In the movie Whiplash, JK Simmons portrays the teacher from hell. Or is he the teacher that the best of us really needs to fulfill our potential? The question prompts a directive and another question. Directive: Go see Simmons’ extraordinary performance in this film. Question: How does this apply to leadership development?

Some would argue that the highest potential rising leaders need tough love to reach their potential. Some would argue that only by pushing someone way beyond what they think they are capable of doing can you help them achieve what they are actually capable of doing. They would be wrong.

Whiplash Teaching

In the film, Simmons’ character pushes students beyond the normal bounds of physical and emotional endurance. He systematically breaks down their confidence by demanding unattainable perfection and pitting them against each other. No one is sure of his own place. No one is sure of what is really expected. It’s a form of emotional sadomasochism that is both horrifying and stimulating to watch.


Whiplash Leadership Development

A young man joined the State Department under Henry Kissinger. He worked on his first major report for four weeks, looking at the issue from every angle. Then he submitted the report to his boss who passed it on to Kissinger.

It came back two days later with the comment “Completely inadequate. Redo.”

Devastated, the young man spent the next week going back to square one, re-looking at and revising everything before resubmitting the report.

It came back at the end of the day with the comment “Still not good enough”.

The young man worked all weekend, hardly sleeping at all. Monday morning he asked to present the report to Kissinger himself. He walked into Kissinger’s office and handed him the report. Kissinger took it, looked at it, looked up and said,

“This is the third time I’ve seen this.”

“Yes sir.”

“Is this the absolute best you can do?”

“Yes sir.”

“Fine. Then I’ll read it this time.”

It’s the same story whether it’s pushing a student or an employee beyond the bounds of reason. The argument is that the best respond to the challenge and the rest go away.


The Flaw in the Argument

The flaw in the argument is that motivation is inherently intrinsic. Neither Simmons’ teacher from hell, nor Henry Kissinger, nor you can make anyone more motivated than they already are. All you can do is inspire and enable them. Inspire them to apply their own motivation in new ways. Enable them by getting the barriers out of their way.

Nothing Simmons’ character does motivates his students. He certainly terrifies them. He certainly gets them mad. Some of them think they have to prove something to him. The most motivated think they have to prove something to themselves.

It’s the same in business. Motivation and happiness comes from within.


How to Inspire and Enable People to Reach Their Full Potential

Inspiration is born of the pursuit of happiness. As I’ve written before, happiness is good. Actually, almost everyone is motivated by a combination of three goods: doing good for others, doing things they are good at and doing things that are good for them. Thus, the key to inspiring people is helping them understand their own particular balance and which goods get them most excited. Help them see what good they can do. It’s their vision, not yours.

Enabling is about leveraging strengths and removing barriers. Each of us has a unique set of talents, knowledge and skills that makes us better at some things than others. The first part of enabling has to do with identifying individuals’ talents and helping them acquire the knowledge and skills to make the most of them. The second part of enabling is getting rid of the things blocking them from doing what they most want to do.

Net, don’t think about motivating people. Think about inspiring and enabling them to do what already motivates them.