What motivates you to be a leader?

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations

Because authentic leaders need to sustain high levels of motivation and keep their motivations in balance, it is critically important to understand what motivates them. This may take many years, even if their formative experiences occurred when they were much younger.

There are two types of motivations — extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivations, such as getting good grades, winning athletic competitions, or making money, are measured by the external world. Nearly every leader has had a strong achievement orientation since childhood. Most competed in athletics in their youth and worked to excel in school. After graduating, many young leaders want to obtain a job with a prestigious organisation. Eventually, their extrinsic motivations take the form of monetary accumulation, power, title, elevated social status, and prestige.

Although they are reluctant to admit it, many leaders are motivated by achieving success against the parameters measured by the outside world. They enjoy the feelings of success, recognition, and status that come with promotions and financial rewards.

Intrinsic motivations, on the other hand, are derived from your sense of the meaning of your life. They are closely linked to your life story and the way you frame it. Examples include personal growth, helping other people develop, taking on social causes, and making a difference in the world.

Extrinsic motivationsIntrinsic motivations
Monetary compensation
Having power
Having a title
Public recognition
Social status
Winning over others
Personal growth
Satisfaction of doing a good job
Helping others develop
Finding meaning from efforts
Being true to one’s beliefs
Making a difference in the world

Avoiding traps

Many people never tap into their most powerful motivations. With society’s unprecedented attention on material gain, temptations and social pressures cause many leaders to seek the world’s acclaim rather than doing what motivates them internally. The pressure starts early, when college graduates compare salaries. It evolves as they compare apartments or new home purchases.

Many leaders advise emerging leaders to beware of getting caught up in social, peer, or parental expectations. The only way to avoid getting caught up in materialism is to understand where you find happiness and fulfilment.

Moving away from the external validation of personal achievement is not easy. Achievement-oriented leaders grow so accustomed to successive accomplishments throughout their early years that it takes courage to pursue their intrinsic motivations. But at some point, most leaders recognise that they need to address more difficult questions in order to pursue their true motivations.

Many leaders turned down higher-paying jobs in early career decisions in order to pursue roles they would enjoy. They came out ahead in the end — in both satisfaction and compensation — because they were successful in doing what they loved.

Many young leaders are tempted to take high-salaried jobs to pay off loans or build their savings, even if they have no interest in the work and do not intend to stay. They believe that after ten years they can move on to do the work they love. Yet many become so dependent on maintaining a certain lifestyle that they get trapped in jobs where they are demotivated and unhappy. Locked into the high-income/high-expense life, they cannot afford to do work they love.

Many people would like to give up a cushy corporate job for a high-risk entrepreneurial opportunity, but they are afraid because it seems too risky and they have committed themselves to a large mortgage or too many cars. That holds a lot of people back from pursuing what motivates them and brings them satisfaction.

Balancing your motivations

For leaders with a high-achievement orientation, external motivations and positive validation by the outside world are a natural consequence. They appreciate the recognition that comes with their accomplishments. The key to developing as an authentic leader is not eschewing your extrinsic motivations but balancing them with intrinsic motivations.

It is natural to seek recognition from peers, promotions in title, and positive media accolades. These are all positive outcomes of achieving success in the eyes of the world. The danger comes when leaders become so enamoured of these external symbols that they can never get enough. At this point they are at the greatest risk of losing touch with their intrinsic motivations and abandoning things that give them a deeper sense of fulfilment.

Many leaders have learned the hard way that external recognition can be a fickle lover. When things do not go their way, their external sources of gratification disappear very quickly. So do superficial friends and acquaintances who are more interested in associating with them as a success than they are in being there for them when things go poorly. The key to avoiding these traps is finding a balance between your desires for external validation and intrinsic motivations that provide fulfilment in your work.

Finding your motivated capabilities

The term motivated capabilities is used to describe the alignment of your motivations with your strongest capabilities in order to find the sweet spot for your leadership. In other words, find out what you are good at and what you like to do.

You will be most effective as a leader when you find opportunities that highly motivate you and utilise your greatest capabilities. One without the other is insufficient. To find them, you must understand your deepest motivations and be honest with yourself about your capabilities. Being motivated by something you are not good at will not enable you to succeed as a leader, nor will pursuing leadership roles that do not motivate you. But when you find a role that meshes your motivations with your capabilities, you will discover the sweet spot that maximises your effectiveness as a leader.

Adapted from

George, B., 2010. True north: Discover your authentic leadership (Vol. 143). John Wiley & Sons.

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