what is your motivation?
January 18, 2023

What is your motivation as a leader? Why do you do what you do?

By Tony Boobier

Following starting this new year by focussing on data interpretation skills, let us now turn our attention to motivation. Now seems a suitable time for leaders to reflect on why they do what they do. What’s the point? Why spend their time, energy, and indeed their lives in careers working with data?

In a future post, I will share my experience and am currently reading about a career in business being a calling or ethical vocation (book review to come too). But in the meantime, I put this challenge out to our panel of guest bloggers. What were their reflections on motivation & purpose for such leadership roles?

Ever generous with his time, our first reply is from Tony Boobier. You may recall that Tony is an author, mentor & advisor, helping insurers and other organisations prepare for the brave the new world of AI. He has shared with us before on the related topics of a positive mindset, corporate groupthink & chemical motivation. But in this post, Tony answers my question: What are your thoughts about how leaders motivate their teams or understand their own motivating purpose?

What’s it all about? The search for meaning.

As that famous philosopher, Cilla Black once put it, “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” It’s a question that has puzzled mankind for a while, exercising heavyweight minds. But this is a post about motivation and purpose, rather than the meaning of life. If you are looking for that, then your answer might rest with Douglas Adams of “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” fame, who professed that the meaning of life was, quite simply, “42“. 

It was a topic that I thought about when writing my second book about the impact of AI and analytics on the future of work. Understanding those consequences requires you to understand what we mean by the expression ‘work’ itself, and why it is so important to us. If we understand that aspect, then perhaps we might have a better idea about what motivates us.

There are religious connotations. God-fearing Protestants with Puritan ethics believed that work brings us closer to God and as a result, working harder provides greater reassurance of a place in the Great Hereafter. An 1873 novel by German philosopher called Diefenbach was called “Arbeit Macht Frei” or Work Sets You Free“. Although in his novel it was used in the context of the correction of gamblers and fraudsters, a later sinister regime posted those words over the entrance to a number of Nazi concentration camps. 

Different motivations at work

In reality, we are motivated at work for different reasons. To find financial security, make a difference, improve ourselves, or help others. All of these are valid. Often our motivation is not for one reason but a combination and usually to different degrees. My own motivation has changed over the years as a result of my evolving lifestyle and aspirations. For example, my reason for writing this article is mainly a combination of knowledge transfer and personal pleasure (in writing the piece). Although I’m sure that there are others.

One question to ask is, do we need as individuals to be sufficiently self-aware of what actually motivates us? The argument goes that if we understand those personal ‘drivers’, then we can improve and enhance them. Then, in doing so we can squeeze out better personal performance, almost as if our life behaved like a finely tuned sports car. 

A whole industry even exists on the back of the concept of personal improvement. According to December 2022 data, the self-help book market which exists principally to support personal improvement has exploded by 11% from 2013 to 2019. Sales of self-help books annually amounted to 18.6m volumes. It’s a market valued at $10.5 billion.  

Can you think your way to greater success?

The mantra seems to be that you can be whatever you want to be, provided that you put the effort in. Maybe it works for some people. The concept of self-improvement has its origins in the Age of Enlightenment, a philosophical approach which dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. This proposed that knowledge unlocked the key to human progress and happiness. As Descartes expressed it, “Cognito, ergo, sum” or “I think, therefore, I am.”

The downside of such radical thinking, for its time, was one of undermining royalty and religion. In many ways, it remains the fundamental source of discontent in the way that governments and commerce are currently trusted.  

At its heart, doesn’t motivation have these same origins? A greater understanding of self leads us to have a greater sense of who we are, and what is important to us. It helps us understand why we act in the way we do. New and more radical thinking starts to tear down the simplistic pyramidal structure of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It starts to reinvent it for a more flexible era of technology and uncertainty. Skills are increasingly replaced by more generic competencies. Certainty is increasingly replaced by volatility and the need for flexibility. 

What does this mean for leaders wanting to motivate their teams?

Against this backdrop, the new challenges of how to motivate not only yourself but also your business colleagues are unprecedented. Core values become increasingly important both at a personal and corporate level. How leaders behave becomes critical to how employees are motivated. At a personal level, doing “the right thing” increasingly becomes more important than “doing something“. By extrapolation, has doing nothing become more important than doing the wrong thing? 

Our increasingly secular society, where religion seems less important than ever before, has permanently divorced any imagined relationship between work and Godliness. Increased self-awareness as a result of enlightenment has invited us to challenge our raison d’etre. Both of these, and others, have led us to question the concept of a work ethic. Is it any wonder why we struggle to motivate ourselves and those we work alongside?

It’s easy to leave a blog like this on a negative note but there is real scope for positivity. Greater awareness helps us recognise what is really important in our lives. This is surely positive at a time when improved work-life balance is becoming increasingly essential. Perhaps we are entering a time when we need different thinking about how we motivate ourselves. Different ideas about how best to adopt an approach that more accurately represents a new era of working. 

In this transformative goalpost-shifting technological uncertainty, perhaps we should worry less about the future and place even greater focus on the “here and now“?  So, perhaps Cilla might be asking the right question after all. What’s it all about, is it ‘just’ for the moment we live? 

What is your motivation?

Thanks again to Tony again for sharing his thoughts. What has that left you thinking? Do you value the idea of focusing on the present moment & leaving behind any deeper religious or work ethic motivations? To my ear, Tony’s reflections lean toward a Stoic or Buddhist perspective on life & meaning. Is such a mindset helping you motivate yourself & your team?

As I said earlier I will share my perspective in a later post. But for now, let me also encourage you to check out some past posts that relate to this challenge:

I hope that wider reading aids your own reflections and wish you well in starting this year by motivating yourself & your team more than ever before. You can do it!