Intrinsic Motivation a Key Trait for Successful Leadership

by | Aug 20, 2020 | Mentoring, Thought Leadership | 0 comments

Success in leadership and entrepreneurship is often attributed to a balance of hard and soft skills. But there’s another factor that might be overlooked, and that’s the role that intrinsic motivation plays. In medtech, for example, we see company founders routinely ascribe their success to a deep desire to help patients, rather than just a drive for monetary gain.

This concept was the impetus behind the Fogarty Institute’s recent virtual workshop, “The Importance of Intrinsic Motivation….The Walk On Athlete,” which used the sports industry to explore real-world perspectives on leadership and its importance in any team’s win/loss record.

We were honored to host keynote speaker, Matt Doyle, who is senior associate athletics director and director of Football Operations and Player Development at Stanford University, along with special guest, Caleb Phillips, a student athlete at Stanford University. A 2019 graduate of the Fogarty Institute’s Lefteroff summer internship program, Caleb excels both on and off the field – as a freshman, he walked on to the Stanford team as an outside linebacker; and he is also a science, technology and society major.

“Much like a first-time CEO, a walk-on athlete may have few connections, if any; no funding  (or scholarship); and success is never guaranteed,” said Corinne Landphere, FII’s Strategic Consultant who spearheaded the event. “The walk-on, more than anyone else on the team, needs to stay focused and pull from within, never taking ‘no’ for an answer. These are the same attributes needed by a first time CEO in the current competitive medtech environment.”

The power of intrinsic motivation 

You might think teams are motivated by one thing—the win. But that sole focus on external motivation doesn’t take into account the many other elements that lead to success on the field or court. It has to start at the top with a strong leader, and then has to be blended with internal motivators, such as self-satisfaction and internal growth. You see the same fine balance in any organization, where leaders focus on cultivating both these internal factors, as well as external motivators, like bonuses and promotions.

“As leaders you have to understand the value of both, but also realize that you personally cannot provide intrinsic motivation to someone. Instead, you have to make sure you are hiring folks who have an internal drive that matches your values,” said Andrew Cleeland during his speaker introduction. “Those with strong intrinsic motivations act as a compass for others — their passion for what they do is contagious, and they inspire others to rally around the company mission, both in good and tough times.”

A case study in intrinsic motivation: Attributes of a walk-on college athlete

Similar to navigating the ups and downs of running or working for an early-stage startup, a walk-on college athlete has to demonstrate tenacity, persistence, drive and passion to secure a spot on the team.

Having built his own career on hard work, passion and the other attributes of intrinsic motivation, Matt shared how individuals with these qualities have helped create the successful Stanford football program. Matt joined the program in 2000, but since 2010, the team has accumulated 98 wins—seventh best in the country—and has had 35 players drafted into the NFL; but possibly even more noteworthy, they graduate nearly 100% of their players.

This success stems in large part from a proven recruiting process, where they focus on attracting players with strong work ethic and passion, rather than solely based on athletic talent or desire for a full-ride scholarship. “Our athletes don’t get special treatment to get into Stanford; they have to go through the strict application process just like any student,” said Matt. “This is foundational to our program and allows us to attract competitive, high-caliber athletes who also show leadership skills and dedication in everything they do.”

No team member displays those qualities more than a walk-on who earns a spot on the roster, exemplified by Caleb, who played in every game last season, while maintaining his status as a PAC-12 All Academic Honor Roll student.

“Caleb has not only been an incredible contributor on the field, but uses his knowledge and experience to mentor younger players. He is well-respected and always where you need him to be—leadership skills that will successfully transfer to a job,” said Matt.

“I came in with the intrinsic motivation needed to earn a spot, but it helped to be surrounded by like-minded colleagues and leaders. The Stanford team culture and work ethic—where incoming recruits and walk-on players are expected to help the team grow both personally and collectively—has inspired me to improve as a person and a player,” says Caleb. “I know that the chance to hone these leadership skills on and off the field will translate into success as I pursue a career in the medtech field.”

Leadership Resources

Wondering how you can level up your own leadership skills? Whether you are just starting your career or are a seasoned pro, these real-world book examples will inspire you and give you tools to improve this vital facet of your skillset.


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