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Is successful leadership about work first and passion second?

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Why Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, Bill Gates…. are passionate about hard work.

If we’re passionate about something, we work hard for it, right?

After all, there is nothing like love for something that makes us work harder. The harder we work, the more our success is guaranteed. 

This was thought to be especially true for entrepreneurs and leaders, who started their ventures with a lot of passion and not much else and eventually became a success.

Think Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, Bill Gates etc.

In the sports world, think David Beckham, Serena Williams, Muhammad Ali ....passionate and successful leaders in their chosen sports.

Thus, the more passion we have for something, the more successful we will be. It’s common sense. 

Well, not exactly.

According to a recent study, we may have this belief backwards.

Leaders and entrepreneurs actually get passionate about their venture because of the countless hours they’ve put into it, not the other way around.

In an article published in the Academy of Management, researchers Michael Gielnik and his colleagues, studied how passion resulted from effort in entrepreneurship.

In their first study, 54 participants from Germany (all entrepreneurs on the verge of launching their startups), answered a questionnaire every week for over eight weeks. 

Results showed that in all the participants surveyed, the relationship between effort and passion was quite straightforward, i.e. the amount of effort they put into the business the previous week influenced the following week’s level of passion. 

In the second study comprising 136 students from Germany and Singapore, the participants were asked to develop a business idea.

Some were asked to choose from 12 given ideas, while others were free to suggest their own. 

When participants were given only a brief amount of time (30 minutes) and were told that the study wasn’t that important, their passion for the business was low, as opposed to when they were given an hour and told that their efforts would make a big difference to the study.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, the main take away from this study was not spending enough effort combined with no sense of achievement led to less passion. 

Another variation of the study also showed that even though an effort was made, if they couldn’t see immediate impact of their work, the passion remained low.

The EBW View

In the traditional belief about the relationship between passion and work, there was an assumption that emotions drive what we do and determine our success.  It was thought that passion must be there first before work.

The study conducted by Gielnik and his team supports a different interaction.

They suggest that our success is much more under our control and that it’s in what we do that will determine how passionate we are.

Success, it turns out, is not just about passion and hard work. It’s about choosing what we spend our time on and working hard on it. Passion will follow.

This has important implications for leaders and managers alike. Certainly there are lucky people out there who have learned early on in life what they are passionate about (statistically 16% of the population).

Most of us, however, have to slog through. What people need to remember is that passion doesn’t just come from nowhere, it requires experience with the world. 

For leaders and managers, raising performance is not about getting people passionate about the work they do but raising their awareness of what makes people work hard and what stops them from investing time in the work they do.  

It is about having a good understanding of their team’s resilience, their conscientiousness, their ability to adapt to new challenges at work.  

How are they influenced, why do people make the decisions they do? 

How do their key stakeholders interact with each other – do they need each other or do they distract each other from the tasks that makes them successful?  

In short, for most of us passion can be cultivated. If you understand your emotions and behaviour at work (Business EQ) and if you understand the results of your efforts, passion will definitely follow as will success.


Gielnik, M., Spitzmuller, M., Schmitt, A., Klemann, D., & Frese, M. (2014). “I put in effort, therefore I am passionate”: Investigating the path from effort to passion in entrepreneurship. Academy of Management Journal, 58 (4).

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