Finding Your Inner Courage

Motivating the troops is job one. But how do leaders motivate themselves?

You've written about how leaders can motivate their people. But how do leaders motivate themselves, especially in challenging times? —Addakula Balakrishna, Pune, India

Your question brings to mind William Thackeray's historical novel The Virginians, which poignantly describes George Washington's fortitude as he led his disheartened soldiers during the most daunting days of the American Revolution. "Through all the doubt and darkness, the danger and long tempest of the war, it was only the American leader's indomitable soul that remained entirely steady," Thackeray wrote.

Washington, of course, faced life and death on the battlefield. But even in business, leaders at every level sometimes need to tap into the kind of inner strength he so valiantly displayed. In these difficult times, one day you can be dealing with collapsing sales forecasts and the next with letting go employees whom you've come to consider family. The future can seem bleak at best, and yet you know you must stay upbeat to set the right example for the troops.

Everyone is wired differently, of course. But to answer your question, we have seen five methods of self-sustenance work particularly well over the years for leaders who, like you, realize how important it is to keep themselves motivated so they can continue to do the same for their people.

The first two have to do with pride. In any uncertain environment, it's only natural to feel as though you don't have all the answers, and humility certainly has its place. It galvanizes a leader to stay open-minded to ideas from every quarter. But to remain motivated as a leader, you just can't abdicate your confidence. You need to look in the mirror every morning and gear yourself up by saying, as awkward as it may sound, "I'm not going to be the one who lets this place fail. It won't happen on my watch." There will be days when it's tough to muster such chutzpah, but the minute you start doubting yourself, you run the risk of falling into a self-created vortex of defeat.

The second kind of pride is institutional. We've seen leaders motivate themselves by stepping back from the blocking-and-tackling that's crucial in difficult days to dwell on the big picture: their organization's mission. Just as Washington must have drawn resolve from the overarching purpose of the Revolution, so, too, can leaders recharge by remembering where their companies have been, what they've done right, and where they are going when the fog finally clears.

Recessions almost always involve layoffs, and as a result, some leaders become increasingly remote, feeling it's too painful to engage with people they might have to dismiss. Don't do it. You can gain immense energy from getting inside your people's skin, embracing their concerns, and hearing how much they need leadership. So fight to stay connected. Your people—and your hopes for them—can only add to your determination to survive.

Another way we've seen leaders motivate themselves is by envisioning their challenge not as an intractable problem but as an exciting puzzle to be solved. Take the case of Steven Heydt, president of Elite Island Resorts. As hotel bookings started to dip, he came up with an innovative plan to allow customers to trade certain fallen stocks (at their July 1, 2008, value) for credit at his hotels. "When things are so quiet, you have to think out of the box," Heydt said. Such creativity and can-do is a great example of how leaders can energize themselves not just by unleashing their emotions but by igniting their brains.

Finally, leaders can energize themselves by letting others inside, reaching out to supportive friends and colleagues. Let their belief in your abilities feed your confidence and spirit. The old saw "It's lonely at the top" is pablum. It's only as lonely as you let it be.

Your question is a good reminder that leadership has different seasons. It's easy to find personal motivation in an upswing. In the heat of battle, however, you need to dig deeper and discover your "indomitable soul"—so you can share it with the people who need you most.

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