There are two musical instruments I would like to play. One is the saxophone and the other is the guitar.
When I was in the fifth grade, my parents placed an order to rent a saxophone for the following school year so that I could join the band and learn to play. Over the summer, we moved to a different city where band started in fifth grade. I was out of sequence with the school system, and I wasn't able to take private lessons.
I didn't learn to play the saxophone that year.
Somewhere in my teen years, I thought about playing the guitar. I eventually got one — I think I was about 18 or 19. It sat in my closet until I was in the Navy and I had a roommate with a guitar.
With my roommate's coaxing and help, I learned to play — a very little bit. We were assigned to different submarines, and I put down the guitar. I have no idea where that guitar is or what happened to it.
That was about 25 or 26 years ago.
This past Christmas, my youngest daughter asked for a guitar, and she got one.
She will be leaving home this fall to attend the residential honors high school that her older sister graduated from a few weeks ago. In short, both of my girls will be out of the house starting in August.
As I thought about my youngest daughter leaving home to attend school, it occurred to me that she would only be with me full-time for about eight more months. If I wanted to do something with her to build memories and relationship, the time was short.
When she got her guitar, I also thought about my goal of learning to play the guitar.
Suddenly, the goal that first surfaced over 30 years ago had a new meaning. It was now about something I could do with my daughter.
The “why” of the goal moved from the sort-of-a-neat-idea category to the I've-got-to-do-it-now-because-it's-very-emotional category.
The guitars in the picture with this post are ours. My daughter's is on the right. Mine is on the left.
For leaders of any kind — managers, supervisors, business owners, coaches, teachers, or parents — the lesson in this story is key to understanding what might motivate someone to take action.
It's the “why” not the “what” that gets people moving.
I had a new guitar in my home as quickly as I could make it happen when the emotion behind the goal got big enough. That emotion wasn't about money, recognition, or any other externally applied consequence. And buying the guitar was not, ultimately, about the guitar. It was about time with my daughter and memories.
When you find ways to communicate with people about issues bigger and more emotional to them — to them is the key point here — they will move to action to accomplish the goal.
I am not suggesting that external motivators have no impact.
I am suggesting that looking for the personal, emotional hook and clearly communicating the connection between the task or goal and that emotional hook will get you more high-energy, discretionary effort than anything else you can do as a leader.
In a post about finding what motivates other people, I shared some insights that might help you in the process of finding that emotional hook. It's not always easy. It can often be done.
By the way, I still don't own or know how to play a saxophone. I guess the “why” isn't big enough yet.