How to Motivate an Unmotivated Leader

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As Force Multipliers, our work is so inextricably linked to the work of our Principals, that it can become frustrating, discouraging, and disconcerting when our leaders seem to be lacking the get-up-and-go that they are known for. But leaders are human too, and their motivation and focus can ebb and flow, just like the rest of us. While I do believe that this ebb and flow is typically rare for visionary leaders, it can happen. And it can create anxiety, frustration, and lack of clarity for Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff. After all, how are we supposed to show up as our best as a business partner, when our Principal appears to be phoning it in?

Well, that’s one of the beauties of having a strategic partnership. You lift each other up when the other is down. You lean into the priorities and contribute from your strengths zones. You vent to each other. You work through challenges. You keep each other focused on the big picture. You give each other space and grace. And you have tough conversations if needed to prevent each other from getting stuck.

Look, no one can really motivate another person. Motivation comes from within and it can be fleeting. But what Force Multipliers can do is remind their Principals what they are working so hard for, why they are doing what they are doing, and the benefit and value it is bringing to others. We can inspire them to take action, but the true motivation must come from them.

So, how do you motivate (inspire) an unmotivated leader?

1. Stay in Curiosity and Out of Judgement

There are many reasons why your Principal may be unmotivated. I recommend you start by getting curious, instead of immediately going into judgement and creating all sorts of stories about why they don’t want to work like they used to. Why might your leader be unmotivated right now?

Did something shift in their personal life? Are they in a new season of their life or business and trying to figure out where their priorities lie? Did they sell a large part of their business and are no longer sure how and where they need to contribute each day? Is the business being affected by the economy or legislative changes that necessitate a shift in the business model and they aren’t quite sure if that’s the direction they want to go? Did they just have to let an employee go who was also a long-time friend?

Often a lack of motivation is an indication that your Principal may be experiencing a shift in their life due to personal commitments, the vision for the business, or where they want to take their career. This has much less to do with you or the business and more to do with some internal reflection and realignment they need to work through. Holding space for your Principal to work through these issues is what a true partnership is about. Allowing them to externally process. Picking up some of the slack if needed. And generally, being the calm amidst the storm goes a long way.

2. Keep the Lines of Communication Open

When your Principal is lacking motivation and focus, it can be very easy to want to give them space and let them do their thing. While I think that it’s important to hold space for them to process, too much space won’t be good for either of you. There is still a business to run, decisions to be made, and clarity, focus, and direction to be shared from the leader.

During this “unmotivated” period, keeping your 1:1 meetings on the calendar is more important than ever. This regular touch point will provide stability for you both when other things are uncertain. It will also allow you to ask any pressing questions, share what decisions you have made or are about to make on behalf of your Principal and the business, and make sure priorities and projects are still on track.

In times on uncertainty, do not be afraid to over-communicate. In fact, I recommend it. You will want to keep lines of communication open with your Principal to stay in tune with their energy and mindset, just as much as staying up to date on any shifting priorities. In addition, you may need to stay in even more communication with the leadership team and other team members – keep agreed upon priorities moving forward. If our Executive’s lack of motivation means they are less accessible too, you may need to step in to filter requests, answer questions, provide advice and guidance, and act as an intermediary between your leader and the team.

And finally, you may need to to have some really real and tough conversations with your Principal. Acknowledge where you are at, stay in curiosity, yet be firm on what the company needs from your Executive. Offer support, and step in where you can. However, there will be places you and the company need your leader to participate. Get clear on what areas those are and help make it happen. This is likely temporary, but they do need to be aware of the effects their lack of motivation is having on the team and organization. Who better to share these hard truths than their Force Multiplier? After all, you’re the one who will help solve them and navigate this season.

3. Focus on What You Can Control

If you are working with an unmotivated leader, focus on what you can control. There is no point lamenting the fact that they aren’t doing what they are “supposed” to be doing, nor is there any reason to be focusing all your time and energy on trying to change them. Remember, that motivation has to come from within.

If your Principal is taking a step back from the business (intentionally or not), then this is your chance to step in and step up. You may have more time in your day and week than you had previously. Great! Use this opportunity to lean into what you can control and the areas you can influence and impact. As mentioned above, this may mean being extra communicative with the rest of the team. It may be a great time for you to take additional training. Perhaps you need to review and update OKRs or your company’s website. Maybe you research starting a podcast. Or, you begin to think through new strategies for if/when the business model changes. You could start systematically working through all your back-logged projects and updating your Executive Office Operations Manual.

The point here is that there is always something to do. Don’t focus on what you aren’t getting from your Principal right now, but instead, focus on where you can continue to effect change, help the business run smoothly, and get organized for when your Principal is “back” and ready to hit the ground running!

4. Take Charge and Lead Up

If your Principal is feeling unmotivated, start doing the work for them! Okay, let me explain. If they are in this unmotivated phase, then they may be pushing off decisions, not answering your questions, or simply not giving the clarity and direction to you or the team that you are used to. That’s okay. You’re there to help!

I find that leaders often operate best when they have something to look at and they aren’t starting from ground zero. If you are waiting on your Executive to make a decision about an upcoming off-site, then get started on what you think is the best course of action and present a couple of options. If you are looking for direction about company goals for the year, take your best guess and allow your Principal to make adjustments as needed. Now, I think this is a foundational Force Multiplier skill no matter how motivated or unmotivated your Executive is; however, it’s really helpful during the “off” times. Give your Principal a starting point with ideas, goals, priorities, etc. and let them make adjustments and fill in the gaps of the vision. Then, you can take that fully formed idea and run with it. This may be just the momentum they need to re-energize them and help get them back on track.

Now, one thing to note, if this lack of motivation is a chronic behavior, you can work through all of the tactics above in order to hopefully gain some traction. However, if there is no real change in your working relationship and your Principal continues to operate from the status quo – you will need to decide if that is the type of leader you wish to partner with.

So, I bet you’re thinking, “What would an unmotivated Principal do without a Force Multiplier!?” This is just one more reason why I believe visionary leaders and founders are well-served by partnering with an Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff (or both!). There will be times in a leader’s life and business where they are just not firing on all cylinders, and having a talented Force Multiplier by their side will keep everything on track and moving forward. As Erik H. Erikson, developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, said, “Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.”

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