Motivation for Leaders

Why my favourite go-to motivational quote still has three fatal flaws; and what leaders should do about them

This quote from Theodore Roosevelt has long been a favourite of mine for helping to motivate myself and others:

Do what you can,

Where you are,

With what you have.

– You can click and then alt-click the image above to download a copy for yourself –

Anytime I’m stuck or feeling powerless, or can’t see the route through the forest for looking at all the trees, this quote gets me unstuck and into purposeful action.

But it still has three hidden weaknesses.

Leaders who want to use this kind of thing to help other people feel motivated need to be aware of these flaws and to take extra steps to combat them.

It’s really worth doing this, especially if you’re the kind of leader who:

  1. Naturally likes to be around empowered people and to help others to raise their game; or
  2. Occasionally finds yourself wondering why other people don’t take the initiative more, or don’t work as hard as you do.

Each of the flaws I’m talking about are right there in that first line:

“Do what you can

And this is why…

1) People aren’t always aware of just what they can do, both in terms of what they have ‘permission’ to do, and in terms of their own capabilities.

2) People don’t always believe that what they can do will actually lead to the outcome that’s needed. To take a really basic example, even though someone ‘can’ make 20 sales calls today, do they truly believe that those calls will lead to the extra business they’ve been asked to generate? If not, they won’t be motivated.

3) People don’t always know in advance if the outcome that their actions might lead to is actually an outcome that they really want. It’s not so much about them not wanting to achieve a specific outcome, but more that they just don’t really, consciously know if they do want it! I believe that this hidden flaw derails more attempts to motivate people than almost anything else.


So as well as using that brilliant quote from Teddy R, leaders who want to motivate people should also be doing these four things as well:

1a) Always give the permissions up front. This is basic delegation skills. If you’re asking or expecting someone to do something, what permissions do they have or need? What resources can they access? What approaches, methods or ways of doing it can they use or not use?

1b) Help people to assess and grow their own capabilities. Which means you really do need to encourage and show people how to learn and adapt.

2. Break the unconscious rule that people make for themselves about taking action and needing to get the correct result. Help them to be more like a scientist. Any action will lead to ‘a’ result. Get people to be curious about selecting from a range of possible actions. Have them observe the results like a scientist doing an experiment. What worked, what didn’t get the expected result, what would you try next time?

3. This is perhaps the most significant one for leaders to be doing. Encourage people to live in the future a little. This outcome that you want them to help achieve – what will that be like? What will it mean for them when it’s been achieved? How will it change or affect their day-to-day experience?

This important part of motivating people is the equivalent of getting them to try on some new clothes in the mirror before they know whether or not they want them.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach What do you think of that Roosevelt quote? Does it help you motivate yourself and others? What also works for you?


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