By William F. Brandt, Jr.

Organizations use rewards and punishments to control behavior, appealing to what its members want most (money, recognition, advancement), or what they don’t want (less money, reprimands, job loss). Effective rewards and punishments, such as compensation systems, scorecards and performance evaluations help align individual actions to what is best for the enterprise. The difficulty arises when these become the predominant or sole source of motivation, as opposed to a better motivator – “Inspiration.”

Let me give you three examples of inspiration as the primary motivator:

The movie Spartacus is the story of a slave in ancient Rome who led a rebellion of fellow slaves. While slave revolts were not uncommon, they were soon put down by Roman legionnaires. According to the movie, under the leadership of Spartacus, however, his band of slaves overwhelmed local garrisons and regional forces, freed other slaves to expand their ranks and moved from Sicily northward toward the capital, Rome. Finally, the emperor brought to bear the full force of the Roman army and in a climactic battle crushed the slave forces. After the battle, the Roman commander gathered the surviving slaves together and told them they could avoid a torturous death if they would only identify “the slave called Spartacus.” Spartacus was about to step forward when another slave, not fearing the punishment, advanced first saying, “I am Spartacus.” A moment later, a second was motivated to do the same, then another, until there was a momentous chorus of voices thundering, “I am Spartacus,” all inspired by Spartacus.

Recently, I heard Dr. Maya Angelou speak of the dark clouds that gather in all our lives –

then she imagined a rainbow emerging from those dark clouds, leading to a brighter day. Her message was not only one of hope for those who suffer, but also a call for us to become the rainbows in other people’s lives. After the event, I witnessed Dr. Angelou holding out her arms to a student singer and telling her that, for opera, “The first language you want to learn is Italian.” The student was inspired, hanging on her every word.

And finally, I remember my high school coach who once kicked three star players off an undefeated basketball team for a rules infraction, and the team then went on to lose the remainder of its games. He was steadfast in doing what he thought was right regardless of the personal consequences. His strength of character still inspires me today.

What this these stories together – inspiration. The Roman slaves were inspired and motivated by Spartacus, the voice student by Dr. Angelou, and I by my sports coach.

When motivations are based solely on rewards and punishments, if the rewards-punishments are removed, there is no motivation for continued behavior. However, those who are inspired are intrinsically motivated—they “own” the desired outcome and have a sense of purpose to make it come into being. They more likely have a greater sense of self, a heightened presence and stand taller in their own shoes.

Organizations that inspire their members have two advantages: First, those inspired look beyond their own self-interests to act according to the best interests of the enterprise. Second, motivation based upon an internal sense of purpose is usually much more powerful than that based on external stimuli alone. Those organizations whose members embrace a shared sense of purpose will enjoy a competitive advantage over entities that rely solely on rewards and punishments.

I should also mention that leading by “inspiration” is not the same as leading by “charisma.” It is not critical that leaders be charismatic to be inspiring. Winston Churchill inspired the British people to fight on during the Battle of Britain. But I have never heard anyone describe him as charismatic.


William F. Brandt, Jr., is cofounder and former CEO of American Woodmark Corporation—the third largest producer of kitchen cabinets in America. His books include the winner of 22 Book Awards COMPASS—Creating Exceptional Organizations: A Leader’s Guide and COMPASS TOOL KIT, the teaching companion to COMPASS ( ).

Copyright 2015 © William F. Brandt, Jr.

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