"Managers light a fire under people; Leaders light a fire in people." -- Kathy Austin
I've been lucky in my career to have had both: a manager that lit a fire under me, and a leader who lit a fire in me. Both had positive impact on my personal motivation. But over the long haul -- beyond our formal work relationship, the leader changed my life. Sounds dramatic when I say it that way. It's true -- though not exact, since no one else can change your life. Change happens from the inside out, and I made the change happen. But his leadership inspired me to make different choices for myself.
In short, he made me want to be a better person.
He made me want to be better not only in my role at work, but as a human being -- how I treated myself, how I interacted with others, everything. He wasn't perfect, no one is. But he knew what was important to him, and he sought to align every choice and action with what he valued.
I learned about his values by his behavior, but also in our chats. I noticed he made a point of getting home for dinner with his family. His career was important to him, but not important enough to sacrifice his bigger goal: to have the respect of his adult children and the trust of his wife. He earned people's trust and cherished it by keeping his commitments. When he couldn't deliver what he'd promised, he apologized, but also reflected on his mistake. Mistakes were not something to dwell on, but to learn from. He brought optimism to work with him in his briefcase each day, even though our team looked frustration in the face with setback after setback. I'll never forget how he gave me a hand up after being criticized by a colleague, or his advice about taking the high road even when the low road seemed easier and more satisfying.
He sought to know my heart -- and in the process, helped me know it, too.
I was blessed to work for someone that was invested in me becoming the best version of me. Not by their definition of success, but by helping me to discover mine.
I've since learned the experience is rare. Why?
One, it's easier to learn someone's external motivators. Financial & career goals are easy to define. It's fun to talk about the next car you want to drive or the house you want to buy. Talking about feelings is hard, personal. It requires vulnerability and opens us up for rejection. If your boss doesn't share your interest in the car you want to have, well, no big deal. But if they laugh when you say your family is your motivation, that is a different story.
For that reason, we don't have a lot of conversations about this. Who in your life is talking to you about what is truly important to you? Or the kind of person you want to be in the world? Who is helping you figure out what is important to you? This kind of work is up to you.
Finally, living the high road is hard. I don't mean "high road" from a place of being better or worse than anyone else. When you take the high road, you take the road that is most aligned with your values more often, even when it might seem easier or more satisfying to go low. It's a long term view that guides short-term choices.
Turns out, you already know what is important to you.
In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey asks his readers to do an exercise in future planning: to write their own eulogy. If four people from the major areas of your life -- work, family, friends, and community -- were asked to give a eulogy at your funeral, what would you hope they would say? How would they describe you and how you lived your life? How will they remember you? Will they talk about those financial goals you attained at work or how you finally lost those last 10 pounds? Will they mention the size of your house or the money in your bank account? Or -- will they talk about what your life meant to them... the kind of boss you were, or how they could always count on you in good times and in bad? How will they describe your character? Because in the end, our relationships are what matters. And the quality of our relationships is directly aligned with our values.
My Dad passed away last December. My last real conversation with him was after our Thanksgiving meal with the family. We were gathered in the living room at my parent's house. This was my Dad's favorite part of any holiday gathering. He sat in his easy chair and looked over what he had created, what he was most proud of in life: his family. As he would say, we all come back, we all get along, and we're all doing okay. At his funeral, there was mention of his businesses and his hobbies and how right up to the end he loved to work in his garage. But those were small details. People talked about his generosity and kindness, and how he had this way of naturally connecting with people. My Dad had a prosthetic leg (since 11 years old). We buried him with it. But it was his work ethic and sense of humor that we heard about. He was most remembered for how he honored his family in everything. They knew his character by how he was with my Mom and with us. Family was Dad's motivation; what he valued most in life.
Values bring a long-term view. They tell us what is important in the long run. When we know what is important in the long-run, we make better short-term decisions & choices. In that way, our values become our motivation.
As a leader, living your core motivation matters.
When you live in alignment with your values -- when you know your heart's motivation and actively use it to guide your choices -- that, in and of itself, is inspiring to others. Why? Because we have experienced how hard that is.
Life is filled with distractions -- shiny things to tempt us and draw us off-sides or out of bounds. What we "naturally want" -- usually something with short term gratification, is often in conflict with what we "actually want" -- to live consistently in alignment with our values. Saying no is hard to do, especially when people around us are saying yes. One more turns into three. An hour late turns into a late night. Skipping one workout leads to a week off from the gym. Commiserating about one co-worker becomes a regular routine. And so it goes.
When you live your values (or not), people notice.
I understood my leaders' values before we talked about them and put words to them. I knew by their behavior, their choices, how they talked about other people and by which relationships they prioritized. Some leaders valued being right more than they valued their relationships with others. Others seemed more interested in making themselves look good than in doing the right thing. I questioned their motivation, especially when they challenged mine. To be frank, I struggled to stay inspired when my "leaders" weren't inspiring. I had yet to understand what it meant to be a leader in your own life -- to use internal, values-driven motivation to consistently achieve goals.
I justified my bad behavior by their bad behavior. After all, the easiest person to deceive is the one in the mirror.
Which is why if this was easy, everyone would do it.
Austin's original quote reads: "Managers light a fire under people; Leaders light a fire in people."
Leaders light a fire in people because they've got a fire lit inside themselves, and they do the work to keep the fire going. Throughout life, they meet opportunities and problems that challenge their character and their conviction. With relentless consistency (not perfection), they strive to make choices in alignment with their values -- to stay connected to what is actually important.
These leaders naturally draw people to them. But the real magic happens when leaders teach their self-leadership practices to others. Then they learn to connect to their own values and tend their own motivational fires. That's the challenge of leadership.
What's your motivation?
If you know, your challenge is to keep renewing your commitment to yourself and your values.
If you don't know, take some time to figure it out. Expect to find that while some of your attitudes and habits are aligned, some won't fit anymore. You may have some difficult decisions to make. Your lifestyle may not fit. You may have people in your life you need to leave behind -- or at least limit your interaction with. You may have apologies to give and relationships to work on.
Rest assured, it will be worth it. You'll be happier, more productive, and experience less drama. You'll be more of who you really are in your heart, at your core. And people will want to follow you, hoping some of your fire catches on in them.