A pep talk to keep leaders motivated

A pep talk to keep leaders motivated

You've written about how leaders can motivate their people, but how do leaders motivate themselves, especially in challenging times?

—Addakula Balakrishna, Pune

Your question brings to mind William Thackeray’s 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 leader’s indomitable soul that remained steady," Thackeray wrote, noting later that Washington kept heart when all others had lost it.

Washington, of course, faced extraordinary, life-or-death situations on the battlefield, but business leaders at every level sometimes need to tap into the kind of inner strength that he so valiantly displayed. In these difficult times, for instance, one day you can be dealing with collapsing sales forecasts and the next letting go employees 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. To answer your question: You don’t always know how.

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Now, every person is wired differently, but over the years and through several recessions we’ve seen five “methods" of self-sustenance that work particularly well 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 that 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, regardless of rank. But to stay motivated as a leader, you can’t just surrender your confidence. You need to look yourself in the mirror every morning and get yourself going, saying, “I’m not going to be the one who lets this place fail. It won’t happen on my watch." Even if there are days when such chutzpah is hard to come by, you still have to do this, because the minute you start to doubt yourself, you run the risk of falling into a self-created vortex of defeat.

The second type of pride is institutional. We’ve seen leaders motivate themselves by periodically looking up from the scrum of everyday operations and instead dwelling on the big picture of their organization’s mission. Just as Washington must have drawn resolve from the overarching purpose of the American Revolution, so too can leaders revive their energies 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 some leaders respond with increased remoteness, feeling that it’s too painful or awkward to engage with people they might have to let go. Don’t do it. You can gain immense energy from embracing your people’s 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 for their sake.

Another way we’ve seen leaders motivate themselves is by tapping into their intellectual curiosity—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. When hotel bookings started to fall off this past winter, he came up with an innovative plan to allow customers to exchange their stock at its pre-collapse, July 2008 value for credit at his hotels. When things are so quiet, “You have to do things out of the box," he told The New York Times. “I’ve been thinking about what could I do to turn things around." Such creativity and can-do spirit provides 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 and spending real time with them. Let their belief in your innate abilities feed your confidence and spirit. The old saying, “It’s lonely at the top," is pabulum. It’s only as lonely at the top as you let it be.

Your question is a good reminder that leadership has different seasons. It’s pretty straightforward to find personal motivation during an upswing.

In the heat of battle, however, you need to dig deeper and find your “indomitable soul" so that you can share your motivation and spirit with the people who need your leadership most.

Adapted from Winning. (HarperBusiness Publishers, 2005), by Jack and Suzy Welch.

Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com. Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.