How Great Leaders Unleash Passion

Picture this. You walk out of an airport to take a taxi cab to your hotel. The taxi driver has a sullen look, seems completely disinterested in you, plays music you dislike, and talks to his buddies on his phone all the way. When you arrive at your hotel and ask for a receipt, he acts like he’s doing you a big favor and then frowns when you fail to include a tip!

Now, substitute that taxi driver for any one of your employees. Do you have any employees who seem to hate their work, only do the bare minimum, drag through the day like they are barely alive, show the enthusiasm of a tree stump, talk to their buddies while ignoring customers, and then get irritated when there is no raise?

Mediocrity can usurp the energy from passion and the opportunity from initiative. Leaders who tolerate mediocrity signal that their actual performance standards are much lower than what they state. The truth is organizations can in fact be populated by only winners. The proverbial bell shaped curve of performance---that there will always a small percentage of superstars and an equal number who do just enough to get by--is neither an organizational necessity nor a statistical requirement. Ask the Cleveland Cavs or the New England Patriots.

The leadership antidote to passion-free mediocrity may not be to change employees or loudly telegraph your displeasure or even “crack the whip.’ Your employees may simply need to be inspired. And, one of the key roles of a leader is to provide inspiration—to be a fire starter--igniting passion and commitment.   

Let’s revisit the passion-challenged taxi driver. Passengers can inspire drivers to give great customer service. It works like this. The first step is your own Animation—choosing to demonstrate the attitude you seek from your driver. Next, as you board the taxi, sincerely express your Appreciation (“Thank you for being my driver.”). Tell the driver your destination and ask if he or she knows the location. When the answer is an affirmative, deliver an Affirmation (“Terrific, I am dealing with a true professional.”).   

The final part is a bit delicate. Validation is helping the driver view his or her role in a larger perspective than just driving a taxi. Keep it upbeat and optimistic. (“You have probably helped a lot of people as a driver, haven’t you?” or “I bet you have seen some amazing things as a driver”). Upon arrival, extend your hand for a handshake and then ask for a receipt. You’ll be amazed at how many fires you can start with this approach.

Now, you may be saying, “Yes but, you are not the supervisor of taxi driver.” True, but what would your leadership relationship be like if suddenly all your employees were independently wealthy volunteers? Leadership should have the character of a boss whose employees won the big lottery but opted to remain without pay.

Animation:  Inspiring through Modeling

We watch cartoons and are awed by the skill of the artist who can transform stills into life-like characters. The late Chuck Jones, creator of such famous cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Road Runner, wrote: “The secret to making a character come alive is not how you draw that particular character. It happens when everything in the frame moves with the character.” Leaders who are fire starters start by choosing to insert employee inspiration instead of seething about its absence. Like the cartoonist, they do this by illustrating enthusiasm. They make “everything in the frame,” including their own attitudes, “move with the employee.”

Appreciation—Inspiring with Gratitude

“Thank you” is a phrase we all enjoy hearing. However, instead of just saying the words, take one more step. Let the person know exactly what he or she did that warranted your gratitude. When my wife and I were eating at a restaurant, our waiter wore a name tag plus an additional tag proclaiming him “employee of the month.” “Congratulations,” I said. “What did you do to warrant such an honor?” The waiter stood quietly and then said flatly: “I guess it was my turn.” He had no idea what he had done to be recognized so he knew of no special action he was being encouraged to repeat. Psychologist William James wrote, "The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated."

Affirmation---Inspiring with Confidence

“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the single most powerful phenomenon in human behavior is the self-fulfilling prophecy (the Pygmalion effect). Little is really known about why it works as it does. However, your belief in your employees, demonstrated in your behavior and attitude, has a major impact on their behavior. If you believe a person is going to be a winner and you treat him or her that way, the person generally does not disappoint you. If you believe a person is going to be a loser, and you treat them that way, they generally do not disappoint you. It suggests it is important how you communicate expectations through your actions.   

Validation—Inspiring with Purpose

This is the trickiest part. Leaders can change the content by expanding the context. What this means is moving from specific to general can help someone view their world in a more optimistic, hopeful light. It is a technique parents use to get a child out of a pessimistic view. Susie comes home complaining that Johnny is teasing her. Her mother coaches her that Johnny doesn’t realize how very special she really is. The intent is elevating the focus to a grander, more glorious view.  As a leader, you can play a similar role. Great leaders communicate with the potential they envision not just the performance they encounter. You have a chance to be fire starter—to inspire someone to deliver their very best.

Inside every employee is passion waiting to be unleashed; excellence ready to be released. Remember:  you cannot start a fire with a wet match; nor can you unleash passion with plain vanilla disposition, determination, and direction. Strike your brightest leadership match—animation, appreciation, affirmation and validation—and watch your employees become inspired by its example.   

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