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Why Matters: A Leader’s Motivation Can Drastically Change How They Show Up

By Kristin Kern - March 2020

I could tell something unusual was bothering Julia, a CEO client of mine, by the deep frown in her forehead. For the last five years, Julia has run a midsize SAAS company in LA. She was also a leader and manager in the company for the previous 10 years.  She’s seen a lot, so it’s rare that I can see the stress in her face.  Then she told me about a situation involving two members of her leadership team who were having a pretty strenuous disagreement. Of course, healthy conflict is something Julia encouraged on the team, but this one had her up at night – the disagreement had carried over for a few days and had gotten pretty personal. 


The dispute was between the relatively new head of sales and the human resources VP – and it was about compensation, not an easy topic. The head of sales felt he was owed commission for a deal and the HR VP disagreed. Both parties had dug in. Eventually Julia had to step in and make a decision, which she did. She decided to pay out for the deal. And while Julia didn’t blame the head of sales for asking, she was concerned that the disagreement had impacted the already somewhat fragile relationship between the head of sales and the VP. 


When I asked Julia about her own relationship with the sales leader, she said it wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t great and that working on it was hindered by the fact that he worked from home a lot. When he was hired, they had agreed he’d work in the office the first couple months, but now, in month three, he was staying home more often. 


Julia, a leader who has spent a lot of time and energy learning how to have difficult conversations, was flummoxed because in neither of these situations did the sales leader do anything “wrong.” How was she going to approach him in a productive way? That’s when I remembered the copy of Patrick Lencioni’s new book, The Motive, that was sitting on my desk. The Motive makes it exceedingly clear that the sales leader has a tendency to act reward-centered, and that can be the basis of a productive conversation with him.


The Motive lays out two reasons leaders choose to lead: to reap rewards or to fulfill a selfless responsibility. Reward-centered leaders believe that their positions are due to them for their years of hard work and that the privilege of their position means that they can avoid the mundane, unpleasant and uncomfortable. Responsibility centered leaders believe that it is their job to handle the difficult and challenging (and fulfilling) aspects of leading. There are so many things that reward-centered leaders shy away from doing that responsibility centered leaders do regularly. Reward-centered leaders often shirk parts of their job like developing their teams, actively managing their direct reports, leading engaging meetings, having tough conversations and communicating enough with employees.


It’s important to keep in mind, these motives are not constant in us and all leaders would do well to pay attention when their own balance is skewing toward reward-centered versus responsibility centered leadership. 


When I talked to Julia about these key differences, she said: “I am 100 percent responsibility centered.” And that was a perfect way to enter a discussion with her new head of sales. As we talked this through, the lines in her forehead relaxed and I was relieved to know that she’d handle the conversation with grace and humility.


Here are some other ways I’ve seen reward-centered behavior show up when I work with leaders:


  •  A president of a midsize construction firm who avoided difficult conversation at all costs and excelled at bringing up negative generalities that he heard from “others.” (Omission: Having hard conversations.)
  • A leader who overidentified with the “responsibility” of his job so much that he – and his team – were miserable. The leader was the only one who could do anything well. He didn’t trust his team to do anything right. This one is quirky because the way the reward-centered behavior shows up is under a cover of competence. But is a leader who has not developed his team – or is unwilling to trust them — really a good leader? (Omission: Developing your team.)
  •  An introverted leader who allowed a highly extroverted team member to control the weekly meeting to the exclusion of input by other team members. This was so overt that it was a running “joke” on the team. And, not surprisingly, the same guy got a lot of credit for what got done in the company. (Omission: Addressing uncomfortable behavioral issues.)
  • A former head of sales, now CEO, who regularly allowed his sales leader to miss the weekly team meeting and even interrupted a quarterly offsite so the leader could get on a client call, despite the fact that other leaders had flown in to attend this meeting. (Omission: Running great team meetings.)
  • An inexperienced CEO who exhibited the book-of-the-month-club leadership style by trying to integrate the “latest, greatest” management theories into his company, one after another. (Omission: Communicating constantly and repetitively to employees.)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all rewards, rewards, rewards out there. I could make an equally long list of all the ways I’ve seen responsibility centered leadership recently. And that would be time well spent, but I have to run. I promised a new CEO I work with that I’d talk through a conversation he’s having later today with one of his direct reports about how that leader showed up at the last board meeting when he took all the credit for a big, cross-functional project. I wonder what that leader’s motive is?


What’s your motive for leading?  


Purchase your copy of The Motive today to find out.

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