Putting Passionate People to Work

In a recent issue of Fortune magazine, Google CEO Eric Schmidt named passion as the success secret that too many businesses fail to cultivate. Talking about innovation, Schmidt observed: “Passion is so often forgotten by management. Passion motivates more than money—that should be inscribed on every board room.”

Schmidt is right, but most organizations, especially large, established ones, are wary of passion. As much as organizations treasure the employee who stays late to finish a project, they are uneasy about the employee who works all night, with no thought to food, sleep or the fate of his or her pets. I exaggerate, but not by much. Passion is a force of nature, and most managers are more comfortable with such mundane, low-voltage virtues as persistence and commitment, which appear easier to control and channel. So why should “Passion motivates more than money” be inscribed somewhere in every organization? Because passion has the power to energize and transform organizations, for both their leaders and their followers.

The first clues as to why are etymological. Passion derives from the Latin verb, pati (to suffer). The original Latin noun passio referred to the suffering of Christ. From the start, passion was never seen as pointless or entirely personal. It is transformational and redemptive, producing something of enormous value. The spirit that drove Marie and Pierre Curie to do the backbreaking physical work associated with extracting radium from pitchblende was passion in that sense.

Passion’s effectiveness in Schmidt’s sense of the word—as a motivator—is extensively documented. From the computer-inventing geniuses at Xerox PARC to the wunderkinder at Google, the history of high tech is essentially a tale of passionate individuals who lavished their energy and time on creating a future that only they could see. In the throes of a task they love, people become lost in it, almost drugged by it—a condition of rapt absorption so aptly termed “flow” by Claremont Graduate University psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This highly focused state is one that no manager, no matter how gifted, can impose on an individual. Passion makes it happen.

People who don’t experience that kind of intensity live in black-and-white, instead of in color. As a manager, you don’t want to hire those who lack passion. You can always teach new hires what they don’t know, but you can’t teach them how to have fire in their bellies. When Schmidt talks about passion as a motivator, he is really talking about what psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, and others, call intrinsic motivation. Passion is what made the legendary Michael Jordan write into his professional contracts that he could play pickup games of basketball whenever he wanted. You know his bosses must have hated the possibility of their golden goose blowing out a knee on some schoolyard basketball court, but they also knew that Jordan’s passion for the game was the very thing that made him so extraordinary. We aren’t used to strong emotions, including passion, in our everyday interactions, and passion carries with it heightened risk—in Jordan’s case the literal risk of injury. But passion also offers the possibility of the rewards that only inspired people working brilliantly can bring to the organization.

Passionate workers are so intensely and exclusively attentive to the project at hand that they have little time or stomach for gauging the political currents of the office or laboratory. I’m not arguing that passion permanently blinds workers to problems in the workplace. But the worker who loves what he or she is doing is much less likely to walk out the door, no matter how troubled the organization, if only because it means interrupting the beloved work. And leaders can use their knowledge of passion to boost morale. At Google (and, long before Google, at 3M), scientific and engineering staff are allowed to pursue their own research passions 20 percent of their work time. Knowing they can spend time on the projects that truly excite them keeps staff motivated. It makes less onerous the time they must spend on projects not of their own choosing, and it regularly rewards the company in terms of new products. Is there anybody on the planet who hasn’t heard the story of the invention of the Post-it note as a result of 3M’s policy of giving staff permission to pursue the intense pleasure of solving problems that they have identified? Were organizations willing to gamble, more would offer brief sabbaticals to staff who have a passion to pursue. Year-long recesses are unlikely outside of academia, but most organizations could afford to give a veteran staff member a month or six weeks of paid leave to devote to an intellectual enthusiasm. The cost would be minimal—no more than the organization would pay in time and money for the lost contribution of a sick employee. Even if the sabbatical didn’t result in some marketable new innovation, the return to the organization in employee goodwill alone would make the deal worthwhile. In tough economic times such as these, treating employees well is seen as a luxury. In the next scramble for talent, inevitable in an idea-driven economy, the employer who rewards talent will be seen as a visionary.

Authentic leaders know how to manage passion. For those working in information technology, the individual project they’re working on, even the technology itself, can become an obsession, even a distraction. The leader must find a way to make sure that most of the staff’s passion stays focused on the larger goals of the organization. In rare cases, a wise leader will decide that an individual is so valuable that he or she must follow passion’s call wherever it leads. But genuine leaders almost always find a way to articulate the vision of the organization for followers—not in some dead, mission-statement way, but in a way that makes their shared enterprise vivid and compelling. It is the leader’s job to make sure everyone understands what is important, what goals justify the sacrifices that members of the group must make. Wartime leaders Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill did so superbly. Such leaders imbue sacrifice with meaning. The more exalted the goal, and the more individuals believe in it, the more they are willing to tolerate in terms of delayed gratification and deprivation. The language that gives meaning to heroic effort is often overblown, even pretentious. What counts is not subtlety but effectiveness. When Steve Jobs told his Apple team they were making a dent in the universe, they believed they were making a dent in the universe. Today, the driven computer artists at Pixar Animation Studios produce cartoon epics as if the fate of the world depended on them.

Passion in the workplace is one of those complex emotions that is not easy to untangle—wonder is almost always part of it, but ambition (itself a complex, hard-to-untangle emotion that can be a powerful motivator) is often there as well. The pleasure of losing self-consciousness and the palpable thrill of both the chase and discovery are almost always part of the allure. And passion brings with it the sure sense that the effort is worthwhile. You don’t have to feel it every moment. But if you never feel it, something is terribly wrong. That’s equally true for leaders and followers. There are many things you can’t control in the workplace, but you can insist on hiring staff who have that fire in their bellies, and you should feel it yourself. Whether you are in charge or in the trenches, you should expect to be passionate about your work. If you aren’t, you need a new job. Socrates didn’t say it, but he might have. The life without passion is not worth living, no matter the size of the year-end bonus.

WARREN BENNIS is a Distinguished Professor of Business at the University of Southern California and Chairman of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership. His next column will appear in March.

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