Redefining Passion In Leadership


In your leadership journey you have undoubtedly heard about the need for passion. It’s true that passion is essential to excellence. But I find leadership passion is very misunderstood. Passion comes in many different packages. When we think of passion we often go to images of highly charismatic, often dramatic, leaders giving impassioned speeches to their teams or organizations. In reality, many of these leaders are not what I would call truly passionate. Yes, they are charismatic and often dramatic. However, when you look underneath the covers at everyday actions you often see self-interest rather than true passion. True passion comes in three forms. Passion for excellence, passion for people and passion for clients/customers.

Passion for Excellence

Research has identified two types of motivations driving competition and achievement. Mastery (also known as task) and ego. Leaders who are motivated to perform by ego have to win in order to feel good about themselves. If they lose it is not just another check mark in the loss column, standings, artistic critical review or earnings report. It is a measure of their self-worth. If leaders motivated by ego do not win they are miserable. They cannot separate their self-worth from the outcome of a performance. They do not understand the axiom who you are is not what you do.

Individuals who are likely motivated by ego have run companies, teams and organizations into failure, bankruptcy and in some cases personal criminal convictions. The ironic (perhaps better stated as tragic) feature of these situations is that the vast majority of these individuals were already extremely wealthy and successful when they committed the transgressions that crippled them, their families, their teams and their organizations.

In sports, you see the ego orientation as individuals drawing attention to themselves at the expense of the team. Their complaints are personal rather than team oriented. Their ego orientation motivates them to get to the top of their field. But when the going gets tough true colors show. If the ego is not feed they act in a way they feel will restore attention. This is a dangerous dynamic in any form of performance.

The mastery orientation towards performance involves quite a different motivation towards success. Mastery oriented individuals want to win as much as ego oriented individuals. Let’s face it, winning is more fun than losing. As the name suggests, mastery oriented individuals are motivated by mastering their craft. Their primary enjoyment comes from the great shot, technique, business strategy, or relationship breakthrough. Winning is the result of perfecting their craft rather than a need to feel worthy.

Mastery oriented performers understand the axiom who you are is not what you do. They understand if you are in the game at the highest level you will not win every contest. If they fall short they examine what they need to do to improve and focus their energies in these areas. They do so systematically and consistently. They are no less disappointed than ego oriented performers by failure but their reactions are quite different. The focus is on excellence rather than superiority.

Passion for excellence is motivated by mastery, not ego.

Passion for People

Genuinely passionate leaders care about those they lead. They are motivated to develop others and often receive more joy from the achievements of team members than any personal accomplishments, accolades or bonuses. They are humble about the positions of power and leadership they have attained. They understand they did not get to their current position without others who took a genuine interest in their career. They learned from others along the way and express gratitude to those who helped them get where they are today.

You cannot be a genuinely passionate leader if you are threatened by the accomplishments of others or those you lead. Many leaders spout the clichés about caring about people, putting people first, developing people, etc. However, when you examine their actions you often see things like:

  • Deflecting blame towards others or making excuses when things do not turn out as planned
  • Letting those they lead do the “grunt work” for a presentation and taking over in the end when it is time to present to senior leadership
  • Being overly concerned with image, reputation or public persona. If you are passionate about others they will be passionate about you.

Passion for Customers

Every business is ultimately about customers. I’m using this term interchangeably with clients. An old leadership adage is you can’t be a leader without followers. The same principle holds true for customers. A company ceases to exist without customers. An athletic coach will be out of a job without people in the stands. Poor service results in customers voting with their feet.

If you are truly passionate about your customers you are not concerned with the buying decision. In fact, you will rarely have to “sell.” This will happen naturally if your customers believe you truly care about them. That means partnering with them to find the best solution for their needs. Sophisticated customers understand the difference between sales and professionalism. Here’s a gut check for you on this concept. If you truly believe a client would be better served by someone else (or another product) do you try to overcome objections or let them know they’d be better off elsewhere this time around?

I often find leaders do not think of their internal colleagues as “customers” in the same way they think of an external customer purchasing their product or service. Leaders are well served to think about their internal colleagues in the same way. Ask yourself these questions as a leader:

  • Am I as responsive to my internal colleagues as I am to external customers?
  • Would my colleagues experience me as someone who is invested in their success?
  • Do I give my time, experience and resources to my colleagues when I don’t see a direct benefit to me?

Don’t confuse true leadership passion with charisma, energy or rah-rah speeches. People can have all these qualities and lack genuine passion. If you focus on excellence, people and customers your passion will show. Genuinely passionate leaders care more about others than themselves.

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