How is it possible that one little country in South-east Asia can develop so much faster than any other country around it, even though it has much fewer natural assets than the others?

How did one American election campaign gain so much more funding than any other campaign?

How could one man mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to march into Washington DC and lead the civil rights movement in the United States? 

How did Lee Kuan Yew, Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr provide the great leadership that inspired normal people to follow a cause?

How did they get people to agree to one set of objectives and work much harder, or to accept austerity, or to be loyal to a cause over many years?

There are different ways to analyse and understand such effective leadership styles, but we believe the best way is to look at it from the bottom up.

What motivates followers?

How do people decide to put the extra effort into their work, become more loyal and go the extra mile for their leaders?

What leadership style motivates people to get them out of bed in the morning and work hard every day, putting their company, department or team objectives first?

To fully understand this, let’s look at the latest in neuroscience, behavioural economics and psychology, which tells us more about how people make these decisions in their everyday lives and what truly motivates them.

Behavioural economics is a new way to look at the commonly accepted rules of economics.

Well-established economic theory sees human nature capable of making the right decisions based purely on rational reasoning, according to philosopher Adam Smith.

Understanding behaviour

However, there is a new breed of behavioural economics that questions this and believes that human decision-making is not perfect and is actually very irrational.

These new behaviouralists thrive on understanding irrational behaviour.

For example, why do people leave large balances on their credit cards with 24 per cent interest as opposed to taking a personal loan with around 6 per cent?

Why do employees with the same or even lower salary put more effort in their daily work than others who are paid far more?

In his book Predictably Irrational, Professor Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural Economics at Duke University, describes the way a person’s mind discriminates between the social mind and the market mind.

That is, if a friend asks us for help moving to a new house, we will very likely be happy to do so, but if he were to offer us money for the task, most of us would turn him down.

This shows that our decision-making depends very much on how we judge the case — with our social mind or market mind.

To illustrate this further, Prof Ariely ran experiments with several students.

He asked them to help with a very simple task: sitting at a computer screen and dragging little circles into a box.

He measured how many circles were dragged into the box in five minutes. Some participants were paid $5 for their service, some only 50 cents and for some it was introduced as a social request. 

How hard did they work?

As expected, based on the market norms, the participants working for $5 worked much harder than the ones working for 50 cents.

But the ones asked to do it as a social request worked the hardest of all.

Perhaps we should have expected this outcome, as evidence suggests that people work much harder for a cause than for money.

Working for a cause

Obviously, as an inspiring leader, you should start thinking about this. What is your cause and how do you communicate and live this cause with your team?

Approaching your team with the cause “to make money” will not take you very far, as your team will think with its market mind and try to get as much money as it can. Unless you can afford top salaries for all team members, you have to think harder.

You have to figure out why you do what you do.

What is the bigger reason you get out of bed in the morning? Why are you in accounting, law or health policies?

Here’s a tip: It doesn’t matter what area you are in. As long as you have a real cause in your own professional life, people will follow you if they feel they can relate to your cause.

Would Lee Kuan Yew, Barack Obama or Martin Luther King Jr be able to answer the question why they did what they did?

Of course they would and, equally, most of their followers would be able to articulate the same vision.

Article by Laurenz Koehler, international consultant with Training Edge International and managing partner of Duxton Consulting. E-mail or visit