“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” – George Bernard Shaw
Think of two children learning to play the piano. One child loves it. She enjoys the sound of music and practices as often as she can because it’s a joy. She inspires her friends with her playing and it fills her life with meaning. She has won a prize for her effort, but this recognition isn’t nearly as important to her as the joy that she gets from the playing itself. Meanwhile another child studies the piano, playing only because her parents have told her that she must. She dutifully practices the pieces, but it gives her no pleasure.
A principal difference between these two different ways of viewing an activity is that when the activity generates sustained enthusiasm, the activity is being pursued for its own sake, not merely to achieve external goods such as money, status, appreciation, prestige, power, or winning. The perceived worth of the activity being undertaken is foundational.
Viktor Frankl and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have described how even prisoners in a concentration camp can find meaning in living in a certain way, as opposed to accepting the horrors of prison life as given. Objectively they were slaves, but subjectively they had sufficient psychic energy to create meaning for their lives.
People who can find meaning in whatever they are doing are sometimes called “autotelic personalities”. They have the capacity to be intrinsically motivated by almost any activity. They manage to find new opportunities for improvement, no matter how threatening the external environment is. However, even autotelic personalities have difficulty sustaining their enthusiasm if the activity itself lacks a minimal degree of suitability for sustained enthusiastic commitment.
Four main characteristics of activities that help generate sustained enthusiasm:
The world is a better place because of this activity: Participants in the activity can see themselves making progress toward something that is good for its own sake, not primarily because it will lead to something else.
Personal growth and development: If participants do not perceive themselves as making progress, they risk becoming discouraged. It is helpful to get feedback for successes and failures in the course of the activity, so that their behavior can be adjusted. The activity should not be too easy nor too difficult to conduct enthusiasm.
Enhancing the efforts of other people: Participants see themselves as contributing to efforts of other people pursing the same activity. If the participants are focused only on themselves, their enthusiasm is less likely to be sustained.
Positive instrumental effects: External effects are not irrelevant, even if they not the central driving force. The activity should bring some positive instrumental benefits, such as income, status, or prestige. If those are not present, it should at least be without negative effects.
If these four elements are in place, chances are good that the enthusiasm and energy level can be sustained. If one or more of them is missing, the activity risks tending toward entropy.
Transformational leaders typically present their goals as larger than a particular task. When they succeed, the goal can survive even after the leader leaves. E.g. when parents or teachers succeed as leaders, their children and students adopt their values throughout their entire lives, even after their parents or teachers are gone.
Of course, articulating the goal as worthwhile in itself doesn’t mean that listeners will necessarily see it in this way. Opponents may interpret the goal as superficial, deceptive mask, mere public relations, or hiding personal ambition. If this is indeed the case then it is likely to become apparent soon and undermine any enthusiastic commitment. But when leaders embrace the goals they have articulated and embody the worthwhile goal relentlessly in their own behavior, opponents find themselves not fighting a person anymore, but an idea.
When an activity is pursued for its own sake, there is no winner or loser. The activity never ends. Since it is valuable for its own sake, participants do their best to continue it and to reach new standards.
The language of leadership can be used to induce enthusiasm, however, the enthusiasm is unlikely to be sustained unless the goal can be perceived as worthwhile in itself.