Come on baby, light my fire

It was just another manic Monday at my house. Everyone had a hard time waking up after sleeping in over the weekend, and we had to leave the house earlier than usual. At 7:10 I find that two of my kids are having a sword fight instead of brushing with their toothbrushes. At 7:15 the third announces a heretofore unmentioned special event that requires an arcane object from home. By 7:20 my internal barometer is flashing and beeping. I’m racing around like the proverbial headless chicken, barking: “Hurry UP! Where are your SHOES?! We are going to be LATE!” and other inspirational phrases. If you have kids, you know this approach results in children moving very, very, very slowly. I’d save myself a lot of hassle if I could remember this on Monday mornings.

My kids and I may not be a perfect analogy, but my Monday morning missteps illustrate some fundamental leadership lessons.

First, the emotions projected by a leader or manager have a disproportionate effect on the people around them. Emotional contagion is a very real phenomenon, and when you are in a position of influence, negative mood can spread like wildfire. Worse yet, we are biologically wired to be attuned to the negative, so leaders need to be even more careful to accentuate the positive – to the ratio of about 5:1 to be precise. When I stomp about the house frantically on Monday morning, not only is that a crummy way to start the day, I am spreading the plague to my family members and putting a hash mark in the wrong column. How do you respond when there are setbacks, failures, and delays? If you sulk or steam in the office, what is your effect?

Second, people are far less motivated by someone trying to light a fire under them than when people try to light the fire inside of them. My attempts to get my kids to move faster with prods, threats, and pleas has absolutely minimal effect and often just makes us all more irritable. What does work to motivate people? Well, think about last time you felt really inspired by some one – what was it like? I’m willing to bet there was no prods, threats, and pleas. To motivate others, you have to invite them to motivate themselves from the inside out, and the only way to really do this is (1) express your own inspiration and motivation; (2) speak to them about what it matters to them(3) paint a tantalizing picture; and (4) make it seem possible, within reach. What does a Monday look like for me when I do this successfully? It means reminding my oldest that if we get to school in time he can go to the school store. It means giving my middle child a few extra hugs and whispering, “You’re helping us so much by getting ready quickly!” (And, honestly, it means turning a blind eye while my youngest sneaks bits of breakfast to the dog.) It means moving them toward something meaningful to them. What does it look like for you? What kind of fires are you lighting?

Emotional intelligence, interpersonal effectiveness, empathy, listening – these have been called “soft skills” as a way of differentiating them from other supposedly more important leadership and business skills. That’s a lie. If you want to get stuff done, you need to know yourself and control yourself. If you want to get awesome things done through other people, carrots and sticks will only get you so far. You need to be able to influence, motivate, and inspire.


“Inspiring others to do great work is the accomplishment of a leader.” –John C. Maxwell

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” –John Quincy Adams