How Great Leaders Motivate Through Inspiration

Last Updated Apr 10, 2009 10:44 AM EDT

(Today's post is a guest column from Dov Seidman.)
I am often asked, "Who do you believe is an ideal example of a 21st-century leader?"

Let me introduce you to a man who I believe embodies the leadership characteristics we all need to adopt in a more complex, global, connected and transparent world.

On October 15, 1981, professional cheerleader Krazy George Henderson realized a vision for an unbroken wave of human energy, which would give his team a sustained competitive advantage. In a playoff game between the Oakland As and the New York Yankees, he inspired more than 40,000 fans to join together, rise out of their chairs in unison, throw their arms up in the air and lend their voices to one, thunderous and perpetual cheer.

On that day, Krazy George led the world's first stadium human wave.

After a few false starts, "I started with three sections and it went about five or six sections down," Krazy George told me. "I did it again and it went 11 and then all the way around. It was insane."

It wasn't just the season ticket holders who stood up. It was everyone in the stadium that day. The wave was so powerful that even fans of the opposing team joined in.

Krazy George didn't coerce his fellow fans to stand up. He didn't motivate them with $10 each to join with him. What Krazy George understood is that the best means to get a wave to happen, to get people to follow you, isn't to have power over them, rather to find power through them.

The wave is a powerful metaphor to today's leadership challenge. Leaders and leadership is all about behavior. It's about using power and influence to get people to do the right things and in the right ways -- both individually and collectively.

I believe there are fundamentally three ways to get people to do things: You can coerce them, motivate them, or inspire them.

Historically, business has used carrots and sticks to get performance OUT of people. Today, we need to become leaders who can INSPIRE performance IN people.

Carrots and sticks are necessary and will always be; however, 21st-century leaders also recognize their limits and disadvantages.

Coercion requires an ongoing investment in a bureaucracy of rules, processes and enforcement.

Motivation is expensive, particularly in a down market where money does not flow as freely, dollar-based performance targets are more difficult to achieve, and bonuses are more difficult to pay out. Plus, motivation cannot be shared and rarely connects individuals to a higher sense of purpose.

I believe that we are in an era of inspiration, where great results will come from employees who are bought into not just the company's potential for success but also its underlying mission. They work not just for the pay but also for their ability to achieve something they find inspiring. For the cynics, inspirational leadership is also a lot more efficient.

What makes a company sustainable is not when it adds more coercive rules and regulations to control behaviors. It is when its employees or citizens are propelled by values and principles to do the right things, no matter how difficult the situation. Laws tell you what you can do. Values inspire in you what you should do. It's a leader's job to inspire in us those values.

When you are inspired you act on something you believe in; you are in the grip of ideas; you are compelled by a deeper purpose and propelled by values you hold fundamental.

Unlike carrots and sticks, values are free -- and they can be shared. Because they can be shared, they spur collaboration and serve as the glue that keeps people aligned and energized.

Dov Seidman is the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of LRN, a company that helps businesses develop ethical corporate cultures and inspire principled performance, and the author of "HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything--in Business (and in Life)."
(image by agu2000_de via Flickr, CC 2.0)

  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for and writes regularly for and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.