Leadership: The $64,000 “Flame”

Flame in Oven

If someone asked you this: “What is the $64,000 question in leadership?”, how would you answer?  What would you say it is that we are trying to carry out as leaders of our teams? 

The answer, in the simplest terms, is this: “Leaders are trying to get every one of their people to perform at the top end of their potential.”

Ponder This…

Think about what this accomplishment might do for your team!  Then ask yourself just how many of your team members are performing at peak levels. Are 80% of your people contributing 80% (or anywhere close to 80?) of your results?  Probably not.

In fact, from churches and hospitals, to businesses and police departments, organizations report that the percentage of real, vital contributors is well below 30%.

Employee engagement, anyone?

On Motivation…

A leadership fact-of-life says:

“In the end, all motivation is self-motivation.”

Every person chooses their own degree of motivation.  Personal choice, influenced by a considerable number of factors, is the key to motivation.  How we as leaders effect, influence and manage those factors is our most-direct contribution to the personal productivity of our people, and to the collective productivity of our team.

The outcome of motivation is performance, and performance produces results.  And, no surprise, team productivity is how you are (and should be) measured.


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On Performance…

So what is performance? 

Well, let’s represent individual performance as a “flame.”

Let’s think about a typical middle school science project that it takes three things to produce fire:

  • An ignition source (the spark)
  • The fuel
  • And the oxygen

And it all happens in the “oven” of your team.

  • You (the leader) are the spark – the ignition source
  • The atmosphere you create is the oxygen
  • And the fuel is what everyone carries inside

Our Personal Fuel Cells

Fuel MixturePersonal Fuel Tank

The contents of the fuel are among the most personal (and perplexing) things each of us owns.  People (ourselves included) put ingredients in, and take ingredients out, mixing them up in a chaotic “refinery” of events, reactions and circumstances.

Changing constantly, it’s a unique and dynamic blend every day.  We carry this fuel around with us, and the exact mixture of the fuel is a reflection of each individual’s potential, self-image, self-esteem, mood, energy level, and how they feel they fit with others.

Many people have input to the fuel mixture, starting most importantly with the individual.

Others with frequent access are parents, teachers, siblings, schoolmates, bosses, peers, spouses, customers, children and acquaintances – and for the super-sensitive, even total strangers have input.

People add contents to the fuel (and take them out), by making critiques, demands, requests, assignments, or giving compliments, recognition, rewards, and encouragement.

Breathing Life

The “oxygen” is based on the overall atmosphere you’ve built within your team.

Ask yourself these question:

  • Is there room for people to do what they need to do?
  • Is failure tolerated, and recoverable?
  • Do people know where they stand, and would they say they’re treated fairly?
  • Do they think they’re having their unique needs met?
  • Is yours at least an interesting (if not fun) place to work?
  • Do people anticipate coming to work?
  • Do they look forward to getting out of their cars in the parking lot and clocking in?
  • Do your people generally enjoy one another’s company, or at least respect one another or the work they do?
  • Do they cooperate?
  • Is there mutual trust, starting with the fact that your people trust you?
  • Are actions and reactions predictable?

If the answers to these questions are overwhelmingly “yes”, then your “oven” contains a healthy mix of oxygen.  Once started, flames should burn fiercely.

The Explosive Spark

But here’s the rub:

In order for the fuel and oxygen to burn, there has to be a spark. 

This spark is you; People take their cues from their leaders.

If you are  self-motivating and competent in your work, leading by example, pointing the team in a definite direction, trusting them and being trusted yourself, and showing them that your enjoyment is real, then chances are excellent that your spark will ignite their flame.

The best news about all this is that the same leadership beliefs, actions, and behaviors affect both the fuel and the oxygen.

Leaders affect the people as individuals and as a team.

Once the flame within the team member begins to burn, only the individual can control the size of the flame and the heat. This is because they regulate the flow.

This is what we call self-management.


The question becomes “Now, how can we affect the desire for people to increase their burn rate?

The answer is Behaviors & Consequences

Leaders need to know that what they can do to increase the burn-rate of their people is to add top-quality ingredients to the oven (the oxygen and the fuel), and to manage the contributions of others so that what’s in the mix is pure (high-octane motivation) and that their is plenty of this recipe in the solution.

Controlling the Atmosphere

As a leader, you affect the atmosphere of your organization or that of your team. You affect it both directly and indirectly. Primarily, this is what leaders get paid to do. It’s how leaders maximize their productivity, develop people, build team synergy, and deliver the objectives.

The key concept is this:

Behavior is most often a function of its consequence.

In other words, the consequences of a given behavior is to either encourage said behavior to either stop or to continue.  And the most effective consequences, in terms of affecting behavior, are those that are immediate and certain. (Keep in mind that positive consequences are longer lasting than negative consequences.)

In fact, how we handle the behavior/consequence connection is a major factor in the level of trust in us felt by our people.

Ken Blanchard once called feedback the “Breakfast of Champions”

Is it possible that your people, like most working Americans, go without that meal most days?  If so, it’s time for YOU to improve their diet.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Scott Crandall
 is Principal of Trinity-Lincoln Consulting
He specializes in Leadership, Coaching, Training and Project Consulting
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Skype: scrandall31 | (864) 787-1087

Image Sources: brickfired.com

7 responses to “Leadership: The $64,000 “Flame”

  1. Great article, Scott! You got me with ““In the end, all motivation is self-motivation.”

    Your metaphor of the leader being the spark to ignite the flame of of self-motivation is bang-on and oh so true. In my experience, leadership is very difficult and if not taken seriously the fuel will never ignite and the spark will fizzle!

    Great writing and extremely motivating. Keep it up!


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    • Excellent article, Scott. I like your conclusion, “Behavior is most often a function of its consequence.” I think most leaders forget that they often provide, perhaps unintenionally, negative consequences, which result in “reduced burn rates” in their people.

      The atmosphere creadted by the “kick butt” manager usually reduces the self motivation of the individual performers. Sometimes employees are like our kids: they need to understand the “guidelines” and the “consequences.” (I like your checklist of questions for managers.)

      When they perform well, they thrive on praise and postitive comments about their performance. When they goof off, or perform poorly, they need to suffer according to the guidelines established. If they are truly self-motivated, they will self-correct. Failure has to be permitted, if people are to learn and become leaders themselves.

      Effective developmental coaching is one of the best ways a manager can provide the right atmosphere, don’t you think?


      • Great comments, Mark! I have experienced some of those “Kick-Butt” managers who provide an environment where perfomance suffers due to reduced motivation. Sadly, I think I might even have been one myself in my younger years. Employees tend to hide their heads in the sand and try to avoid being noticed when they fear their manager or the consequences of under-performance. This article highlights the need for professional training and coaching at even the lowest level of management or supervision because often the managers are not even aware that their approach is not working. Most managers in North America have never had any management training at all.In any case It makes for a stimulating conversation!


  3. Mark & Wayne — Great dialogue! Thanks for responding and being involved.

    Wayne, unfortunately I KNOW I was a “kick butt” manager in my early years: what I wouldn’t give to get back those opportunities, and to be able to contribute to those people in a better way. In response to your comment,

    Mark, about the dearth of training for managers & supervisors, I had a conversation with a company owner this AM where I observed that most companies put more research into buying a copier than they do hiring (and training) managers. Should we be surprised that poor managers think they’re “leading”? Mark, you ought to post, too! Thnx.


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