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Channeling Power Motive - The Motive Center
September 25th, 2004
11:54 pm


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Channeling Power Motive
I've been talking about channeling motivational energy off and on here in a number of ways:
1. Values either selecting "appropriate" behavior or enabling it (22 Sept 04 post)
2. Things you force yourself to do versus things you like (most of them)
3. Something that engages differently with different tasks--that is, somethings are inherently more motivating (17 Sept 04 post).

I found a non-writing example that struck me quite forcefully about the power of motivation and how it can be channeled, not by conscious effort, but by being in the right place at the right time, in the right role.

I recently read Paul Brickhill's book Reach for the Sky, the biography of Douglas Bader, British flying hero of WWII and double amputee. (Brickhill is also author of The Great Escape.) Bader overcame having both legs amputated near the knee due to a flying accident to become a flying group leader and multiple ace during the Battle of Britain. He was eventually shot down and wound up in Stalag Luft III, made famous in the book and movie The Great Escape, and later in Colditz because despite his "tin legs" he was too audacious an escaper!

People describe him repeatedly as "a natural leader," but it seems quite clear that he was kind of a jerk in his early days. He was a showoff, who never resisted a dare and took challenges personally. He lost his legs by flying a quite illegal aerobatic maneuver because he could not resist a dare, even after being warned. Outperforming someone, especially someone who challenged him, was central to his motivation!

What is interesting is that when put in a position of authority, be it a captain of his school rugby team or a squadron commander, this showboating behavior ceased and he became focused on getting his team to work together, even downplaying his own role--something that appears inconsistent with his solo behavior. When given charge of a group, he established clear safety rules--preventing his own accident from happening again, for example--but did not become a prig, either; he made exceptions appropriately, and won the loyalty and dedication of his men through his principled leadership.

I read this and thought, hmm! Here's an impulsive guy who radically changed his behavior--not because he found religion or consciously set out to change himself, but because he happened to be put in a job which was better suited to his motivation. (It wasn't entirely accidental--he had teachers and commanders who appeared to understand him better than he understood himself.)

Motivation doesn't disappear because you can't use it--it backs up, like hydraulic pressure. If you lack Activity Inhibition (AI), you will act impulsively. However, even if you do have AI, your motives can overwhelm it if strong enough or aroused enough. For example: when you get mad (emotionally aroused), you might lose control, or, more precisely, the emotion exceeds your ability to control it, and you raise your voice or pound the desk. The engine gets too big for the brakes! And emotionally-driven behavior that bursts out from your self-control is unlikely to be mature and reasoned...

I think that's what I am seeing in this story. Bader had tremendous personal motivation, which was not fully engaged by his job, so it expressed itself in various immature ways (like accepting dares because it challenged him personally, or doing aerobatics illegally low because he knew he could). Once put in a position where he could apply the same motivation more positively, the impulsiveness disappeared--or did it?

There's another way to look at this, which is simply that the new job used the motives instead of battling them, so even emotionally driven behavior was the right behavior for the task at hand. He could lead from the gut, and do a good job.

Two morals pop out of this for me: First of all, as noted earlier, it is possible to be too motivated, in more than one way. In classic Yerkes-Dodson style, you can be too emotionally aroused to be competent, or, I think in Bader's case, the energy just kept coming out in lots of less practical ways, through inappropriate behavior. Bader was wildly competent at just about everything he turned his mind to, but learning to do illegal aerobatics might not have been the right thing to master!

Second, if you can align the motives closely with the job, it channels the energy into useful areas. Since motivation has to go somewhere, in the right role it can go from being counterproductive to hyperproductive!

A few stories of Bader's motivation, to justify my assessment of him as supermotivated:
* When he lost his legs (one above, one below the knee) he was told he would require a cane to stand and walk properly. He took this as a challenge, and managed to learn how to walk on his own. His first walk outside the hospital is described in painful detail--he fell down every few steps, picked himself up again, and kept going until he was utterly exhausted. Eventually he even learned to play golf, which required exquisite balance and a narrower swing (and a lot more falling down), but he became a scratch golfer despite this. He even learned to dance some dances, though he once stood on his fiance's foot without realizing it afterwards.
* He pushed himself as hard as his men, or harder; he flew every mission he could, even when not required to as a senior officer (let alone the fact that he lacked legs!)

Coming back to an earlier question: If he was such a showboater, why did he suddenly cease taking credit? Because either way, he was influencing others. His satisfaction came from knowing he had built a terrific team, and if took all the credit, it wasn't a team, was it? If it was power motive driving him (and that seems to be a significant part), then he got that satisfaction through his impact on all the individual team members he won over instead of through just impressing people with his own performance. Arguably he was just as "impulsive," at least in terms of operating directly out of his motives, but because the motivated task was appropriate, it was not immature. The right behavior at the right time, perhaps.

If Achievement motive was a key (and I suspect he had this strongly as well), then perhaps the fact that his task was defined as "getting your team to be the best" channeled his efforts away from being a personal best to measuring the performance of his team. This would be a case of value channeling motives into the right path.

Ah, the magic of motivated behavior! In the right time, in the right place, it works wonders....

Current Music: Strange Things Happen

(4 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:September 25th, 2004 10:11 pm (UTC)
Interesting stuff, Steve! Good tie in with the story as well. It really helped put it into perspective for me.

[User Picture]
Date:September 25th, 2004 10:18 pm (UTC)
Steve, could you use LJ-cuts on your longer posts like this? Just to spare our friends' lists. Just put <*lj-cut> in front of the text you want to hide and <*/lj-cut> at the end (remove the *). If you want to give a headline do <*lj-cut text="What I'm talking about">. Thanks.
[User Picture]
Date:September 26th, 2004 08:07 am (UTC)

Sorry about that

I'm still pretty new to this...I had stumbled across the term "lj-cut" and didn't know what it meant. I hope this worked!
Date:April 6th, 2005 09:30 pm (UTC)

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