That's right, you can do nothing to motivate anyone else. You can only motivate yourself. Everyone has the choice to do or not to do. I consistently watch students choose to do their best work or not...choose to engage in class or not...choose to attend class or not. It is their choice and there is nothing I can do to make that choice for them.
That being said, leaders have the opportunity everyday to create the environment and culture in which others will choose to do the right thing and motivate themselves into top performance. The literature is full of what people need to be self-motivated (one of my favorite books on this subject is Daniel Pink's DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us). If we as managers and leaders take this information to heart, it is not hard to create the right environment in which those we lead and manage can perform at their very best - and will choose to do so on a regular basis.
Yesterday I sat in on a class that is led by Dr. Shane Sokoll, one of our faculty here at Concordia University Texas. Shane is one of those teachers who is always trying something new and working hard to engage students in the teaching and learning process. For this class (Principles of Management) he walked in the first day, told the students what the learning objectives were for the course, then asked them to develop what they were going to do to best learn and master the concepts and ideas that led to those outcomes. Mind you, he did this with fear and trepidation as he was giving up control over what would happen on a day-to-day basis in the course. Without going into a lot of detail, the students choose to present to each other a series of manager development workshops which they would create and teach to each other. I watched a presentation on employee motivation - and let me tell you, these students were motivated! Dr. Sokoll sat back and did NOTHING for 45 minutes of the class other than take notes on what was happening so he could debrief with everyone afterwards. The students were engaged, they were learning, they had fun - and they OWNED the teaching and learning experience.
So...what does this mean for us as leaders and managers in our own places? Obviously, Dr. Sokoll did not do nothing - he worked hard to create the right environment and culture in which the students would motivate themselves to do a great job and to own their learning...he worked hard to wrap his head around the idea that he did not need to be in charge of the classroom all the time...he worked hard to listen and watch so that he could provide proper feedback which would motivate the students even more...he worked hard to not jump in and "fix" things when they did not go according to plan...and he continues to work hard in maintaining this culture and environment which is different for him and for his students.
So look around - ask yourself what type of environment and culture is needed for those who work with you to do their very best - talk with people to see what will matter - give them options as to how they will own their outcomes - and then let them go. You will be surprised that in order to motivate others, you just have to sit back and do NOTHING.