Motivation and Leadership

As we’ve discussed, motivation has become a buzzword in the business community. And, now that we’ve looked at some of the major motivational theories out there–Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory, path-goal theory, and McClelland’s learned needs theory–we can further explore the important role they play in organizational leadership– especially transformational leadership.

At a high level, motivation is an important leadership skill.  Motivation is defined as “(1) what energizes human behavior, (2) what directs or channels such behavior, and (3) how this behavior is maintained or sustained” (Steers, Porter, & Bigley, 1996, p. 8), or more simply, the “reason(s) I do what I do.”  As such, understanding the motivational process is important to effective leadership.  If one defines leadership as, “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes” (Rost, 1993, p. 102), motivation becomes one of the ways the leader can influence his or her followers.  To put it more clearly, motivation plays a key role in how the leader can energize, direct, and maintain followers’ behavior toward real changes and mutual purposes.

More specifically, Bass (1990, p. 13) defines transformational leadership as occurring “when leaders broaden and elevate the interests of their employees, when they generate awareness and acceptance of the purposes and mission of the group, and when they stir their employees to look beyond their own self-interest for the good of the group.”  In addition to this definition, there are four factors of transformational leadership: (a) idealized influence, (b) inspirational motivation, (c) intellectual stimulation, and (d) individualized consideration (Northouse, 2010).  While motivation plays a role in all four of these areas, the three theories we have discussed play a prominent role in inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, and intellectual consideration.

Inspirational motivation involves leaders creating excitement and enthusiasm around the vision and high expectations through the use of symbols, emotional appeals, and simple messages (Northouse, 2010).  Thomas (2009) explains, “the purpose and vision, then, provided a target that could align the efforts of different people to solve problems and cooperate….the compelling vision was a strong motivational force that inspired people” (p. 23).  When it comes to creating a vision or purpose statement, research has shown that not all purposes are equally effective.

According to Thomas (2009), workers are rarely inspired by purposes that are focused on making a profit or other economic considerations.  This finding is consistent with Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene theory.  Herzberg found that “concerns such as pay, security and work conditions…are less capable of energizing workers to higher levels of performance” (Hill, 2008, p. 174).   Instead, if Herzberg’s theory is followed, the vision or purpose statement should connect to workers’ need for recognition, responsibility, and the opportunity fulfill one’s potential.  For example, Chick-fil-A’s mission statement, “Be America’s Best Quick-Service Restaurant” hits on all of these needs.  The focus on being known as the best speaks to one’s need for recognition and fulfilled potential, and it makes the employees responsible to America for their service.  In addition to playing a big role in inspirational motivation, motivational theory is also important to the individualized consideration factor of transformational leadership.

Individualized consideration consists of “… focusing on the development and mentoring of individual followers and attending to their specific needs” (Powell, 2011, p. 5).  Here there is an emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual.  This factor speaks to how important it is for the leader to take the time to get to know his or her followers on an individual basis and learn their strengths and what motivates them.  For example, if one utilizes McClelland’s learned needs theory, one should identify which of the four needs the individual is primarily motivated by (power, achievement, autonomy, affiliation).  Path-Goal Theory also requires this focus on individuals’ needs.

“To apply path-goal theory, a leader must carefully assess the subordinates and their tasks, and then choose an appropriate leadership style to match those characteristics” (Northouse, 2010, p. 135).  In addition to this connection to individualized consideration, path-goal theory plays a key role in intellectual stimulation as well.

Intellectual stimulation involves supporting “…followers as they try new approaches and develop innovative ways of dealing with organizational issues” (Northouse, 2010, p. 179).  It includes removing obstacles which are preventing growth and progress from taking place (at both the individual and organizational level).  Or, in the words of path-goal theory, “The leader should help subordinates define their goals and the paths they want to take…when obstacles arise…[it] may mean helping the subordinate around the obstacle, or it may mean removing the obstacle” (p. 132).

Overall, motivation is a complicated topic that plays a critical role in effective leadership, specifically in the inspirational motivation, intellectual consideration, and individualized consideration factors of transformational leadership.

Referenced Works:

  • Bass, B. M. (1990).  From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19-31.
  • Hill, A. (2008). Just Business: Christian ethics for the marketplace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice (5th ed). Los Angeles: Sage.
  • Powell, G. N. (2011).  The gender and leadership wars.  Organizational Dynamics, 40, 1-9.
  • Rost, J. C. (1993). Leadership for the twenty-first century. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  • Steers, R.M., Porter, L.W., Bigley, G.A. (1996). Motivation and leadership at work. (6th ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Thomas, K.W. (2009).  Intrinsic motivation at work: What really drives employee engagement. San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler.