Motivating Presence Out Of Absence

My son Levi has always loved basketball, and I’ve always loved watching him play. But when my boy drained a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer last year, I wasn’t the first to jump and cheer. My body was “there,” but I had buried my face in my phone and had no motivation to pick it up. When I heard the crowd go wild, I popped up and asked my neighbors what happened. To my shame, they had to tell me my son just won the game. 

Ouch. But hey, at least I knocked out a couple emails.

In that moment, I was a bad coach: an absent coach, not attending to his star player. And absence is a universal phenomenon. We’re all locked in a constant battle to just be where we are. Some of us realized this early in the year 2020, as we locked ourselves indoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of us realized the depth of our absence during those months, scrambling even more frantically for the comfort of distraction. Meanwhile, business leaders the world over raged at the new reality, keeping them from getting important work done. Rather than take this new opportunity to distinguish between the urgent and the important, many leaders just wanted to get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. When we talk here about “absence,” we’re talking about that sort of attitude.

But we didn’t need a pandemic to prove that leaders struggle with absence. That struggle comes out in everyday statements like these:

  • “I haven’t had dinner with my family in over a week.”
  • “I’m home, but I can’t stop thinking about what’s going on at work.”
  • “My body is worn out, but I don’t have time for rest.”
  • “I’m too busy to make time for friends.”
  • “5-year vision? I’m just trying to make it to next week.”

Presence requires integration of our entire self with others and work. In my book, How to be Present in an Absent World, I explored the ways we’re constantly absenting ourselves from our lives and from the people we love. Often, the first casualty of absence is ourselves: we ought to be our own biggest fans, our own primary motivators. But absence kills the drive.

Our goal at Leadership Reality is to coach leaders into being self-coachers. We want to get them back to a place of presence, where they can carry on their own momentum. If you’ve read the above and feel the need for your own shot of urgency, read on.

A Motivational Legacy

If you’re having trouble getting off your butt and doing the work that you know you need to do, I’ve got one genuine piece of motivational advice for you:

Remember you’re going to die. 

Every one of us has limited time to be the person we want to be and to what we want to do. Even more than most people, leaders care about legacy—a little or a lot. Legacy isn’t about vanity but about impact. It’s about stewarding your influence and empowering everyone within your sphere to perform at their highest level. Legacy involves a keen sense of people and their worth: my success is theirs, and their failures are mine. We win and lose together. If you’re struggling for motivation, tune in to your desire to leave a lasting legacy:

  1. DRIVE (Urgency + Achievement) Driven leaders define themselves by speed and efficiency—both their own and others’. They are more task-oriented than people-oriented. If they aren’t aware of their pace, they can unintentionally steamroll colleagues and subordinates. Yet this very drive to excel also draws others to their presence.

  2. CONCERN (Nurturing + Relationships) Concerned leaders are encouraging, sympathetic, and affectionate. They connect well with others on a personal level because they intuitively show their care for the individual.

  3. FOCUS (Clarity + Criticality) Focused leaders know their target—when they’re winning and when they’re losing at work, at home, and in life. They keep a scoreboard, and they aren’t afraid to enter the feedback loop with themselves and others when they’re falling behind.

The traits above are crucial in determining the quality of your legacy. Examine yourself with the following questions:

  1. Drive. Do you feel motivated to pick up the pace? Is there a domain in your life (physical, spiritual, emotional, etc?) where you’re drifting without aim rather than moving with urgency?

  2. Concern. Are you motivated by taking the time to listen to and love your people? What have you done lately to invest in these relationships?

  3. Focus. What does success look like for you, personally and professionally? Have you defined targets that motivate you? Can you articulate what a win or a loss would be? 

Write Your Eulogy

At his workshops, Fred Kofman, Vice President and Leadership Development Advisor at LinkedIn, helps leaders consider legacy by challenging them to imagine their own funeral. Kofman asks leaders what they want their eulogist to say, then does a gap analysis with each leader to account for the distance between their present reality and their vision for the future.

What do you want people to say at your funeral? Do you want them to talk about your family? Work accomplishments? Service to your church or community? What do you want them to remember about you? Do these hopes motivate you to make those possibilities realities? 

Maintain Motivation: Don’t Miss Twice

Maintaining momentum in our good habits and behaviors is key to lasting motivation—but we all fall off the wagon. When that happens, getting back on the wagon may be more motivating than having never falling off. A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that missing a day here and there doesn’t ruin your changes at forming a habit. It’s what you do after you miss a day that counts. Sometimes, re-committing to a habit after missing a day helps reinforce that habit more than consistent success.

Furthermore, as James Clear reminds us, top performers make mistakes all the time. They lose motivation, fall of the wagon, and display their humanness all the time. That they recover from these stumbles, sometimes even using them strategically, is what sets them apart. They invite mistakes, for the sake of learning from and avoiding them. For that part, Clear offers three strategies:

  1. Spend all your motivation on getting started. Take action, regardless of how well you perform.
  2. Set a schedule that forces you to take action, saving you from needing to crank up your motivation every time.
  3. Eliminate distractions and subtract whatever stands in your way. Use your motivation not to plow ahead, but to get out of your own way.

Put Your Motivation Into Words

Part of engagement is simply showing up—mentally and physically. Showing up is an attitude, a conviction that you’re here today for a reason. There could be a million things going on at home and at work that are pulling away your focus. We have found that one of the best interventions for divided attention is to park our stressors and declare our intentions for showing up with openness, patience, and humility. Get your bearings and renew your motivation by asking these questions every day:

  1. Take 5 minutes to write out those things floating in your mind, potentially stealing your attention and focus from what you need to do today.

  2. Knowing that how we show up to a situation determines part of the success of the endeavor, how do you want to show up today?

  3. What do you want to get out of today? What would success be for you?

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