The Science of Motivation

Dan Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, gave this wonderfully insightful talk on the nature and science of workplace motivation at the TED conference this year. During his 18m presentation (a limit set for all talks at the conference), Dan explains both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators and how knowledge workers react to the mainstream reward system in place in most businesses today.



Throughout my career I’ve observed managers and leaders alike. It really doesn’t matter if you’re in a managerial position or not – leaders are not defined by their title, but by their actions. Regardless of being in a managerial position or not, there’s one thing I consistently find in common among leaders. All are able to articulate a simple, compelling view of a possible or hoped-for future outcome – a Vision. Visionary leaders are also able to influence and shape current courses of action so that, eventually, that vision becomes a reality.

My observations and professional experience tell me that the ability to develop and effectively communicate a vision is a fundamental (if somewhat overlooked) leadership skill. A vision statement is a powerful way to galvanize and motivate people around an idea. It provides a beacon and a direction against which we can measure our own ideas, our actions and even our values.

We can develop vision statements to meet any number of different purposes. From an overarching vision for a nation, an industry or an organization to a more specific vision that will provide direction to a department, a team, a product or a project. Even our own careers can benefit from a vision that can help us identify a career path and determine what our next course of action should be.

Authors James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras studied a number of companies whose enduring success have led those organizations to outperform the stock market by a factor of 12 since 1925. In  “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies”, Collins and Porras conclude that all these organizations have a core set of values that remain unchanged even when faced with drastic changes to business strategies or market conditions. Although the authors state that the book “is not […] about charismatic visionary leaders”, most (if not all) of the companies seem to have had their core values imbued into the company’s Vision by one such visionary (if not also charismatic) leader.

Looking into the future and imagining what you or your organization might become is an extraordinary exercise. Just make sure to aim high and far. Be bold. Be grand. I think that true visions should not be modest in any way, shape or form.


“Shoot for the moon. Even if you fail, you’ll still land among the stars.”

– Les Brown


Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
Author(s): Jim Collins, Jerry Porras

The Leaders We Need…

Most books on leadership make it sound a lot like a gift or a personal trait one is borne with. I don’t particularly believe in this theory. I believe that Leadership comes from a collection of skills that one can learn to master. I admit some people might be more inclined to learn these skills. To some, they might even come naturally, but most of us can learn and use proficiently, if not all, at least some of these skills.

Leaders today face numerous challenges. One of the most fundamental challenges is how to inspire people. As a leader and an authority figure, it is easy to fall into the trap of using that authority to command and control others. This negative behavior can be avoided if the leader has the skills that enable him to influence and motivate others in achieving common (and clear) goals. Below are some of the core skills that leaders need to develop:

  • Communication skills – Speak and writing in a clear and persuasive tone is fundamental for inspiring others;
  • Interpersonal skills – Learn how to relate to others and listen to what they are really saying. People seldom come out and say exactly what they mean. Especially when communicating up;
  • Conflict-resolution skills – The ability to handle tension is paramount for a leader. A calm, collected, and rational leader, especially when there are high stakes and high emotions, inspires others;
  • Negotiation skills – Negotiation is about handling differences (different viewpoints, different goals) and looking for common ground and defining platforms for common understanding;
  • Motivational skills – Aligning all parties on a common goal is a fundamental trait for a leader;

The skills mentioned before are essentially soft skills. What so many managers fail to understand is that Management and Leadership are not the same thing. Being a manager doesn’t turn anyone into a leader. On the other hand people can be leaders and not be in any position of authority.

The table below shows the different set of skills required both in management and leadership positions. While the items on the left are key operational skills for managers, those who want to lead must also develop the the skills listed on the right.

While Managers… Leaders…
  • Plan
  • Budget
  • Envision
  • Organize
  • Manage Resources
  • Motivate
  • Inspire
  • Control
  • Solve problems
  • Negotiate
  • Resolve Conflicts

I’ve been inspired by similar comparisons, but the table above is my own (influenced and distilled) view on the major differences that I see in the behavior of managers and leaders.

Today, we are facing turbulent times, such as our generation has never seen. People with managerial skills are necessary, but those with leadership skills are fundamental.

Leading Creative Teams

I deal with highly intelligent, motivated and creative individuals on a daily basis. Leading teams of creative individuals is both a privilege and a responsibility. Generally speaking, creative and intelligent individuals are used to question status quo and typically find creative ways around organizational obstacles, so I am constantly reminded of an insightful quote I read in an article in the Harvard Business Review:

Leading teams of creative, intelligent individuals requires an atmosphere where rules and norms are plainly and universally accepted. 

It has been my experience that for leadership to be accepted you have to create an atmosphere where the team members are valued individually, and feel committed with the overall goals. I believe that for rules and norms to be universally accepted, it’s important to communicate and get agreement on shared objectives.

I also think that creative and intelligent people need a fair amount of leeway in how to reach a given objective. However, it’s still up to the leader to set the goals and define the boundaries of the playing field.

Failure And Hope

I accidentally stumbled upon this video of J. K. Rowling giving a wonderful speech at the annual Harvard Alumni Association meeting.

The address is heartfelt and inspirational, with an unlikely (for the event) but important theme – that failure is as much a part of life as is success.

Insights In Unsuspecting Places

Isn’t it strange how sometimes you find answers and insights in the most unsuspecting places?

A while ago I was in Jamaica on holiday and I took a bus to go sightseeing. In the bus was a poster of the Jamaican bobsleigh team (a rare story in itself) and just below it was a sticker with the following words:


I made a mental note of it, not only because of the content, but mainly because it was so unexpected to find it where and when I did.

The lesson I learned here was to be receptive and open-minded. Life sometimes provides us with the answers we need in the most unsuspecting places.

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