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Leadership motivation: A guide to cultivating better leaders

By Michelle Gouldsberry
August 30, 2022
6 minute read

Leadership motivation: A guide to cultivating better leaders

There’s more to motivating performance than offering competitive pay and benefits. Employees are inspired or deflated by how their organizational leaders treat them. To improve performance, you need to understand why leadership motivation matters and how your managers can get better at it.

Great leaders don’t just manage; they also motivate, inspire, and influence employees to be their best. Cultivate these traits and behaviors to build leadership motivation in your workforce.

The difference between a manager and a leader

The difference between a manager and a leader is about leadership quality and the scope of their responsibility. Managers oversee work to ensure it’s completed on time and within the budget. They won’t always put extra effort into relationship building or other factors that inspire the team to perform better.

On the other hand, leaders tend to view their teams with a wider lens. A leader is someone who team members want to follow. Employees trust leaders to take them in the right direction and provide support along the journey. Leaders are passionate about their work, care about their employees, and strive to create the best possible outcomes.

Leaders inspire intrinsic motivation

Managers can use extrinsic factors such as compensation or extra time off to motivate their teams. Leaders take a different approach: Instead of relying only on extrinsic motivation, they also inspire employees to see the work as its reward.

Leaders might encourage employees to work harder as a way to support their colleagues or extend themselves beyond their comfort level to accomplish big goals. Or, intrinsic motivation might come from the satisfaction of achievement. Recognition and praise from leaders can also inspire confidence and pride while motivating employees to accomplish their goals.

Leaders convey a sense of purpose and ownership

Managers support employees as they work toward their performance goals, but leaders go further and foster alignment between employee goals and business goals. This gives employees greater purpose by helping them see their role in producing business results.

That sense of purpose and ownership can be a powerful intrinsic motivator. Employees who understand how their work factors into final results are more engaged and satisfied with their daily activity list.

Leaders tap into human nature

Managers focus on the work — and sometimes that means they micromanage employees. Leaders cultivate an environment where employees feel respected as people — not just as employees. Micromanaging doesn’t motivate, but providing autonomy for skilled employees helps them stay motivated to bring their best effort every day.

When employees feel valued and appreciated for their skills, aptitudes, personalities, and perspectives, they’re more likely to find fulfillment in their work. Their interactions with colleagues will improve, too.

Key traits of a motivating leader

Not all managers are naturally born with leadership skills. However, the right leadership development program can train managers to become better leaders. Identify management candidates who display these traits of leadership motivation.


People are more likely to trust someone with high integrity or a high level of honesty. Those traits are essential for leadership motivation because employees who don’t trust their managers are less likely to engage meaningfully with their work.

Integrity also encompasses whether people are earnest, genuine, and show alignment between their values and behaviors. Alignment is crucial for leaders modeling company values. If employees see that their managers are hypocritical or half-heartedly embody company values, they’ll be less inclined to live those values themselves. This can lead to cynicism and disengagement.


Motivating leaders are aware of their limitations. They understand where they have room to grow and pinpoint which growth opportunities to prioritize. These leaders have a sense of humility that can inspire others. When employees see that their manager is focusing on developing the team and delivering great results — rather than pursuing power or feeding their ego — they’re more likely to want to follow that leader.

Self-awareness also helps leaders develop habits to prevent their weaknesses from hurting their leadership. If a leader knows they tend to become absorbed in their work, scheduling regular check-ins can help them ensure they’re not ignoring their reports.

Hungry to learn

One of the most important traits of an effective leader is being hungry to learn. Leaders with curiosity signal that they don’t know everything. Instead of using that as an excuse to underperform, these leaders continue to learn and grow.

Leaders who are always asking questions and always learning are good role models for their teams. Continuous learning is key to leading a team that can serve the business effectively. By demonstrating the importance of learning, motivational leaders give employees permission to exercise their curiosity, ask questions, and devote time to workplace learning.

Deep listening

Followers want proof that leaders are interested in helping employees overcome their challenges and concerns. One way to demonstrate this is with deep listening, or active listening — marked by a total focus on the speaker. Deep listening requires leaders to ask questions that prompt longer responses from employees (not just yes-or-no questions).

Active listening is about engaging with the speaker to truly understand what they need. That’s key to fostering agile leadership. Leaders who take the time to understand what employees need are better able to remove roadblocks and keep the team operating smoothly and efficiently.

Employees need to feel like they’re genuinely being heard. They should trust that their manager takes what they’re saying seriously. Deep listening is a way for leaders to signal that they’re invested in supporting their teams, inspiring employees to respond with loyalty and enthusiasm about their work.

Values Input

Motivational leaders are self-aware enough to know that they don’t have all the answers. They seek perspectives from others across different levels of the business. They also respect their team members, regardless of their status or position in the organization.

Managers pursuing leadership to gain power or control may not value input from an intern, for example. Motivational leaders respect each individual and understand the value of their perspective. They help employees feel included in teamwide conversations and empowered to speak up.

This team-based approach to leadership elevates employees and gives them the confidence they need to voice their perspectives, producing better outcomes.

Positive attitude

Effective leadership motivation requires an upbeat, positive attitude. Employees are less likely to devote extra effort when their managers tend to be negative or anxious.

That’s not to say that motivational leaders must be unnaturally optimistic. Great leaders are realistic and explore the possibility of failure to try to prevent it, but they don’t wallow in negativity. A positive attitude can inspire employees and help them feel empowered. Enthusiasm feels good and is contagious across teams, potentially sparking engagement, productivity, and achievement.

Decisive communication

Finally, motivational leaders are effective communicators — and they communicate with purpose. Decisive communication shows that leaders are confident in their decisions and quickly communicate pertinent information with the right people.

As decisive communicators, motivational leaders stand up for what they believe in. They’re quick to condemn behaviors that don’t align with company values and always refer to those values when making and communicating tough decisions.

How to motivate others as a leader

The key traits of motivational leaders are most effective when paired with intentional, motivational behaviors. Prioritize these actions to inspire your team to be their best.

Find your purpose

Leaders must understand their intrinsic motivation. Often, this comes from a personal sense of purpose. Leaders have to feel that they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. For example, they might fulfill this purpose by achieving the organization’s mission, vision, and values.

By communicating their purpose to the team, leaders improve motivation. When employees see that leaders feel a sense of responsibility for and pride in their work (and aren’t just seeking control), they’re more likely to take ownership of their work, too.

Hold people accountable

Accountability can be a powerful motivator — especially when employees respect their leader. When employees expect accountability in leadership, they approach their work with greater responsibility.

By being accountable as leaders and holding employees accountable for their work, leaders instill a sense of ownership and pride.

Encourage value-driven work

It’s in our nature to seek meaningful activities. Effective leaders can help employees understand the company’s values and how the team’s work contributes to bigger-picture goals. When employees understand the value of their contributions, they’re more likely to derive motivation and satisfaction from the work itself.

Recognize effort and results

Leaders recognize that there’s more to work than results. By recognizing and rewarding employees for their efforts — even if they fail or face obstacles — employees won’t feel compelled to hide mistakes or cut corners to achieve results. Emphasizing effort alongside results can drive a culture of learning and experimentation where employees are motivated and encouraged to try new ways of doing things.

Let leadership motivation carry you forward

When every team in your workforce is highly motivated, their passion and purpose create momentum and better results. Tap into leadership motivation to bring the best out of your workforce and power your business with increased satisfaction and engagement.

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