Stay Thirsty My Friend

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. This is well worn wisdom we’ve all heard hundreds of times. Nonetheless, have you been frustrated by making poor choices or seeing others make poor choices when put in the position to succeed? We won’t do what we don’t see as important. If we’re not thirsty, it doesn’t matter what wonderful watering hole we’re led towards. A core capability of leaders is, as former Dallas Cowboy head coach Tom Landry used to say, “to get people to do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they want to achieve.” Landry was a legendary figure that coached the Cowboys to great success in the NFL during the 70s and 80s. He recognized that leadership was about helping others to help themselves and not doing things for them. Sometimes we need a nudge. No lesser authority than “The Most Interesting Man in the World” encouraged us through a successful nine year commercial campaign for Dos Equis beer to “Stay thirsty my friend.”

Managing motivation is less about leading others to water and more in nurturing a thirst. The poet Rumi wrote, “Do not seek for water, be thirsty.” Those that are well hydrated aren’t interested in drinking no matter what water source you take them to. However, those that are thirsty don’t need you to help them look for water. They’re highly incented and driven to search out saturation on their own. There’s two types of thirst leaders are trying to develop. This article will focus on the first type which is a thirst for the activity itself. The second type of thirst is a desire to improve ourselves which will be addressed in a subsequent article.

Kids in school and sport offer great examples of the power of being thirsty. Education eviscerates choice. After all, it’s compulsory. This compulsion breeds revulsion. Kids are less interested in learning when they are being dragged by the collar to class. Their disinterest doesn’t reflect an absence of intelligence, it reflects an absence of agency. They don’t care because they haven’t had any influence in how they have gotten there. Schools which encourage student choice and enrollment have kids who look forward to picking and participating. Their curiosity surfaces and their knowledge grows where they can influence and lead their own learning. When we get to decide for ourselves instead of being told, we’re making a clear distinction that our choice reflects that “this matters to me.” It’s the heart of the Engagement (or Commitment) Equation we’ve discussed in the past. To be thirsty is to be interested. It’s to see that this matters to me as well as that it is my own idea.

A direction in teaching music in recent decades has focused on giving the student the ability to play an actual song sooner than later. It’s less about teaching the nuts and bolts about scales and reading music and more about getting going and doing. The sooner fun and ability is felt, the more interest and engagement is brought forth which involves the student seeking out the additional information. They lead the learning after having enjoyed an experience. Peter Jensen shares a personal experience he had teaching volleyball to high school students in his book Igniting the Third Factor. Jensen didn’t try to teach a series of skills in the order a textbook had suggested. Instead of showing how to serve, then volley, then bump, then the rules, he started with a single skill then suggested they play a game. He taught kids how to bump the ball. He then put players on each side of the net and started a rally by throwing the ball over the net. Students were to bump the ball, they were even allowed to let it bounce once before bumping it. In short order, students were not just experiencing, but enjoying a game. Within minutes of learning a single skill they were engaged in the fun of play. This feeling spurred them to prompt Jensen to teach them more about the rules and the skills. They drove their own learning.

Wayne Bryan, a tennis professional and father of two sons, wrote Raising Your Child to Be A Champion. In this book Bryan details his efforts at using sport to build character in his kids while raising them to become top level tennis players earning scholarships to Stanford. Bryan refers to tactics like those discovered by Jensen as “play first, learn later.” Bryan consciously crafted an appetite for tennis in his children. He notes that sports programs are the opposite of school. Sports are voluntary. No one is obliged to participate. By default, signing up is a choice. This brings those that are thirsty to the table. Enrollment is evidence of being engaged. Where we choose, we’re more willing to do. They are already way ahead of the classroom. Good programs then focus on providing fun experiences like playing first and learning later. It may be fun driven by the activity, by comradery of the group, or driven by the personality of the instructor. More fun can be built into the after activity get together with teammates and road trips. The fundamentals are deferred as fun is preferred.

Another way Bryan deepened desire for the activity was to dangle carrots like tickets to going to watch a higher level event live. The idea of taking a team of kids to a professional ball game whet the kids’ whistles. Bryan would then say only those that are achieving B’s or better in school are able to attend this event. Or only those that have cleaned their rooms are able to go to his event. He would impose impediments in between his kids and the activity. He was dangling as a carrot to test their commitment. Were they hungry enough to go to the game that they would do their homework first?

As much fun as it is, wise parents and coaches limit the exposure of others to ensure they aren’t flooded with the firehose of fun. They introduce the fun in drips and drops to heighten as opposed to satiate the thirst. The drive to do remains high. One way smart parents, coaches, educators, and managers heighten interest in a subject in order to draw the attention and interest of their charges is to limit the accessibility. Just like in relationships, we can deepen interest in someone by reducing access. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Coaches can limit the practice time. They can cut off people from playing and make the activity off limits for periods. This serves like the apple in the Garden of Eden immediately heightening interest and driving desire. It’s just like when young lovers like Romeo and Juliet are told to avoid each other that the effect is the opposite. Attraction is amplified when access is denied. Bryan’s boys would watch him finish teaching tennis lessons and ask to hit some balls. As enthusiastic as Bryan was to rally with his sons, he allowed only a few shots. Over time, the playing time afforded the boys slowly increased. They hungered for more as opposed to being harangued to practice. It’s the exact opposite of the approach most of us take.

How can we try to apply the lessons of school and sport to the workplace in order to build engagement and commitment? Work may seem compulsory like school, but it shouldn’t. We each chose to apply for our jobs. We were each then lucky enough to be selected. We should be both interested and grateful as a result. Work is where we want to be. Employers should convey to staff that they matter. You were picked to be part of this team because we believe in you. We’ve invested in your training and in providing you with resources to do your job. We’ve done this because both you and the job are important to the organization. They can work to communicate how, exactly, what the organization does and the person’s role within it matter and makes a difference. Moreover, employers can communicate that we continue to seek improvements. It’s up to you, the employee, to help us get better. We depend on input from you. What do you need? How do we get in our own way? What processes are serving you? Which are slowing down how you serve others?

Employers can go further seeking to illustrate the organization’s pride in its staff. This can be done by making space in prominent places throughout your office to display images of staff doing various business functions. Additionally, make visible images of staff working constructively and happily together both in work contexts and having fun at staff retreats or events. Make it clear that this is a place where we want to be because what we’re doing matters and who we’re doing it with also matters. From reinforcing an appreciation for staff, employers can seek to foster an appreciation for what the organization does. The mission matters. Leadership should work, therefore, to communicate and celebrate how the organization helps others. In what way are customers served? How is the community benefitted by your business? Take pride in showcasing what your business does.

Making being part of your team as desirable as possible is a great start. You can now consider making meaning personal for team members. Do team members have a vision of where they fit within the organization and where they may be able to go? The clearer the path to progress for someone the more they will want to exert effort to perform where they are in order to continue climbing higher in your organization. Additionally, just like Bryan instilled interest by dangling carrots like tickets to watch an event for those that demonstrated their commitment, consider whether there are industry events or staff events which access can be limited to those that have earned a seat at the table?

Not everything will be fun and games all the time, but all of what needs to be done serves a purpose. We should take pride in being part of this organization and value our place within it. In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle suggests a primary role for early instructors is to ignite passion for the activity. It’s to draw others in. As important as developing skill and competence may be, its useless where the child quits the program the next year. Incenting and inspiring individuals to embrace their place in sustaining the race is a core function for of coaches in sport. So, too, is this a primary role for leaders. A leaders job is to create thirst not quench it. Where we care, we dare. If it is something about which we care, we want to go there. Leadership is as Landry suggests managing motivation in others by getting them to do what’s ultimately in their best interest to do. All of the above approaches apply not just to attracting kids to activities but to us in the workplace.

Summary Points:

  • Managing motivation is less about leading others to water and more in nurturing a thirst.
  • To be thirsty is to be interested. It’s to see that this matters to me as well as that it is my own idea.
  • Enrollment is evidence of being engaged. Where we choose, we’re more willing to do.
  • Attraction is amplified when access is denied.
  • Incenting and inspiring individuals to embrace their place in sustaining the race is a core function for of coaches in sport.
  • So, too, is this a primary role for leaders. A leaders job is to create thirst not quench it.