How to Motivate When Time is Short

by Andy Wood on February 20, 2012

in Five LV Laws, Following Your Passion, Leadership, Life Currency, LV Cycle, Principle of Increase

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In a perfect world motivation by leaders would be unnecessary.  Everybody would carry their own motivational weight, and the leaders would become traffic cops.

In an almost-perfect world, motivation would be the stuff of crock pots.  Slow.  Simmering. Relational.  A view toward the long haul.

But there come those times when you as a leader (and everybody leads somebody) don’t have the luxury of icebreakers, quiet talks by the seashore, or weekend group retreats laden with teambuilding exercises.  You need action.  Now!

Nothing can create a sense of desperation faster than staring at a date with destiny with an unprepared or unmotivated team or organization.  Nothing can make you throw a shoe or howl at the moon quicker than a group of constituents that just don’t seem to get it.  Pick your metaphor – the ship’s going down, the iron is hot, the Egyptians are coming, the boat’s leaving the dock – when the people we lead have to take massive action quickly, this is no time for a support group or a policy discussion.

Guess what?  Somebody in the Bible totally got it.  His deadline was a deathline!  And he had one shot left to motivate and mobilize a uniquely gifted man to get it in gear.  The somebody was Paul, and the uniquely gifted man who was to take over for him was named Timothy.  Paul had one shot left to execute before he was executed.  This is what he wrote… read and be motivated:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Other than the sheer inspiration provided by Paul’s language and passion, you can see in Paul’s challenge some great ideas for motivating others when the time is short.

1.  Raise the stakes.

If you want to deliver a wake-up-to-action call, let your constituents know it isn’t about you.  And it certainly isn’t about them.  This is about something much larger and more lasting.  Before Paul ever told Timothy what the challenge was, he used some throw-down language.  “Presence of God and Jesus Christ”… “judge”… “His appearing”… “his Kingdom.”

It mattered whether Timothy came out of his shell or not.  But it didn’t matter because of some lame psychological reason to make Tim feel more self-esteem.  It wasn’t about preserving Paul’s legacy.  This was Kingdom stuff.  Eternity in the making!  And Timothy’s role in all this mattered.  (So does yours, by the way.)

If you want to motivate people and you have precious little time, let them see that this is cosmic, epic, and on a massive scale – and they have a key part in it.

2.  Spell out your instructions.

Motivation increases with clarity.  This was no time for hand-holding or consensus building.  Paul didn’t have time to negotiate with Timothy about what his disciple preferred to do.  He recognized that he would soon be out of the picture, and all his associate would have remaining from Paul were his words.  So he made the charge crystal clear:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

When you have the luxury of time, self-discovery and self-paced learning can be wonderful tools for motivation.  But when the house is on fire, the fourth quarter begins and you’re down two touchdowns, or the bank is about to shutter the business, your constituents need instructions.  Now.

3.  Specify the urgency.

Ever meet a leader who acts like everything is urgent, but never really spells out what the urgency is?  That’s not urgency.  And it isn’t much leadership, either. It’s chaos.  It’s chronic crisis.

For several years I have supported a state-wide organization whose mission I believe in.  But recently I clicked “unsubscribe” to their email list because nearly every day the new leader was sending me a panicky, crisis-centered request for money.  He tried to confuse anger with urgency.  Maybe that works for some people.  I passed.

Paul made it clear that Tim’s charge was urgent because it had a short time window.  “People are not going to be this open to the gospel for long,” he said.  “And I’m not going to be around to present it.”  The threat was credible.  The need was real.  The opportunity was tangible.  And there was one man for the job.

In other places Paul talked about mysteries.  Not here.  This was a call to action, and the window of opportunity would soon close.

4.  Shorten the message.

Leadership sometimes requires a shortcut – a code or symbol that stands for much more.  The Marines have that with their cherished, Semper Fi.  Paul does something similar with Timothy:

But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

This was no time for a game plan or analysis.  Paul could have written entire epistles on each of these charges.  But he only had time to cut to the bottom line.

Let me hasten to say, you can’t do this with unprepared people.  If you haven’t trained them, taught them, and/or modeled for them what excellence looks like, then you’re asking the toddlers to run the daycare.  But this was a man who needed no definition of what “the duties of your ministry” meant.  He just needed to hear the code again.

5.  Stress the promise.

Paul had one eye on present opportunity, the other on the future promise.  He never lost sight of that, and now more than ever, the promise was real.  Everything he worked for and risked all for was about to be realized – he had appointment with the One whose appearing he longed for.

Leaders motivate by remembering the “why” – the promise behind the vision.  Vision alone is not enough.  Vision says, “Let’s take the message to the whole world.”  The promise deals with why that matters.  And as leaders it’s important to remember that a vision without a promise behind it is lame and powerless.

I would suggest that Timothy always knew what the vision was.  But like a lot of us, he got lost in doing the work without remembering why it mattered.  It’s the leader’s job to help constituents remember the why.  And for every member of the team, the why may be different.


As long as we work with humans, we will face the challenge of motivating them.  Sometimes we have the luxury of thoughtfully figuring all that out.  At other times it’s showtime, and the need for action is now.  But one thing is always consistently true:  Motivation is led, not pushed.  Paul could light a fire under his friend because his own flame was still passionately burning.  And therein lies the greatest secret of any kind of motivation:  It starts with you.  Whether you’re in boot camp or staring death in the face, nobody – nobody – will ever be more passionate about your cause than you lead them to be.

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