I was inspired to reflect on the role of motivation and inspiration in leadership by seeing so much content speaking to the importance of motivation in leadership.
While both have their place, I began to get the feeling we are confusing the two much the same way we confuse leadership and management. While there are many motivations for employees to take action, such as their commitment to excellent performance, the desire to get promoted, or to be liked by their boss, I wonder when we speak of a leader’s role, and the need to motivate, do we really mean inspire people to act.
Motivate (from Merriam-Webster’s definition)
motivate verb mo·ti·vate | \ ˈmō-tə-ˌvāt \ motivated; motivating Definition of motivate transitive verb : to provide with a motive : IMPEL questions that excite and motivate youth She was motivated by a desire to help children.
Inspire (from Merriam-Webster’s definition)
inspire verb in·spire | \ in-ˈspī(-ə)r \ inspired; inspiring Definition of inspire transitive verb 1 a : to spur on : IMPEL, MOTIVATE threats don't necessarily inspire people to work b : to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on was particularly inspired by the Romanticists c : AFFECT seeing the old room again inspired him with nostalgia d : to influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration 2 a : BRING ABOUT, OCCASION the book was inspired by his travels in the Far East b : INCITE 3 a : to draw forth or bring out thoughts inspired by a visit to the cathedral b : to communicate to an agent supernaturally 4 : INHALE sense 1 5 : to spread (rumor) by indirect means or through the agency of another 6 a archaic : to breathe or blow into or upon b archaic : to infuse (something, such as life) by breathing … inspired into him an active soul … — Wisdom of Solomon 15:11
I am particularly interested in the language of exert and animating, enlivening or exalting influence on (1b) and (3a) to draw forth or bring out. In these definitions, I feel a connection, a feeling that pulls or invites a person to choose to take action. The first definition (1a) to spur on; IMPEL; MOTIVATE seems to be or at least feels like a definition for encourage, or motivate. It feels like a push (IMPEL), a driving force thrust upon someone.
As I reflected further on these two words, motivate and inspire, and their roles in leading people and organizations, I came back to the power of language and its influence on behavior and actions. To LEAD is defined as (from Merriam-Webster definition):
lead verb (1) \ ˈlēd \ led\ ˈled \; leading Definition of lead (Entry 1 of 5) transitive verb 1 a : to guide on a way especially by going in advance led the officers to his hiding place b : to direct on a course or in a direction a road leading the traveler to the heart of the city c : to serve as a channel for a pipe leads water to the house 2 : to go through : LIVE lead a quiet life 3 a (1) : to direct the operations, activity, or performance of lead an orchestra (2) : to have charge of lead a campaign (3) : to suggest to (a witness) the answer desired by asking leading questions counsel is leading this witness, putting words in her mouth — Erle Stanley Gardner b (1) : to go at the head of lead a parade (2) : to be first in or among lead the league (3) : to have a margin over led his opponent 4 : to bring to some conclusion or condition led to believe otherwise 5 : to begin play with lead trumps 6 a : to aim in front of (a moving object) lead a duck b : to pass a ball or puck just in front of (a moving teammate) intransitive verb 1 a : to guide someone or something along a way You lead and we'll follow. b : to lie, run, or open in a specified place or direction path leads uphill c : to guide a dance partner through the steps of a dance 2 a : to be first This state leads in population. b (1) : BEGIN, OPEN will lead off with a Christmas story — Richard Bissell (2) : to play the first card of a trick, round, or game 3 : to tend toward or have a result study leading to a degree 4 : to direct the first of a series of blows at an opponent in boxing lead one down the garden path or less commonly lead one up the garden path : HOODWINK, DECEIVE I'd rather he be disappointed with the truth rather than lead him down the garden path — Harold Robbins
As I searched for the “best” definition of leadership, this was the top result from Google search:
Leadership is the ability of an individual or a group of individuals to influence and guide followers or other members of an organization.
Again, that word influence appears. So interesting when considering the dynamic of our workplace cultures and society which have valued power for so long,
- How do you motivate a person, an employee, if you do not know what inspires them?
- When you speak about motivation in the workplace, it feels like trying to get someone to do what you want them to do, whether or not they are motivated to do it is largely irrelevant. Motivation often seems and feels power-based.
- I then thought about my experience with strong, effective leadership and as I was reflecting on what the impetus was for me (or others) to take action, other than my (or our) own sense of responsibility and accountability. It was the leader’s ability to inspire me by knowing what matters to me and connecting their messaging about what they needed me to do to what matters to me. This requires the leader to actually know me, what motivates me and how to inspire me to act from that place in alignment with what we need to accomplish to succeed in our business.
Keydifferences.com offers a comparison chart of motivation vs inspiration which you may find interesting.
I am interested in your perspective, your lived experience with leadership, and the roles motivation and inspiration have played in your choices, behaviors, and actions.
Please share in the comments below what you have learned in your experience, as we extend and expand this discussion of the roles and impact of motivation and inspiration in leadership.