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on Leading the Next Generation


Be a Leader for a Cause…Not for Applause

There’s a common drift taking place among leaders. It’s the drift from altruistic motivation to self-serving ones…over time. So often, we begin well as a leader for a cause, but slowly, it becomes about “us” instead of that great problem we were trying to solve.


photo credit: Gueоrgui via photopin cc

The drift is especially pronounced among students. If you asked the typical high school or college student today if they hope to be a part of “changing the world,” I’d bet you’d hear a resounding “yes.” It’s the make-up of Generation Y. But, the last time adolescents were asked about their top goals, their answer might surprise you:

  • Their number one goal was to be rich.
  • Their number two goal was to be famous.

Further, more students said they want to be the “assistant to a celebrity” rather than the celebrity, meaning that they want glamour, but not the responsibility that comes with it. I find they often want the influence but not the burden that comes with that influence. Just enough to be paid well and to be around…well, you know…the applause.

The students who think this way have failed to answer the “why” before they get to the “what.” They want influence and affluence—but why? For many (not all), I fear it’s for the applause, not the cause. Oh, they still sign petitions for getting clean water to Africa, and to stop human-trafficking and to save the trees, but my research shows they’ve become less passionate and more “fashionate.” They do it because their friends do it; it’s fashionable. This tells me that the motivation behind their action may not be altruistic after all. Alas, it may still be narcissistic.

So what can we do to help them remain leaders for a cause, not applause?

Talk over the “why” before the “what.” As you discuss their life-purpose and plans, before you ever dialogue about their vision, help them nail down their values. Before they settle what they want to do, talk about why they want to do it. Is it truly about furthering the “cause” or the “applause”? In short, leaders must get in touch with what’s behind their goals. This is crucial, for I have found that why I do something will ultimately determine what I do.


  1. David Buckner on December 3, 2012 at 7:01 am

    Something I always try to remind the students under our care …

    What you do will not determine who you are (anyone can fake it). BUT, who you are will always influence what you do.

    We must understand the WHY before the WHAT can be authentic.

    David Buckner – Louisville, KY

    • Tim Elmore on December 4, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      That is a great way to put it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Roger Nielsen on December 4, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing this article on Taylor Swift.
    Last weekend I spent time with your Dad and thank God for men like him and you Tim. You both have come a long way, have been successful and are both humble servants that love people.

    • Tim Elmore on December 6, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      Thanks, Roger! I appreciate you, too!

  3. Bill DeMarco on December 8, 2012 at 9:00 am

    Could not agree more Tim, thanks for the post…enjoyed your presentation a Catalyst and reading you ever since. Thank you for what you are doing.

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Be a Leader for a Cause…Not for Applause