motivation does not rely on willpower. It instead relies on how you see yourself. Willpower reserves can deplete throughout the day, and are subject to all sorts of additional factors (are you hungry? are you tired? are you getting over a headcold?). Whereas motivation can offer almost limitless energy to see something through. When someone needs to use willpower to do something, they are activating a different set of circuits in their brain than someone who is motivated through self-determination. 

But what does that mean? Essentially, when someone identifies with a given mission, goal, or habit, it becomes a very powerful source of motivation – not beholden to the usual rules of willpower. In fact, when someone is motivated in this way, they likely don’t have to use much willpower at all.

It’s the reason parents can power through sleepless nights (motivation), but might give into a dose of junk food before they head back to bed (willpower).

Why a soldier may be capable of superhuman feats of discipline and courage (motivation), but could still struggle with addiction (willpower).

It’s why you might skip a study session to binge netflix (willpower), but cram the next day to fight off that queasy anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach (motivation).

When your identity is tied to being a “good parent” or a “brave soldier” or a “responsible student”, you gain access to that powerful energy source that helps ensure your actions match your idea of who you are. Behaviors not covered by those self-definitions often have to settle for willpower reserves, which can result in surprising contradictions in behavior within otherwise highly motivated people. For a more complete discussion on this concept, check out Dr. Alok Kanojia’s (aka “Dr. K”) really great segment as part of a youtube series on video game addiction that served as my introduction to the idea that “willpower is not motivation”.

Fortunately for burgeoning leaders, the same principle can be applied to building you or your team’s motivations. Once you’ve curated a firm idea of the type of leader you would like to be (calling on the Core Values and Character-building work we did in Part 1), you can harness that self-image to motivate yourself. You have now developed certain non-negotiable aspects of yourself that you need to live by. By writing these statements down and repeating them to yourself throughout your day, you can lay the groundwork for true motivation – where the promises you have made to yourself extend to the type of leader you want to be.

One of these motivation statements might look something like this: “I will be a courageous, conscientious leader who makes fair, logical decisions so that my team knows they can count on me.” Or “I am charged with preserving and building the trust of our customers, and I will work continuously to validate that trust.”

These statements are similar to personal mission statements – aligned with your core values, and represent very serious commitments to yourself and your team. The best leaders are required to wick off energy constantly – and for you to motivate not only yourself, but others, this level of alignment is a must. Without a strong motivational core and a clear definition of self, the challenges you will meet as a leader will be impossible to navigate.

Once you’ve defined your core values and motivation structure, you’ve begun to build a case for your authority – but more is needed. Why should people follow you? Strong character and solid motivation are important, but do you know what you’re doing? This all has to do with the third element of Leadership Fitness: Your Source of Authority.

Choosing and nurturing your source of authority

This final step is really where your technique, fitness and deeds combine to build out the full picture of you as a leader.

Just as technique and expertise alone won’t make you a strong leader, character and fitness alone won’t either. You need to combine both halves of this leadership puzzle to describe to yourself why people should follow you. Luckily there isn’t one correct answer to this, there are plenty:

  • Experience: You’ve done the job long enough and well enough that your people trust you.
  • Competence: You’re very good at your role. People trust you because you make good decisions and deliver positive results.
  • Fairness: It’s understood that you won’t sacrifice the needs of your people in favor of the company/yourself, and vice versa.
  • Honesty/Integrity: Your moral character is known enough for you to have earned respect from your people and company.
  • Technical Acumen: You are knowledgeable enough of your role’s technical subject matter to demand respect from your team and colleagues.
  • Vision: Your strategic vision and ability to inspire people to aspirational goals bolsters your ability to lead others.
  • Coaching/Mentorship: Your ability to develop your team members and act as a mentor is why others follow you.
  • Incisive/Critical Thinking: Your ability to cut to the core of a problem lends clarity to others’ ideas/work.
  • …and many more

The strongest leaders pull from many or all of the sources above, so don’t limit yourself – and if you find yourself leaning too heavily on too few of these sources, consider broadening your repertoire.

As a side thought – you may also notice that  “Loyalty” is not listed as a source of authority – this is deliberate. Loyalty is a byproduct of strong leadership, not a tool of it. I do not include it as a source of authority above for a reason – as it should not be wielded in the same way.

Asking for your people to follow you out of loyalty is a somewhat transactional way to “cash in” on any goodwill that your true leadership qualities may have built up. If you’re frequently appealing to team loyalty to get things done, you should examine what gaps in authority or fitness you may be trying to fill. It’s a bit of a paradox that loyalty is something to be earned and not used. Behave as if you must continually re-earn your team’s loyalty – because you do.

In summary

I’ve noticed that fitness for leadership is something commonly held by every strong leader I’ve ever worked for or worked with – but in my own experience, it does not happen overnight. Just like physical fitness, it requires purposeful and repeated exercise. But by following the steps outlined:

  • Define a strong set of core values
  • Use them to define your identity as a leader
  • Align your actions with your identity and core values to guarantee authenticity
  • Discover and nurture your own sources of authority

…you are creating a system by which you can deliberately build your fitness as a leader. Once that’s done, the real work begins of actually developing it through lived experience. As you improve your fitness, you’ll find it easier to cover gaps in your expertise and techniques (until you acquire them), and will greatly enhance the level of effectiveness of the techniques you have mastered. It will allow you to make mistakes while retaining the trust of your team – and most importantly – it will make you a better leader.

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