Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Leadership motivation

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Leadership motivation:
What motivates some people to become leaders?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Why is it that some people lead while others simply follow? How do seemingly ordinary individuals become influential world leaders? Moreover, what motivates people to take on everyday leadership roles in organisations, at school or university, within sporting teams, and even within social groups?
In the context of modern organisations, leadership is seen as the key to success. But simply knowing how to lead or knowing what good leadership looks like are not sufficient. It is becoming increasingly clear that having the motivation to lead plays an important role in making effective leaders.
This chapter will aim to shed greater light on leadership as a psychological phenomenon by taking a closer look at its motivational aspects. It is hoped that by the end of this chapter that you will have gained further insight into what makes people want to take on leadership roles, how motivated leaders become effective leaders, and hopefully take away some tips on improving your own motivation to be a leader.

Background to the psychological study of leadership[edit | edit source]

Leadership is a word commonly associated with concepts such as charisma, power, and influence. Most people have some idea of what leadership means to them, however from a psychological perspective, leaders are individuals who exercise greater influence than the average member of a group (Burton, Westen, & Kowalski, 2012). The psychological study of leadership has traditionally focused on the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of leadership styles and leadership personality traits (Burton, Westen, & Kowalski, 2012).

Leadership styles[edit | edit source]

Lewin (1989) pioneered research on this[which?] topic, identifying three key leadership styles – autocratic leadership, democratic leadership, and laissez-faire leadership. Autocratic leaders generally make all the decisions and lead in a controlling manner. Democratic leaders encourage group decision-making and foster a sense of collaboration amongst themselves and group members. Finally, laissez-faire leaders intervene as little as possible in decision making, taking a ‘back-seat’ in their leadership style.

In addition to these leadership styles, transformational leadership is widely considered to be one of the most effective and preferred styles of leadership (Bass, 1985; Romano, 2007). Typically, transformational leaders achieve greater results from their followers by encouraging and inspiring them to look beyond their own interests toward those that benefit the group as a whole. These leaders are perceived as being confident, respected, trusted and optimistic; are thought to possess ideals, morals and extraordinary capabilities; and inspire team spirit, innovation, and individualised consideration (Antonakis, et al. 2003; Bass, 1985; Romano, 2007). Well-known leaders who are recognized as being transformational leaders include Martin Luther King Jnr., Bill Gates, John F. Kennedy and Elon Musk [1].

Leadership personality traits[edit | edit source]

In terms of personality psychology, leadership trait models have pointed towards unique leadership qualities that promote followership and predict effective leadership (Romano, 2007). The basic premise of the trait approach is that there are some characteristics that differentiate leaders from non-leaders. Research into the five-factor model, or ‘Big Five’ personality traits (Costa & McCrae, 1992) has found successful leaders to rate highly on domains of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, indicating that they tend to be more outgoing, kind, attentive, and hardworking. On the other hand, ineffective leaders tend to score higher on narcissism and can be perceived as more arrogant, untrustworthy, and insensitive (Anderson, 2006).

Motivational theories of leadership[edit | edit source]

Motivation is the force that gives human behaviour energy and direction (Reeve, 2015). In the context of leadership, higher motivation tends to facilitate goal orientation, increased effort and persistence, and the drive to overcome setbacks and challenges (Felfe & Schyns, 2014). As such behaviours are crucial when aspiring to leadership positions it stands to reason that motivation plays a vital role in leadership.

Leadership Motive Pattern[edit | edit source]

“Power is like fire: It can do useful things; it can be fun to play with and to watch; but it must be constantly guarded and trimmed back, lest it burn and destroy” (Winter, 1973)

The leadership motive pattern is a motivational theory of leadership which argues that some people are driven to lead due to an implicit human need for power (McClelland, 1982; Reeve, 2015). Implicit motives are unconscious needs that prompt people to act in certain ways, and are fairly reliable indicators of how people feel, think, and behave (Reeve, 2015; Steinmann, Dörr, Schultheiss, & Maier, 2015). The three major implicit motives are considered to be the need for achievement, the need for affiliation, and the need for power. Implicit motives are experience-based and fundamentally driven by the desire to experience particular emotional experiences. They are also reactive and active. Essentially this means that they can be ‘switched on’ when we experience a certain pattern of enjoyable feelings, but we can also learn which environments and situations will invoke such feelings and actively seek them out (McClelland, 1982). Using the need for power as an example, receiving a standing ovation for a dance recital, or being left in charge of your younger siblings can make you experience a spike in arousal and blood pressure accompanied by higher levels of adrenaline, testosterone, and epinephrine – hormones associated with excitement and general arousal states. The feelings which arise from this experience – satisfaction, accomplishment, recognition, and the ability to influence others – have a strong positive effect on the person who then seeks out situations which will allow them to feel the same way again (Reeve, 2015).

The need for power[edit | edit source]

The need for power is the “desire to make the physical and social world conform to one’s personal image or plan for it” (Winter & Stewart, 1978) and involves wanting to have impact, control, and influence (Winter, 1973). The table below highlights how each of these factors effects power in different ways, allowing those who have a high need for power to gain and stay in leadership positions.

Figure 1. The implicit need for power is a motivating force for leadership

Table 1

Three desires for individuals with a high need for power

IMPACT Allows power-needing individuals to establish power
CONTROL Allows power-needing individuals to maintain power
INFLUENCE Allows power-needing individuals to expand their power

(Based on Reeve, 2015, p. 202)

Foder and Smith (1982) and Winter and Stewart (1978) have conducted studies in order to test how the need for power influences leadership tendencies. They observed that when groups of strangers were made to interact with one another, power-seeking individuals spoke more than others and were also seen as having exerted more influence in the group setting. However, these individuals were not liked more than others despite being more vocal, and when required to accomplish a set of tasks, groups with high-need-for-power members produced poorer outcomes than other groups. These findings indicate that when it comes to leadership, power-seeking individuals are mostly concerned with asserting their authority over others, regardless of the outcomes (Reeve, 2015).

The leadership motive pattern is a unique expression of the implicit need for power (McClelland, 1975; Reeve, 2015). It involves (1) a high need for power, (2) a low need for affiliation, and (3) a high level of inhibition. This pattern suggests that those who are motivated to lead feel the need to exert their influence, are unconcerned about being liked by others, and are highly self-disciplined individuals (Reeve, 2015). Therefore, this theory of leadership motivation argues that people are driven to take on leadership roles due to their implicit desires for power which require having impact, control, and influence over others. Moreover, this desire for power manifests in a specific pattern which effectively enables these individuals to pursue and attain leadership positions (Steinmann et al., 2015).

Motivation to Lead (MtL)[edit | edit source]

“MtL is an individual’s preferences to strive for a leadership position” (Felfe & Schyns, 2014)

Figure 2. Questions relating to the three factors of MtL

Emerging research into the motivation behind wanting to lead and seeking out leadership roles has attempted to move away from traditional leadership research paradigms that construe leadership as something innately determined. The Motivation to Lead (MtL) is a relatively recent theory of leadership motivation which argues that leadership is a fundamentally learned behaviour, not an innate characteristic or quality, that explains individuals differences in leadership tendency. Originally theorised by Chan and Drasgow (2001), MtL is defined as a construct which “affects a leader’s, or leader-to-be’s, decisions to assume leadership training, roles, and responsibilities, and that affect his or her intensity of effort at leading and persistence as a leader" (Chan & Drasgow, 2001).

Individual differences in leadership motivation are underpinned by three key expressions of MtL: (1) affective MtL (2) social-normative MtL and (3) non-calculative/calculative MtL (Chan & Drasgow, 2001; Felfe & Shyns, 2014). Affective MtL arises when an individual identifies with a particular leadership role and feels an intrinsic willingness to assume a leadership role. Those who are motivated by affective MtL take on leadership positions and responsibilities without feeling external pressures to do so and do not anticipate receiving any benefits or advantages from their position of influence - in other words, they simply like to lead. Social-normative MtL arises when individuals assume a leadership role as a response to pressure from societal norms. Those who are motivated by social-normative MtL feel a sense of moral obligation, duty, or responsibility to lead. Positions of leadership generally involve responsibilities and 'costs' as well as benefits and ‘perks’. Non-calculative MtL arises when an individual does not consider the burdensome responsibilities of leadership and instead chooses to lead in order to maintain group harmony. Conversely, calculative MtL arises when an individual calculates the potential benefits of taking on a leadership role and chooses to lead if there is a clear self-advantage (Chan & Drasgow, 2001).

Consider the follow examples:

Non-calculative MtL/Calculative MtL
Helen is a member of the PTA group at her son’s primary school. There are quite a few strong personalities in the group and they are finding it increasingly difficult to get things done under the current leadership. As Helen has grown up in the community and sent two other children to the school, she decides to take on the position of president of the PTA in order to ensure harmony in the group, despite the fact that she knows how challenging this role will be.
Felix plays for his high school soccer team. Being a senior and a consistently good player, Felix is asked to be the team’s captain. Although he doesn’t have much interest in being the captain, he weighs the decision up considering the fact that he would get additional time off from class as well as more time on the field as captain. Felix decides to become captain of the soccer team because of the benefits it would provide him
Figure 3. Felix is motivated by calculative MtL to be captain of the football team
Affective MtL
Sarah works at PETA and is an animal-lover who is passionate about animal rights and welfare. A management position as director of marketing and social media opens up and Sarah decides to apply. Although the role requires long hours and a lot of commitment, Sarah is motivated to take on this leadership position because she believes that she can do it well and identifies with the type of work she would be doing. She likes the thought of being in a position to effect positive change for animal rights and welfare.
Social-cultural MtL
Michael is a long-term Government Public Servant, and after close to 15 years of service is looking forward to moving on to a different career path. However, Michael’s supervisor recently quit and now he is being asked to step up and take this leadership role. Despite the fact that he doesn’t want to, Michael agrees to assume this position because he feels he has a responsibility to do so given his extensive experience in the organisation.

Antecedents to MtL[edit | edit source]

Several antecedents, or precursors, are thought to reliably predict the Motivation to Lead (Chan & Drasgow, 2001). These include: leadership self-efficacy, leadership experience, sociocultural values, and personality traits.

Self-efficacy is “the conviction that one can successfully execute a given behaviour required to produce certain outcomes” (Bandura, 1977; Felfe & Shyns, 2014). In simpler terms, self-efficacy can be equated to a belief in one’s own abilities, and higher self-efficacy is associated with the willingness to seek out and attempt more challenging tasks as well as greater fortitude in the face of obstacles (Bandura, 1977). Of all of the antecedents to MtL mentioned above, self-efficacy is thought to be the closest and most reliable predictor of MtL. Felfe and Shyns (2014) argue that individuals who possess a higher self-efficacy are more likely to feel confident in their abilities to meet the expectations that a leadership role entails. This self-belief in leadership ability allows individuals to incorporate the leadership role into their sense of self (i.e. their idea of who they are), and doing so motivates them to seek out leadership opportunities and assume leadership roles (Guillen, Mayo, & Korotov, 2015).

Leadership experience simply refers to how much past experience in leadership an individual has, and it is thought that the quantity and quality of past leadership experience can help predict the propensity for leadership (Fiedler & Garcia, 1987). Leadership self-efficacy and leadership experience are thought to interact with MtL in the form of a feedback loop (Chan, Li, Ho, Chernyshenko, & Sam, 2013). Essentially, individuals with higher leadership self-efficacy and more past experience in leadership roles will generally have greater motivation to take on leadership positions. In doing so, it is theorised that these individuals will have greater exposure to leadership training and development activities which will invariably raise their knowledge, abilities, and skills for leading. This will not only increase the individual’s leadership experience, but will also strengthen the belief in their leadership abilities (i.e. their self-efficacy), and in turn these factors will increase one’s MtL.

Sociocultural values and personality traits are more distant antecedents to MtL (Chan & Drasgow, 2001). As the MtL model posits that leadership is learned, sociocultural values categorised into collectivism and individualism (Schwartz, 1994) can account for the different meanings and values that people ascribe to leadership. Personality traits, as conceptualised by the five-factor model (Costa & McCrae, 1992), are also distantly predictive of MtL. Importantly, each factor of MtL – affective, social-normative, and non-calculative/calculative – has different antecedents which Chan and Drasgow (2001) found to be consistent across three samples representing different cultural contexts and gender groups. These are summarised in the table below.

Table 2

Summary of the three-factor model of MtL

Type of MtL Motivating factors Antecedents
Affective MtL
  • Individuals lead because they like to do so
  • Identifies with the leadership role
  • Feels an intrinsic willingness to be a leader
  • Past leadership experience
  • High leadership self-efficacy
  • Extraversion (personality trait)
  • Individualism (socio-cultural value)
Social-normative MtL
  • Individuals lead because they feel social pressure to do so
  • Feel a sense of duty, moral obligation, or responsibility to be a leader
  • Past leadership experience
  • Leadership self-efficacy
  • Agreeableness and conscientiousness (personality traits)
  • Collectivism (socio-cultural value)
Non-calculative/calculative MtL
  • Not calculating the burdensome outcomes of leadership, and choosing to lead in order to maintain group harmony
  • Calculating the potential benefits of leadership, and choosing to lead if there is a clear benefit or advantage to do so
  • Agreeableness (personality trait)
  • Collectivism - non-calculative (socio-cultural value)
  • Individualism - calculative (socio-cultural value)

Outcomes of leadership motivation: More effective leaders?[edit | edit source]

Leadership effectiveness may be determined by a variety of factors including individual and group performance and efficiency, cultivating team morale and satisfaction, and achieving desired outcomes and goals. But is leadership effectiveness affected by the leader’s motivation to assume their role? There seems to be a general consensus in the literature that leadership motivation does indeed have an impact on leadership effectiveness (Felfe & Schyns, 2014; Hendricks & Payne, 2007; McClelland & Boyatzis, 1982; Romano, 2007; Stiehl, Felfe, Elprana, & Gatzka, 2015; Winter, 2010).

Figure 4. Leadership motive pattern can predict the effectiveness of former U.S. Presidents

The three-fold pattern of a high need for power, low need for affiliation, and high inhibition which characterise the leadership motive pattern is thought to result in effective leaders (McClelland & Boyatzis, 1982; Reeve, 2015). High inhibition appears to be the key to this, as leaders who are motivated by their need for power but who are able to exercise self-discipline and keep their power under control, are generally productive, successful, and rated highly by workers (Reeve, 2015). This theory has been applied to assess the effectiveness of past U.S. Presidents. Winter (2010) proposed that five variables defined presidential effectiveness: (1) direct presidential effectiveness (2) perceived greatness (3) performance on social issues (4) performance on economic issues and (5) international relations. After studying and coding a variety of presidential speeches and letters, Winter (2010) found that the leadership motive pattern significantly correlated with all five aspects of presidential effectiveness, suggesting that the effectiveness of U.S. Presidents can be determined to a large extent by their expression of leadership motive pattern (Reeve, 2015).

Steinmann and colleagues (2015) have also tested the relationship between leadership motive pattern and leadership effectiveness. Using managers from various German companies and NGOs as the sample group, the researchers used self-report questionnaires to assess leadership performance based on team goal attainment and developments in income, and picture story exercises to measure leadership motive pattern. Contrary to earlier research (McClelland & Boyatzis, 1982), their results indicated that high levels in all three components of the leadership motive pattern were most conducive to better leadership performance (Steinmann et al., 2015). This suggests that while power under control is important for effective leadership, so too is the ability to build relationships with one’s subordinates and colleagues. This finding seems logical given the importance that follower perceptions have been shown to have on leadership (Guillen, Mayo, & Korotov, 2015; Ryan & Currie, 2014; Van Vugt, 2006).

MtL has also been found to increase the effectiveness of leadership training in an organisational context (Stiehl et al., 2015). Conducting a longitudinal study across a variety of Swiss organisations, the researchers found that individuals with a high MtL achieved better results in their leadership training. This was attributed to the theory that being motivated to lead increases interest in leadership-relevant training, making it easier to learn and acquire new leadership skills. Individuals high in MtL also displayed more effective leadership behaviour after one year. These leaders achieved more personal growth as a result of learning more leadership competencies through training, were found to positively influence the team work climate, produced more satisfied and motivated team members, and were given more responsibilities one year after the initial training (Stiehal et al., 2015). These findings highlight the important role that MtL plays in producing effective leaders.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter has addressed the question ‘what motivates some people to become leaders?’ by drawing on two key leadership motivation theories. The leadership motive pattern gives us a classic theory of leadership motivation based on the implicit human need for power. From this perspective, power and the desire for impact, control, and influence, is what motivates some people to become leaders. Motivation to Lead (MtL) gives us a more contemporary perspective on leadership motivation based on the premise that leadership is learned. Self-efficacy, leadership experience, personality traits, and socio-cultural values play a key role in facilitating the emergence of affective, social-cultural, and non-calculative/calculative MtL.

It is also clear that the effectiveness of leaders is to some extent dependent on their motivations to become leaders in the first place. This has practical implications, particularly in the organisational context. Understanding the motivations of managers, team leaders, and CEOs could help predict their potential effectiveness as leaders. It could also enable more customised leadership training courses aimed at appealing to specific motivational attitudes.

The scope of this chapter is limited and so further areas of investigation include: leadership motivation across different cultural contexts, gender differences in leadership motivation, as well as leadership motivation across the life span.

How can I increase my motivation to become a leader?[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Leadership is learned, not innate

You cannot become a leader overnight or by flicking a magic switch, however there are some practical tips that you can consider to improve your motivation to become a leader.

  • Get to know yourself – Explore your strengths and capabilities as a potential leader with the aim of building and strengthening your leadership self-efficacy. It doesn’t matter if you’ve have 10 years or 10 minutes of leadership experience (or none at all), reflecting on the skills, qualities, and attributes that you have can help to boost self-belief and confidence in your leadership abilities
  • Get more (quality) experience – If you are someone who has already had some leadership experience, find more opportunities to diversify your leadership skills and improve the quality of your experience. Quality leadership experience will strengthen your self-efficacy and improve your motivation to lead.
  • Figure out what good leadership means to you – In addition to looking at your strengths, explore your own social and cultural values relating to leadership. Also have a think about the type of boss/supervisor/Prime Minister or President you would like to have and what attitudes, actions, and attributes they possess.

Ultimately, leaders are created, not born or innately programmed. Understanding and cultivating the motivation to aspire to leadership positions can unlock the leadership potential in all of us.

See also[edit | edit source]

Transformational Leadership

Need for power

Big Five Personality Traits

References[edit | edit source]

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Stiehl, S. K., Felfe, J., Elprana, G., & Gatzka, M. B. (2015). The role of motivation to lead for leadership training effectiveness, International Journal of Training and Development, 19(2), doi: 10.1111/ijtd.12051

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External links[edit | edit source]