What's the Context for Challenge?


Why don’t we see the importance of challenge in our efforts to motivate others to reach higher levels of productivity and achievement?  I’ve asked this question in prior Reading for Leading columns and asked it of audiences to whom I have spoken.  I have shared the perplexing data from tens of brainstorming sessions:  for every one person who tells me that the way to energize followers is “challenge,” there are six others who say that the way to energize them is to “feed them,” and two more who say feed them “chocolate!”

On Friday I was wondering aloud to a group of lawyer-leaders why it had taken them so long to identify challenge as an energizer.  I pointed out that challenge was in the title of my speech and permeated a discussion leading up to this inquiry about energizing.  “Why,” I inquired of them – and now inquire of you – “don’t we see the tremendous power of challenging ourselves and others to unleash energy?”  Think of Mary Lou Retton, Baryshnikov, Bill Gates, Colin Powell or YOU:  In instances of great achievement isn’t there always someone there setting a high bar, a lofty goal, a challenge?

I don’t think you can dispute that.  Can you?  As I pondered-remonstrated with the group of lawyers for not more quickly seeing the power of challenge, Judge Stephens pushed back.  She said challenge won’t work unless people feel you believe in them, feel like they have what they need to meet the challenge, and know it’s okay if they fail.  What do you think?  Are those the necessary conditions to make challenge work to unleash energy?  What do we need to put in place so that those we lead (and we ourselves) will accept challenges to: improve, grow, stretch, excel, reach, risk, aspire, experiment, and otherwise expend energy to accomplish our full potential?

I’d love to hear your successful experiences, where others have challenged you, or you have challenged others.  What were the conditions or context that led challenge to lead to actual motivation, energy expenditure, and results?  We’ve got to challenge yet challenge well if we’re to

Lead with our best self!