Leadership: Motivating vs Inspiring? What Say You?

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)


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)


in·spire | \ in-ˈspī(-ə)r  \
inspired; inspiring
Definition of inspire

transitive verb

: to spur on : IMPEL, MOTIVATE
threats don't necessarily inspire people to work
: to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on
was particularly inspired by the Romanticists
seeing the old room again inspired him with nostalgia
: to influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration
the book was inspired by his travels in the Far East
: to draw forth or bring out
thoughts inspired by a visit to the cathedral
: to communicate to an agent supernaturally
: INHALE sense 1
: to spread (rumor) by indirect means or through the agency of another
archaic : to breathe or blow into or upon
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):

verb (1)

\ ˈlēd  \
led\ ˈled  \; leading
Definition of lead

 (Entry 1 of 5)

transitive verb

: to guide on a way especially by going in advance
led the officers to his hiding place
: to direct on a course or in a direction
a road leading the traveler to the heart of the city
: to serve as a channel for
a pipe leads water to the house
: to go through : LIVE
lead a quiet life
: to direct the operations, activity, or performance of
lead an orchestra
: to have charge of
lead a campaign
: 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
: to go at the head of
lead a parade
: to be first in or among
lead the league
: to have a margin over
led his opponent
: to bring to some conclusion or condition
led to believe otherwise
: to begin play with
lead trumps
: to aim in front of (a moving object)
lead a duck
: to pass a ball or puck just in front of (a moving teammate)

intransitive verb

: to guide someone or something along a way
You lead and we'll follow.
: to lie, run, or open in a specified place or direction
path leads uphill
: to guide a dance partner through the steps of a dance
: to be first
This state leads in population.
will lead off with a Christmas story
— Richard Bissell
: to play the first card of a trick, round, or game
: to tend toward or have a result
study leading to a degree
: 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
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,

My Thoughts

  1. How do you motivate a person, an employee, if you do not know what inspires them?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Brian Kelly
Brian Kellyhttps://briankellyleadershipcoaching.com/
Brian Kelly is a visionary connector, community-builder and human development specialist who helps people and teams unleash their human greatness so they can create better together. Brian believes in each person’s unique human greatness and the power of harnessing this to amplify impact for teams, communities, and organizations. Brian is an ICF Accredited Coach whose three-decade career spans business, technology, finance, and human development. He is co-author of the book Becoming You to be released later this year. Brian’s encouraging energy and relational and strategic approach invite the inclusive business leaders and teams he works with to expand their perspective to strengthen their belief and their ability to create better together. Brian works with clients to understand the conditions that create greater contributions, fulfillment, and success and then works with them, using proven frameworks, to help them create those conditions through the lens of their strengths. The results are greater self-awareness, confidence, connection, teamwork, creativity and innovation producing better human and business results. Brian is the host of the We Can Do Better Conversations series, which invite inclusive conversations on topics relevant to bringing greater humanity to our workplaces, communities, families, and relationships. Brian serves on the Executive Board for Overcoming Odds where he helped the Executive Director with board development, strategic business planning and expanding the reach and impact of the nonprofit’s mission. Brian has also served on the Washington DC metro area chapter Board for several culturally-based National nonprofits focused on professional and leadership development.


  1. Hi, Brian.
    Been a while.
    I believe the fundamental misconception about motivation is that we can do it to other people (that goes with the even scarier one that we are waiting for someone to do it to us. Yikes! We lead best by distilling leadership to a set of perceptions and behaviors that we can demonstrate. As they say in 12-step programs, attraction not promotion.

    • HI Mac,
      Thanks for engaging with this discussion on leadership, motivation and inspiration. I love your point on distilling leadership to a set of perceptions and behaviors that we demonstrate. Leadership is indeed about attraction not promotion. You have me thinking we may need to create a 12-step program to unlearn what many of us have been taught about leadership so we can more fully step into and become the leaders we can be. :)

  2. Motivation is a psychological concept, it is a stimulus or a force, which prompts people to take action. It is something that persuades people to behave and act in a particular way. It is also giving someone a reason to do or achieve something.
    Motivation drives us to set our goals, based on the things we feel we need to do. It involves different forces (psychological, biological, social, etc.) that intensify their emotions such as needs, desires, hopes – stimulating them to take action that will result in the achievement of a short-term goal.
    Inspiration simply refers to a process of influence or arousal that stimulates people mentally and emotionally to do something creative or extraordinary. The impulse is typically based on the system of values, beliefs, life experiences, imagination of preferences, aspirations and other similar senses that make us feel better if we do or realize it.

  3. Lovely point raised . See that there is very thin gap . i would go by my general understanding and as experienced in life . Motivation is in set direction or a particular task . where as Inspiration is like sowing seed or lighting up fire to do something. what to do, the person usually decide. ( it’s the spark which sets off the rocket) . so inspiration has awakning element embedded.
    would be keen to hear from others on interesting boundary

    • Thank you for engaging in this discussion, Vinod. I like where you are looking regarding inspiration being a fire we can (re)ignite within a person. I believe there is indeed an awakening element, a reconnection that sparks a person to take inspired action.