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The Leader as Motivator – A review of motivation, self-efficacy and leadership theory.

The Leader as Motivator

Ken Kesey once said, “You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”[1] Research shows that the act of leading “is the ability to influence others in a group.”[2] To understand such influence and to make such a case, one could look to motivational theories and their relationship to leadership style. Richard Daft notes that motivation “refers to the forces either internal or external to a person that arouse enthusiasm and persistence to pursue a certain course of action.” [3] One should know that being a good leader “takes understanding of what motivates others.”[4] Peter Northouse states that, “in practice, leaders use symbols and emotional appeals to focus on group members’ efforts to achieve more than they would in their own self-interest”[5]

Research indicates, “All people have a need for basic income and necessities.”[6] To better interpret these basic desires, one would need to study what motivates those around them. Such a study would help “leaders understand what prompts people to initiate action, what influences their choices, and why they persist in that action over time.”[7] The act of leading is “used to channel motivation into practical use.”[8] One could find many ways in which individuals are motivated. Typically subordinates will look towards “rewards such as salary increases, bonuses, and celebrations [as] good reminders that [they] are appreciated for what they are doing.”[9] While such things motivate many, one must consider that “throughout a lifetime, man’s motivation is influenced by changing ambitions and/or leadership style he works under or socialized with.”[10] Additionally, one must highlight that “the ability to lead and increase motivation in people is not always used properly.”[11] According to Freeman and Edwards, leadership should never be “based on lies, trickery, or manipulation.”[12] A transformational leader and motivator must “fulfill high-level needs and include achievement, recognition, responsibility, and opportunity for growth.”[13] Daft argues that when leaders understand “workers needs, they can design the reward system to reinforce employees for directing energies and priorities toward attainment of shared goals.”[14]

Research looks beyond the rewards that motivate and considers the work atmosphere in which employees operate. Freeman and Stoner indicated, if “an employee feels that they are not being treated fair, they will lack the motivation to work hard.”[15] One notes that recent “studies have found that high employee motivation and high organizational performance and profits go hand in hand.”[16] Organizations appear to have started to take note of such results as they move towards transformational leadership styles in an effort to affect their own bottom lines. Dionne state that a leader, “who promotes confidence in achievement and execution of goals and tasks, speaks optimistically about the future and provides an exciting image of organizational change, exhibits idealized, inspirationally motivating behaviors.”[17]

To understand motivating behaviors, one should account for personalities and the matter of self-efficacy in leadership styles. Research makes a distinction between “negative leaders (termed in the literature ‘personalized’, e.g. Hitler) and positive leadership (termed ‘socialized’, e.g. Gandhi).”[18] Research by Popper and Mayseless illustrate that “personalized leaders are characterized by a high level of narcissi, and exploit others for self-aggrandizement; socialized leaders are characterized by respect of the followers and motivation to contribute to social and moral causes.”[19] While noted that Hitler and Gandhi are certainly extreme examples, this illustrates the spectrum of personality types one will deal with within the context of motivational and transformational leadership theories. One could argue that understanding a leader’s personality type is not enough. Understanding ones personality style often appears to be a complex psychological matter in which “these two types of leaders are rooted in early developmental processes.”[20] In other words, the “motivation to lead has its roots in the conditions of growth in childhood.” [21]To become a transformational leader, “one also needs the motivation to be a leader.”[22] A transformational leader is a socialized leader in that they often display “flexibility, open-mindedness and ability to encourage followers to be creative and innovative.” [23] The problem is that the “psychological literature on leadership, empirical words dealing with leader’s development processes are quite rare.”[24] Additionally, research illustrates the need for an understanding of self-efficacy.

Albert Bandura states that self-efficacy is “a person’s belief in his or her capacity to successfully perform a particular task.”[25] One can argue, “Self-motivated people are goal motivated. Once they conquer one goal, they establish another.”[26] Heslin and Klehe state, “Together with the goals that people set, self-efficacy is one of the most powerful motivational predictors of how well a person will perform at almost every endeavor.”[27] They go on to argue, “A high degree of self-efficacy leads people to work hard and persist in the face of setbacks, as illustrated by many great innovators and politicians who were undeterred by reported obstacles, ridicule, and minimal encouragement.”[28] Bandura believes that most “human motivation in cognitively generated. People motivate themselves and guide their actions anticipatorily by the exercise of forethought.”[29] This strong sense of belief shows that individuals who display a strong self-efficacy “are more confident in their capacity to execute a behavior.”[30] One could argue that such beliefs will have a significant impact “on our goals and accomplishments by influencing personal choice, motivation, and our patterns and emotional reactions.”[31] Popper and Mayseless said that people “who believe in themselves and in their abilities to perform tasks successfully are better suited to leadership roles than those who do not believe in themselves and in their capacities to affect the world.”[32] Heslin and Klehe argue, “Extremely high self-efficacy can lead to excessive risk-taking, hubris and dysfunctional persistence, though in most cases, the resultant failures people experience soon recalibrate their self-efficacy to a more realistic level.”[33]

Understanding the effects of self-efficacy on oneself is useful in leading others, as it is “important they are getting the benefit out of their own actions.”[34] Research indicates, “Long-term benefits are achieved when the employee feels the job could not have been done without them.”[35] Some could agree that while “encouraging messages can raise self-efficacy, attempts to build self-efficacy through verbal persuasions may easily degenerate into empty sermons unless they are soon supported by efficacy affirming experiences.”[36] Popper and Mayseless point to a psychological phenomenon in which motivation for many “is related to the absence of a significant father figure in the [individuals] consciousness.”[37] They see this as a “type of psychological reparation rooted in the longing for an ideal father.”[38] Leaders, who connect with their followers, may be “instrumental in building pride in being associated with the leader and commitment to the leader, which can in turn, provide a commonality for members of the team to embrace.”[39] Such a commitment to the leader will “positively impact team cohesion, and will partially mediate the relationship of idealized influence/inspirationally motivating leadership with team performance.”[40] A leader who is an efficacy builder will “structure situations for them in ways that bring success and avoid placing people in situations prematurely where they are likely to fait often.”[41]


As one can see from research, the matter of motivation is more than skills to move another individual to achieve something.  To find full understanding to complex nuances of motivation one must start with psychology to develop a foundation of understanding this subject. Not only must a leader discover those things that motivate and ignite passion within their subordinates but they must also understand how they view themselves. By evidence in research we know that how ones sees themselves has an impact on how others see them. This transcends rewards based on money or necessities but appears to reach the core of our being. One could argue that effective transformational organizations will chose leaders who have a positive and healthy self-image within the scale between personalized and socialized personality types. A leader who has a healthy self-image and can tap into those areas in others would be more likely to find effectiveness in their leadership style. Some key attributes of such leader would include flexibility, open-mindedness, and the ability to encourage others as well as empower them. One could argue that a leader with a healthy self-image has the capacity to empower their employees and thereby creating effective organizational change while positively affecting the bottom line.



[1] Safire, William and Safir, Leonard (1990). Leadership – A treasury of great quotations for those who aspire to lead. Edison, NJ: Galahad Books., 131

[2] Freeman, R. Edwards & Stoner, James A. (1992). Management 5th Edition.Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.,  1

[3] Daft, Richard L. (2002). The Leadership Experience Second Edition. Mason, OH: South-Western., 275

[4] Freeman & Stoner, 1

[5] Northouse, Peter G. (2001). Leadership Theory and Practice Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 138

[6] Freeman & Stoner, 1

[7] Daft, 275

[8] Freeman & Stoner, 2

[9] Freeman & Stoner, 2

[10] Webb, Robert L. (2009). “Motivational Tools” Good Creek, SC: Retrieved from

[11] Freeman & Stoner, 3

[12] Freeman & Stoner, 3

[13] Daft, 283

[14] Daft, 280

[15] Freeman & Stoner, 3

[16] Daft, 275

[17] Dionne, Shelley D., Yammarino, Francis J., Atwater, Leane E., and Spangler, William D. (2004). “Transformational leadership and team performance.” Journal of Organizational Change Management. Vol. 17 No 2., 184

[18] Popper, Micha and Mayseless, Ofra (2007). “The building blocks of leader development.” Leadership & Organizational Development Journal. Vol. 28, No.7, 665.

[19] Popper and Mayseless, 665

[20] Popper and Mayseless, 665

[21] Popper and Mayseless, 671

[22] Popper and Mayseless, 666

[23] Popper and Mayseless, 669

[24] Popper and Mayseless, 676

[25] Heslin, P.A., & Klehe, U.C. (2006). “Self-Efficacy.” Encyclopedia of Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Vol. 2, 705.

[26] Webb

[27] Heslin and Klehe, 705

[28] Heslin and Klehe, 705

[29] Bandura, Albert (1998). “Self-Efficacy” Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. Vol. 4, 77-81

[30] Bandura, A. (1977). “Self-Efficacy: Towards a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change.” Psychological Review. Vol.84, No. 2, 191-215.

[31] Bandua (1977)

[32] Popper and Mayseless, 668

[33] Helson and Klehe, 707

[34] Freeman and Stoner, 3

[35] Webb

[36] Heslins and Klehe, 707

[37] Popper and Mayseless, 671

[38] Popper and Mayseless, 671

[39] Dionne,, 184

[40] Dionne,, 184

[41] Bandura (1998)


Philip A Foster, MA is a professional life and leadership coach with Maximum Change Inc. He works with leaders to develop their purpose, life balance and achieve greater success; encouraging leaders to take active and consistent steps toward reaching goals and objectives. Specializing in Organization and Strategic Leadership.

Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog | Skype: philip.a.foster | (615) 216-5667

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