How to Fire Up People—and Make It Last

Fire 1.jpg

By Thomas J. Lee

Have you ever thought about the imagery of fire in leadership?

Fire comes up often in the thinking and casual conversation of leaders, especially in business. When I speak of fire, it's the noun for combustion I have in mind—not the verb for dismissal.

For example, after a long day, you may tell a friend that you were “putting out fires all day.”

Or you may anticipate resistance to a proposal by saying you expect “a firestorm of opposition” or "some fiery criticism."

In better circumstances, you may come back from a terrific workshop or conference “all fired up” to put some new ideas into practice.

If you are trying to persuade people to embrace a new product or priority, you may speak of “lighting a prairie fire” of support for it.

I have found two other fire-related images particularly helpful. That is because they draw such a vivid contrast between a popular but ineffectual approach to motivation and a less popular but spectacularly successful approach.

The imagery for the popular, so-so approach is to “light a fire under” a person. We have all used that phrasing. Essentially, it refers to motivating someone from the outside in.

Follow that logic, and you soon rely on extrinsic inducements for people: rewarding Jones with a bonus and penalizing Smith by sidelining her for a promotion. Both, of course, are common. But here’s the thing: While they may affect the work that people are doing in the short term, they rarely lead to extraordinary and sustained levels of engagement over the long term. So you miss out on the creativity and innovation they can bring to their work.

Moreover, your own reputation is riding in the balance; your capability and disposition, as perceived by others, will not be what you want it to be. People will likely see you as unfeeling, uncaring, bossy, and just plain awful. That isn’t exactly an algorithm for building a top-tier team.

On the other hand, the imagery for the spectacularly successful approach is to “light a fire inside” a person. It refers to motivating someone from the inside out. Follow this logic, and you find yourself reaching for intrinsic inducements: the joy of camaraderie, the excitement of working with talented peers, the satisfaction of reaching an ambitious goal, the beauty of work well done. This is much better.

Now, be forewarned: The better approach does not come without some risk. The risk is in assuming or convincing yourself that the intrinsic reward is real if it actually isn't, if people don't truly feel the satisfaction but instead feel neglect because they didn't receive any reward—intrinsic or extrinsic. That's an easy error for leaders to commit. Indeed it’s so easy it happens almost by default. On the other hand, if the intrinsic satisfaction is genuine, and if it is credible, it can be a very, very powerful motivator.

You actually know all this from your own experience, and so do I. Moreover, if you have gone through one of our Master Class or Servant Leader classes, you'll recall that we begin by asking everyone to describe the coolest project or team they ever worked on. Nine times out of ten, they describe something that gave them enormous pride and satisfaction. It's rare for anyone to speak in terms of a monetary bonus or a raise or a promotion as part of the cool factor.

So it’s under, or it’s inside. Just two words, two prepositions, themselves unrelated to fire, but when coupled with the imagery of fire, they are enough to separate an uncommonly good approach from a commonly bad one.

Don’t try to light a fire under people. Instead, light a fire inside them. You'll be glad you did, and so will they.