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Motivating Teams Through the Impossible

By J.P. Stearns, CMA, CPA
August 1, 2018
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When challenging circumstances require a strong and united team, it falls on business leaders to motivate teams to peak performances.

 

While most of a leader’s time is consumed with day-to-day activities, the heart of leadership is revealed in crisis and trial. In such times, leaders and their team members must perform at their best through great difficulty and hardship. The question for leaders is: How does someone prepare and motivate a team to execute through a severe time of testing?

 

Perhaps nowhere is this more important than in military leadership, where leaders must often inspire motivation in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Motivation was a constant concern for the American Revolution leader George Rogers Clark, perhaps the best example of someone preparing and motivating a team to meet seemingly insurmountable trials.

 

LEADING AGAINST ODDS

 

In 1778, Clark led a team of 170 volunteer militia members from Virginia’s “Kentucky County” (now the state of Kentucky) to capture British outposts in what became known as the “Old Northwest” (present day Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois) and weaken British alliances with the various Native American tribes in the region. The expedition was in response to British efforts to drive settlers from the area and secure the west for Britain. Initially, Clark secured key posts at Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes without conflict. But upon learning the British had retaken Vincennes in February 1779, Clark marched his small volunteer force nearly 200 miles across flooded prairies and rivers in near-freezing temperatures to recapture the position. He ultimately succeeded and captured the British territorial governor in the process. Clark’s victories arguably provided the basis for Britain’s ceding the Northwest Territory to the United States, which doubled the size of the fledgling nation.

 

While accountants will never need to ask our teams to march hundreds of miles or wade through flooded rivers, accounting leaders routinely face challenging deadlines, resource shortages, and complex problems that demand extraordinary motivation and performance from a team. Thus leaders must identify what they can do to prepare and motivate their teams to rise to the occasion when facing challenges.

 

SIX ELEMENTS

 

The book Six Essential Elements of Leadership by Medal of Honor recipient Wesley Fox provides a useful guide for leaders in this endeavor. Fox identifies six core qualities of leadership: care, knowledge, personality, commitment, communication, and motivation. By exemplifying each element, Clark inspired his team to accomplish ambitious goals that provide important lessons for today’s business leaders.

 

For a team to overcome great challenges, team members must be capable in the tasks they will be asked to perform. For military leaders like Fox, this knowledge includes combat drills and training. For business leaders, this would be an intentional focus on professional development and continuing education to ensure staff members have the skills necessary to thrive and excel.

 

Teams also need clear lines of communication. For a team to achieve a shared goal, they must understand the goal. Few things, whether in the military or in business, will sap motivation from a team faster than unclear, ambiguous instructions. Therefore, successful leaders must be clear with instructions and maintain open lines of communication with their team. With sufficient knowledge and clear communication, the team develops the competence necessary to overcome daunting challenges.

 

But competence alone is inadequate. Teams that overcome severe tests must maintain a culture that draws the team together. Tone at the top is a common refrain in accounting. Fox cites two of his critical elements for leaders to set a tone that pulls a team together: care and personality. If leaders hope to inspire tenacious effort and perseverance, they must value the individuals on their team and demonstrate that value in tangible and meaningful ways. Team members must believe their leader is an individual of integrity and courage. Seemingly minor lapses can harm team morale and commitment to leadership, but demonstrated care, integrity, and courage can build relationships that unite a team through the most demanding challenges.

 

MOTIVATION IS KEY

 

Perhaps the most essential of Fox’s six elements is motivation. Maybe it’s an ambitious pitch to a client, implementing a dynamic budgeting program, launching an activity-based costing system, or some other demanding challenge, but a team will find its drive from the motivation of its leader.

 

Fox reminds readers that leaders must commit to see missions through to completion. Such commitment includes follow-through and the resolve to undertake the audacious when success demands it. Motivation will launch an ambitious effort, but it’s the team’s belief in the leader’s commitment to see the endeavor through to completion that will sustain them and inspire the team to persevere through to the end. When teams are certain that leaders have weighed the costs and will acquire appropriate resources, commit to proper planning and execution, advocate for the team, and see the undertaking through to completion, they will commit to follow the leader through the challenge.

 

Like military brass, business leaders need to motivate their teams to peak performance in the most trying of circumstances. All these elements were demonstrated abundantly when Clark petitioned then-governor of Virginia Patrick Henry for support, recruited volunteers for the Illinois Campaign, and won the first victory of the campaign by taking Kaskaskia without firing a shot. If we as leaders practice the six essential elements Fox outlines, our teams can respond to such circumstances with the determination embodied in an old military saying Fox quotes: “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.”

 

IMA LEADERSHIP ACADEMY

 

The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at www.imanet.org/career-resources/leadership-academy.

 

J.P. Stearns, CMA, CPA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting at Eastern Kentucky University. He is also a member of IMA’s Bluegrass Chapter. You can reach J.P. at justin.stearns@eku.edu.
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