What Motivates True Leaders?

This article was written by our late mentor, Larry Wilson, Founder of Wilson Learning. To learn more about how Larry inspired our business, read our article The Story Behind Above + Beyond

At my ranch near Santa Fe, I had the chance to facilitate leadership sessions that collectively involved about 1,000 leader “wanna-be’s.” This group became my database for studying motivations for becoming a leader. Early in each session I asked the participants, “Why do you think most people would want to be a leader?” (not why they wanted to be a leader). What do you think they said? The answers included: power, more money, executive perks, first-class travel, having resources at your disposal, prestige, recognition, being listened to and obeyed, being able to enact your vision and being your own boss. No surprise, right?

Three motives stood out as the most popular and, when put into story form, sounded like this: “People want to be leaders so they have power, they are in control and they’re being served by others.” Let’s look at these motives more closely.

Power. The answer given most often was “to have more power.” In this sense, power can be associated with wealth or rank, but usually it’s the concept of superiority— being in the position of having the “right and only” answers for others to follow.

Control of others. The second most popular motive was getting others to “do what they’re told.” This meant for others to carry out the direction set by the leader without having a say.

Being Served. The third most popular motive suggested by the group was an eclectic combination that included status, recognition, pay and perks. We called it “being served.”

These three “extrinsic” motives have existed for eons, and they’re not all bad or self-defeating. Like most things, it’s about balance. My definition says, “Leadership is the phenomenon of someone following someone else because they want to, not because they have to.”

Here’s where our research answered the question, “How do these three motives relate to the Larry Wilson definition of leadership?”

I asked these 1,000 participants to recall a defining moment in their lives when they chose to follow a leader, because they wanted to, not because they had to. It could have been a boss, parent, family member, teacher, friend, etc. I asked them to write out their experience as a story and identify what it was that made that leadership experience so special.

The most popular scenario people described was one in which the leader helped them discover some potential or power in themselves they had not yet become aware of. “He/she saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.” This leader wasn’t looking to get power, but rather he/she was helping others discover their own power. That’s Empowerment.

The second most popular scenario was when people saw themselves stuck in a rut and a leader helped them see options and possibilities they hadn’t thought of. Again, instead of controlling someone, the effect of this leader’s role was to free the people who reported to him/her.

And the third scenario, which also includes the leaders described above, was one in which the leaders were not trying to be served, but in fact were serving others. “He believed in me.” “She was there for me.”

In each of these three scenarios, the leaders’ motives were: empowering, freeing and serving. These motives are “intrinsic,” coming from our true and best selves. They are 180-degree opposites of the “extrinsic” motives described above.

The true nature of leadership is to help other people find their inner potential and then to help set them free of limitations that are holding them back. To sum it up: The true nature of leadership is to help others learn, grow and develop. If these intrinsic motives are yours, you’ll be followed because someone wants to, not because someone has to.  And by the way, they’ll follow you any where, any time, any place.