Lots of people talk about leadership – including us if you review other blog posts we’ve made on www.Waddellgrp.com. People talk about how you get your team members to do what you need them to do. How closely should you manage? How should you give difficult feedback?
This article will approach leadership from a different perspective: What motivates your team members to do their best? We’ll start by going down a historical lane and examining what one ancient general believed motivated people to go to war. While not the whole truth, I believe we might find enough here to give us insight into how we might manage those within our charge.
A Walk in the Dusty Past
It was the year 431 BCE and three regional powers in Greece were angst ridden. One was powerful Sparta, with a culture and army driven to be the best. They oppressed the local slave population called the Helots who farmed their fields while the sons of Sparta spent their days in training to be the best warriors in Greece. Another powerful city state was Athens. They were an economic powerhouse with thousands of ships, used both for protection and for commerce. The third powerhouse was Corinth. This up and coming city was engaged in colonization and building a name for themselves among the Greek states.
The political upshot was that war broke out between these three powers. Before long one of the Athenian generals was given the boot for failing to save an Athenian city. His name was Thucydidies and he spent his time recording the events of the war. Along the way he distilled the primary causes of the Peloponnesian war as Fear, Honor and Money.
At the beginning of the war, Sparta was driven by fear. This may seem counter to our modern perspective with movies like 300 telling of the brave deeds of the Spartans. While they were amazing warriors, they lived in fear of their slaves, the Helots. If the Spartan army were to go out and fight on a field far from home, the abused Helots might justifiably rise up and attack the wives and children in Sparta.
Athens was a thalassocracy, in that it used its ships and navy to project power. Modern equivalents would be the British in the 19th century or the USA today. They dominated the Mediterranean and they used their navy and trading ships in commerce to accumulate an enormous war chest. Led by the famous politician Pericles, they used their wealth to expand project their power. More wealth meant more ships, more trade, and more wealth. This led to the advantage that their battles were often fought away from Athens as they kept on the offensive. Athens itself was rarely at risk.
Corinth was the upstart, looking to establish their credibility by accumulating honors. We don’t typically view honor in the ancient Greek sense. Honor was the other side of the coin of accomplishment. In our age we point to prideful individuals and say, “They are arrogant.” This would be akin to the Greek word hubris. In ancient Greek myths, great deeds engendered great honors. Corinth was always striving to prove that it belonged at the big powers table. It did this by waging war, stealing colonies and building coalitions to win the Peloponnesian war.
Many historians have taken the Thucydidiean triad (fear, honor, money) and sought to explain why some wars took place or – in the case of Donald Kagan’s The Origin of War and the Preservation of Peace – why some things like the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t lead to combat.
In our experience, we have seen these motivations play out in business witheach form of motivation, and it’s reciprocal: So what motivates people? We can talk about the Spartan strategy being driven by fear – and they were fearful – but that culture didn’t come from the top. It came from the collective activities of the people of the city to oppress the Helots in slavery. The Spartan strategy was hamstrung in that they never felt comfortable going very far from home, or from being independent.
We see the same thing in cultures of teams. Sometimes you must crack the whip to motivate people who are struggling. This can create explosive, effective results in a short period of time. However, the culture of fear has a long-term impact. If you create a culture of rulers and followers, your followers will not feel comfortable in exploring new territory. Likewise, leaders who rule in fear must themselves beware of running roughshod over intelligent people whose ideas are suppressed. This will not create a long-term culture of teamwork.
Greed can be an effective motivator. Indeed, when you have precious talent, you should pay them accordingly. You can always hire the mercenary talent who has built a career of being excellent, knowing they are great and charging for it. These fixers can provide results over short or long terms.
One of the hurdles of hiring people strictly motivated by the paycheck is that you know what will motivate them to leave. Further, they can be difficult team members. They usually are in the contract for themselves, for the paycheck and to get the project done. If they are getting paid, great. If they stop receiving remuneration for their contribution, expect them to move elsewhere. Other team members might perceive that they aren’t in it for the team and not trust them to have the best interest of the team at heart. As the Athenians said to the Melians, the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.
This does not make Honor the great catch all and the “right answer” for this test. Honor as a motivator creates strong drive in people to be great. The best players will gravitate to the best teams to work on the best projects and create the best results. And yet, how do you know? As the Greeks well knew, hubris and pride could drive people to risk more than is prudent. Or to have their egos write checks their abilities couldn’t cash.
When we look at our Hierarchies of Teams considering honor, elite team members want to be challenged and improved. They want the best for the team, for the company, for the project. Because of this, people who are driven by hubris and not by honor usually self-select out. They lack the humility to constantly be improving themselves. The true honor driven individuals seek out great deeds and expect the accolades that accompany them. If you have an honor driven team member and you do not recognize their excellence, they will resent it. And they are right to do so.
The Greeks engaged in a war that dragged on for almost three decades as their city-states fought for supremacy in honor, in power, and in wealth. When we look at projects, we recognize that each team has all three motivators. At times you use recognition, bonuses or corrective interviews to motivate and keep a team hurtling toward the completion of the project. We strive to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each form of motivation. More important, as project managers, we seek to understand how our team members are best motivated. What gets the best results from them?
At the Waddell Group, our project managers strive to be honor driven. We do great deeds and glory in their accomplishment. But we also look in the mirror and remind ourselves to be humble, knowing that the company, the team, and the project are the most important.