Leaders often operate with a belief that they are responsible for the morale of the workforce — a notion, by the way, that gets reinforced by employees. themselves.  One of the ways leaders can free up their minds and their to-do lists is understand that commitment, inspiration and morale are in the hands of each individual.

People make choices whether to be motivated, inspired or committed. So leaders can — and should — let go of the need to be in charge of other people’s choices. Instead, focus on what you CAN control – what you stand for and how you will live that out in ways that make a difference.

If leaders focus their efforts on inspiring, motivating and building morale, not only will they exhaust themselves, they’ll lose sight of what really matters — engaging others to work for the common good. Such thinking often flies in the face of conventional leadership wisdom. Leadership has been sold as an activity of inspiration, influence and motivation. However, these are end results based on the choices people make, and seeing them as a leadership business process is counterproductive. 

Philosopher Viktor Frankl wrote: “Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue, and only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself. . . .”

However, leaders aren’t totally off the hook here. They have an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the work environment in ways that increase the choices people make to be motivated and committed. It’s a small distinction, but an important one.

If your intention is to engage others in creating a meaningful future, living that out means just that — engaging others in ways that gives them a voice. It requires helping people understand the overarching vision and the strategic goals of the enterprise. It means respecting the ideas, decisions and choices people make within that framework. It means making it clear that mistakes are opportunities to learn rather the opportunities for blame and punishment. It means supporting people, and providing opportunities for them to develop and grow in ways that are meaningful to them. Creating an atmosphere like that will increase a thousand fold the chances that people will be committed and motivated.

Our client, Joe, had this realization after a long day of meetings with employees who pestered him about how he was going to fix the serious problems facing the company. They were worried, frustrated, discouraged, and they wanted to hear how he was going to build morale and deal with their happiness.
In the end, he held a large group meeting to send them a tough, but clear message: The business DID have problems, and he couldn’t solve them alone. He wanted and needed the best that employees had to give. He emphasized the difficult choices they all had to make together going forward. And finally, he told them, he was not responsible for their happiness, morale and well-being — they were.

His intention wasn’t to inspire and motivate, but to tell the truth and engage employees in creating a better future.

When he concluded his talk, he got a standing ovation.