I recently read an outstanding article by Omar Khan called “Liberating Passion: How the World’s Best Leaders Produce Winning Results.” The article resonated with me because I had just returned from conducting several leadership programs for a client in Chicago. During the sessions, the question of how to “liberate passion” within employees came up numerous times. And so it was with considerable interest that I read Mr. Khan’s piece.
Khan suggests that, although passion is the “leadership software extraordinaire” when it comes to inspiring performance, few leaders are able to define it. More importantly, many leaders assume that inducing passion in others is exceedingly challenging due to the ambiguous and unpredictable nature of emotions. However, the author points out that “passion is most natural in everything we do as adults”: from sports to politics to art, passion is abundant. Except, it seems, at work. The real problem, then, is not how to create passion. It’s to discover and eliminate what kills passion.
Companies kill passion in many ways: by criticizing too often and praising too infrequently; by failing to establish clear goals; by inconsistent treatment of people; by failing to coach effectively. This is a short list, of course. So what can leaders do to fire up passion in their people? Khan, who has worked with the likes of 3M, Motorola, Microsoft, Ritz-Carlton, and Johnson & Johnson, has some answers.
The first so-called passion liberator is Intimacy. “By intimacy,” Khan writes, “I mean that people invest themselves in sharing who they are and in learning about their colleagues.” But simply spending time together won’t create the type of intimacy required for passion to ignite. Team leaders should start by asking questions of their people to get a sense of where people feel most misunderstood. “Such discussions…remove unnecessary and stifling layers of psychological resistance and misunderstanding that otherwise give rise to unhelpful and often inaccurate perceptions of each other,” says Khan. “The result is more intimacy and fewer barriers in working together.”
The second passion liberator is Creating a Visionary Purpose. Khan suggests that typical corporate visions (“We want to be the best in the world at _________!”) usually fail to excite anyone except senior management because they’re too broad and ambiguous. Visionary purposes must possess certain characteristics to have the desired effect. For example:
- Corporate objectives must be clear and compelling
- People must know how they can contribute to achieving the objectives
- People must believe the objectives can be met
- People must believe their growth in the company is related to achieving the objectives
- People must feel they would be proud to achieve the objectives
The third passion liberator is Claiming Accountability. Khan suggests that lack of accountability is a great passion killer. We’ve all heard the excuses for why something wasn’t or couldn’t be done: lack of time, a lousy boss, difficult employees, etc. But how often do we really do everything within our power to make a difference? Not often enough, asserts Khan: “Taking ourselves off the hook might temporarily ease our anxiety and frustration. However, it also diminishes vitality and engagement…Such a tendency to assume accountability and take action is perhaps the quintessence of leadership — a can-do determination that translates into results.”
The fourth passion liberator is Living Vitality. Khan suggests making a “to-don’t” list, i.e. a list of things that sap our time and energy without adding value. Is a useless weekly meeting taking up precious time? How about a monthly report that no one reads? Eliminate two of these items a month and watch your productivity and energy rise.
The fifth passion liberator is Appreciating Potential. This liberator involves encouraging and maximizing talent. Interestingly, Khan suggests that instead of focusing on areas we need to improve, we should “concentrate on building on our strengths first…As a manager, you should spend the bulk of your time nurturing your company’s best performers, rather than correcting those who require the most help.” While this is sometimes easier said than done, the sentiment is on target. Furthermore, managers should “challenge talent to move toward real excellence and ongoing evolution, rather than just coasting along its current plateau.” While not everyone wants to be challenged in this way, it’s important that leaders identify those who do and support them accordingly.
The sixth and final passion liberator is Coaching for Passionate Growth. This liberator has to do with authenticity. If we coach, support, and praise people for the purpose of getting people to obey, says Khan, they will see right through us. Supporting and encouraging others to develop must be done because we take joy in the success of others, not because we want people to carry out orders more diligently. Provide coaching and feedback with the right motives, and desired performance will naturally follow.