Leadership Is A Responsibility, Not A Reward

Posted June 4, 2020

If you’re a leader (or aspire to leadership), I have a simple question for you: What motivates you to lead?

Your answer to this question is THE pivotal factor in determining whether you’ll be a strong, positive leader or do more harm than good.  And there are only two possible responses to the question.  Which one applies to you?

Your motivation for leading (WHY) is incredibly important because it determines HOW you will lead and WHAT the results will be. 

Reward-centered leaders believe being a leader is the reward for their hard work.  Since leading is a reward, they also believe the experience of being a leader should be pleasant and enjoyable, after all, who’d want a reward that wasn’t enjoyable?  These leaders tend to be more selfish since they think the leadership role is about them getting to do what they enjoy.  Sometimes the selfishness is subtle, but anyone who approaches leadership as a reward has some degree of selfishness.

Responsibility-centered leaders believe being a leader is a responsibility, which means the experience of leading should be difficult and challenging.  These leaders are the epitome of what’s often referred to as “servant leaders.”  These leaders place the good of the organization above their own comfort and are willing to suffer and sacrifice for the mission.

The distinction between reward-centered and responsibility-centered leadership is at the heart of Patrick Lencioni’s recent book The Motive.  In the book, two characters model what each of the approaches to leadership looks like.  As the story unfolds, one of the leaders realizes how reward-centered he is and how the responsibility approach is better for the company, those around him, and himself. 

Most leaders are not 100% reward- or responsibility-centered but have mixed motives for leading.  The shift to being more responsibility-centered is an important upgrade in the life of every leader.  If you want to experience this upgrade, here are three things to consider.

First, strive to be a “Chief Executing Officer” instead of a “Chief Executive Officer.”  What’s the difference?  Executing is a verb; it conveys action and movement.  Executive is a noun that is more about you being a leader versus you taking leadership actions.  Executives focus too much on being in a role and miss out on the need to execute the CEO’s most important function, which is to get things done by encouraging, coaching, and supporting the people around you. 

Second, embrace the responsibility of managing real people and all of the difficult moments and awkward conversations.  As the leader, you cannot outsource this responsibility to HR or an external expert.  While you can partner with others to get this done, ultimately, you have to roll up your sleeves and make it your assignment to develop your other leaders and create high-functioning teams. 

Third, as leader it is your job to communicate and to over-communicate.  Communicating the company vision and values and strategy is hard work.  You have to be clear about these matters in your own head, then you need to share these messages over and over again in a variety of settings.  Saying something once is never enough; studies show employees need to hear something 7 times before they even start to believe the executive is serious.  It is your job as the leader to remind people.

Now, back to our first question: What motivates you to lead?  I’d encourage you to do a gut check and to be brutally honest with yourself.  Ask those who are closest to you and who are willing to tell you the truth.  Pay attention to yourself, how you make decisions, and your attitude about how easy and fun things you expect things to be.  Over the next few weeks, really ponder this question and then make the commitment to becoming a responsibility-centered leader.