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Consultant Patrick Lencioni has written a string of bestselling business books focusing on how to be a better leader. But he decided people weren’t taking his advice because of the reasons they wanted to become a leader in the first place.

He argues there are two motives for becoming a leader: wanting to serve others or wanting to be rewarded for years of hard work. And that basic motivation can determine how effective you are.

People who want to serve others are intent on bringing about something good for the people they lead. “They understand that sacrifice and suffering are inevitable in this pursuit and that serving others is the only valid motivation for leadership. This is why it annoys me when people praise someone for being a ‘servant leader,’ as if there is any other valid option,” he writes in his new book The Motive.

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A common reason for seeking or accepting a leadership post, however, is the person feels he or she deserves it. They have put in the time, rising through the ranks. They have developed their skills. They are eager for the attention, status, power, money and other rewards that come with the post.

He acknowledges motives are rarely as clear-cut as that stark division – often we have a mix of those two impulses. But it’s important to look into your heart and see what is or has been your prime motivation.

Placing those motives side by side, the second is obviously less noble. But his main point is that it’s also less effective. Reward-based leaders shy away from unpleasant situations and activities. “This inevitably leaves the people in their charge without direction, guidance and protection, which inevitably hurts those people and the organization as a whole. Employees will express their disbelief as to how their leader could have been so negligent and irresponsible, yet it makes perfect sense in light of his or her motive for becoming a leader,” Mr. Lencioni writes.

This ties in to Bruce Tulgan’s argument that we are facing an undermanagement epidemic as leaders fail to provide subordinates with the guidance, direction, support and coaching they need. It’s about accountability – not letting poor behaviour slip by because it is uncomfortable to address. Consultant S. Chris Edmonds observes on the SmartBriefs blog: “The presence of accountability in organizations boosts productivity, engagement and respect. The absence of it boosts frustration, anger and incivility.”

Mr. Lencioni is adding to our understanding by suggesting it’s not incompetence but the mindset that causes the problem – the wrong motive for becoming a leader in the first place. The fable at the centre of his book is about CEOs, who we assume are exemplars of accountability. But he sees it otherwise: “Just about every leader will give lip service to the importance of building his or her executive team. This is why it is so surprising that this activity is often delegated, and sometimes even abdicated completely, by many CEOs and other organizational leaders.”

He stresses guiding others is not micromanagement. It’s the essential part of management. Each person must manage their direct reports and ensure their direct reports manage others. That involves confronting difficult, awkward issues quickly and with what he says is “clarity, charity and resolve.” Those issues will range from annoying mannerisms to poisonous interpersonal dynamics and politics.

Each can be embarrassing or awkward to tackle. The person may be a friend, of similar age and experience, and have many talents. So why make them feel bad?

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“I have to admit that I don’t like doing this and I usually used to be really, really hesitant to do it. Until one day I realized that holding back and avoiding those conversations was an act of selfishness. I wasn’t avoiding those conversations for the sake of my employees’ feelings but for my own!” he says. His own discomfort, however, was leaving subordinates with shortcomings that would cause them and others pain.

How much this traces back to motive is an open question. In my experience, many warm-hearted people who enter leadership wanting to help others – the right motive – find it hard to hold colleagues accountable because they dislike confrontation. They don’t understand that sacrifice and suffering are inevitable in this pursuit. So we all have to understand that serving others will involve some unpleasant moments. But he’s right that we should also examine our motives for being a leader and how that might contribute to keeping us from doing our jobs because we want the rewards and not the tedious or painful stuff.

Cannonballs

  • Queen’s University marketing professor Ken Wong says before businesses can thrive again, they must go through two periods: Survive and revive. It might be useful, therefore, to organize your strategies, plans and impulses according to those phases, helping to sequence them.
  • Before entering negotiations, think of all the choices you and the other party have. Research suggests that will increase the likelihood of a successful negotiation – in particular, should the other party say “that’s the best I can do, take it or leave it,” you will have the knowledge and confidence to keep exploring possibilities.
  • Women are more likely than men to be told “white lies” in performance reviews, research shows. Such benevolent sexism may seem kind but may hold them back from learning how to improve.

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