I was sitting by a campfire the other day with a dear friend who has been doing Leadership Development Training for many years. He said to me, “Keith, I have come to the conclusion that there are only two motivators in the human psyche: love and fear.” That caused me much pause. I really had to think about that for a couple days, and I have concluded my friend was absolutely right. Sadly, people often spend their entire lives motivated out of fear. What does fear do? It only has three potential outcomes: fight, flight, or freeze.
This brings me back to a distant childhood memory. I grew up in upstate New York, and like most other kids that grew up in my community, I was bored silly. There was nothing exciting to do in my rural little town, and the boredom only magnified itself in winter. My little brother and I had an older neighbor named John. John was in high school, I was in middle school, and my brother, Kevin, was in elementary school. John was the coolest kid I knew. I wanted to be just like him. Whatever John did, I did. One day John decided we were all going to entertain ourselves by throwing snowballs at cars. He took us to a spot on a large hill overlooking a highway. It was a long way down that hill to the road. I knew I probably couldn’t throw that far, but hey, I was trying to impress John. We began making our snowballs. When I finally got mine compacted, I threw it as hard as I could and ended up about ten feet short of my target. John kept compacting his snowball. Kevin reared back and sent his flying, but his elementary school arm barely made it halfway down the hill. John kept forming his snowball. A dozen or so attempts later no targets were struck, but John was still working on his first snowball. It was as hard as a rock.
Then came the Ford Torino barreling down the highway. John launched his uber compacted ice ball way up in the air. It was a beautiful thing to watch. The two trajectories were harmoniously destined for impact. The point of contact was almost nuclear. The elongated hood of that brand new Torino collapsed at 60 miles an hour. I’ll never forget the horror when the break lights came on and a giant of a man climbed out of that car with a rage that was beyond anything I had ever seen before in my life. I didn’t know what to do. I turned to look at my hero for guidance and he was gone! That was all I needed to know this was a bad situation. I followed suit, and with all my effort I took off after my fearless leader as he was running down the path like a scalded dog. Then I looked back, and to my horror Kevin was still standing there at the top of that hill frozen in fear. There I was stuck in the middle between the flight of my fearless leader and the frozen potential beating of my little innocent brother. I chose fight. Fortunately, though for my sake, when I got back to the top of the hill, Kevin finally chose flight, and we were able to outrun the old angry man.
It all made sense by the campfire that night. There are only two basic motivations. Love and fear. You can’t avoid fear, but love can adjust how you react to it. Sometimes running from something is the best-case scenario. Sometimes pauses are wise. Sometimes standing your ground and fighting is best. What you choose in each situation is directly affected by what you value at the time the situation presents itself.
Love conquers fear, but it doesn’t eliminate it. Fear is a motivator, and where your passions lie dictates how that motivator responds. Success, however, is not a win or a loss. It is instead, the best possible outcome of any given situation. Successful people listen to their passions and respond accordingly, regardless of the circumstances. Successful leaders need to know where their passions lie. As a leader you will often have to ask yourself, am I going to run with the guilty, or fight for the innocent? The answer will be found in what you love most, and in that moment, you will know if you are truly a leader or a follower.