For Me, or Not For Me?

Author: Jeffrey G. Soper | Source: HCI | Published: June 27, 2013

With apologies to William Shakespeare, that truly is THE question. In the realm of leadership, the single most important question to be asked by and answered for potential followers is “what’s in it for me.” To many, this is a selfish perspective and one to be avoided or at least heavily masked. But is such a perspective really selfish?
I have been a member of seemingly countless groups where going above and beyond normal expectations was required, usually translating into giving both extra effort and extra time.
Why would I or anyone else want to put in the extra work and time? So that “the boss” could be recognized or get promoted? Hardly. Even if that should create an opening, that alone is probably insufficient. So the organization could succeed? I think not. Altruism and intrinsic rewards are powerful forces but they are not normally universally shared. 
The extent to which people are willing to commit to “going the extra mile” consists of individual desires and the perception of the personal and individual benefit for so doing. The answer: recognizing “what’s in it for me” for the people you want to have follow you.
These are not uncommon situations, as most of you can certainly attest, but there is a degree of commonality across them all. Keeping the following principles in mind can help when you are in the situation of expecting people to go the extra mile. 

  • Leadership is about influencing others.

Leadership is the ability to influence others in the absence of positional power. This type of power cannot be demanded, it can only be given. As a result, leadership is follower-centric, and one of the most effective ways of being given the power to lead is by knowing the benefits to be derived by those whom you would like to be your willing followers. Not the benefit that you think it ought to be, but what is truly valued from the followers’ perspective.

  • Leadership is about inspiring action.

Influence is action, but action is not enough.  The desired outcomes are performance - contribution and results. Most individuals find inspiration in doing that which provides the rewards they seek, and such inspiration leads to individual motivation. Effective leadership inspires action, which leads to individual contribution, which produces results. The source of the inspiration is meeting the aspirations of the desired followers.  

  • Leadership is a group process accomplished one person at a time.

It takes effort, trust and consistency to understand what inspires others. Such understanding is developed over time as a result of one-on-one interaction and it requires inquiry, empathy and integrity. People are smart and will see through the façade of feigned interest. Only through the collective result of numerous individual interactions can individual understanding be gained. And only through individual understanding can you answer the “what’s in it for me” question. The ability to influence a group is the culmination of the understanding of the individuals of which it is comprised.
Helping answer the question of “what’s in it for me” is the key to inspiring an individual’s willingness to follow. Failure to answer this question will too often than not result in the conclusion that following you is simply “not for me.”
Jeffrey G. Soper, Ph.D. is the Executive Director, Global Corporate Development for IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland.  He is also the Founder and Member of the Board of the International Strategic Business Partner Institute (ISBPI) headquartered in Tampa, Florida. As a seasoned innovator, author, strategist, and coach, Jeff's professional focus is on improving individual and organizational performance through developing leadership and liberating creativity. This blog contains insights from Jeff's latest book Problem Solving Leadership, which is soon to be released.